Defend Truth


When freedom of expression becomes a weapon against the underclass and oppressed

Shuaib Manjra is a Consultant Medical Doctor specialising in Sports Medicine and Occupational Health. He is involved in a number of NGOs and sports organisations. He is married with three children and an avid sportsman. He writes to organise his own thoughts coherently

Freedom of speech should not be placed above human dignity. In the Charlie Hebdo saga, insidious power dynamics seeped so far through so many societies that they almost became invisible at first glance. It is time for more critical analysis. Critique, however, should not be confused with the permission to insult with abandon.

‘It has nothing to do with Islam’, is a constant refrain of those seeking to distance themselves from the dastardly massacre that claimed the lives of journalists, policemen and civilians in the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris. Of course the good intention underlying this disavowal stems from the belief that Islam cannot condone, let alone motivate such murder and mayhem. The truth is that the killers sought inspiration from some form of Islam for these acts. They considered this avenging the Prophet’s honour.

More importantly, however, many scholars – traditional and radical – will support capital punishment against anyone who insults the Prophet Muhammad. There is evidence from numerous sources that at least some of those who lampooned the Prophet during his lifetime and later were put to death. Of course, our lack of appreciation of the entire circumstances around these episodes does not permit us to use this as precedent; also because some of these people were forgiven by the Prophet himself.

Modern sensibilities also preclude us meting out such classical forms of punishment. It is worth remembering that the Prophet historically played a role as statesman, the political leader of a nascent community, as well as a spiritual and religious leader. Disaggregating these roles will allow us a greater understanding of the Prophetic precedents that are applicable to a religious community. Nowhere does the Quran permit killing for such a crime. That notwithstanding, we need to recognise and challenge this dangerous strain within Islam which combines fundamentalism and violence and is responsible for the most heinous crimes – Boko Haram and ISIS being contemporary examples.

Similarly, Judaism cannot disown Zionism, nor can Christian fundamentalism be disowned by its parent. They may be aberrations, but their source of inspiration and legitimacy derives from the parent religion, its tradition and scriptures. Islam, and indeed all religions and secular entities, have this extremist violent strain within it.

The Kharijites, who are the forerunners of this violent fundamentalist strand, came to the fore soon after the death of the Prophet and have sustained themselves on the margins of Muslim society ever since. The Kharijites’ disavowal of any forms of interpretation fossilised their religious belief in a literalist, harsh and fundamentalist mode and wrought untold damage to the early Muslim communities – brutally killing those it disagreed with. Three of the four righteous guided Caliphs were murdered. This danger within Islam needs to be challenged lest it proliferates and threatens the very body of Muslim society. In fact, the violent threat of this group is most evident within Muslim societies, only occasionally threatening those without.

The Charlie Hebdo killers, according to most sources, were confessional but not observant Muslims. Their radicalisation did not stem primarily from religion but rather from politics; or more specifically from imperial hubris in Muslim lands. The gross atrocities, torture and physical violence unleashed in Iraq and elsewhere radicalised the Kouachi brothers – who were then ensnared by radical Islamist ideologues who are quick to exploit this anger, crisis of identity and political injustice into a comfortable world of absolutes.

In a court deposition in 2007, Chérif Kouachi, the younger of the brothers, was explicit about this blowback: “I got this idea when I saw the injustices shown by television on what was going on over there. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans have inflicted on the Iraqis.” Mahmood Mamdani calls it “calculated acts of political violence driven by the incoherent allegiances of damaged and dangerous young men”. In essence this was a result of secular politics dressed in a religious garb.

France has long been a key player in this imperialist network, including in its violent colonial history Algeria and elsewhere. This has further fed this resentment and radicalisation. When the Algerians – where the Kouachi brothers trace their heritage – freely expressed themselves in a national election in 1990, a French-backed military junta overthrew the elected representatives: a continuation of its epistemic violence, to use Foucault and Gayatri Spivak. France also backed the military intervention in Libya and Mali not too long ago.

The marginalisation and discrimination that Muslims, Africans and other immigrants experience in France and its banlieues has seen frequent outbreaks of violent resistance – where disaffiliation frequently turns into defiance. Muslims represent an underclass in French society – constituting about 10% of the population but nowhere close to that in representation in the centres of power. The Kouachi brothers, like millions of others, were alienated youth living on the margins of society: unemployed and from minority communities. Their communities are past victims of colonialism in their mother countries and present victims of racism in the imperial centres which colonised them. They remain outsiders both in the centre and the periphery of colonial enterprise. Thus the violence of these brothers against civilians was a reaction to imperial violence against civilians. In this case their targets were those who functioned as the ideological arm of imperialism – who mocked the underclass without an appreciation of their context, history and sensitivities – no different to the orientalism project. Jean Baudrillard captures the irony when he wrote: “Those who deplore the ideological bankruptcy of the West should recall that ‘God smiles at those he sees denouncing evils of which they are the cause’”.

Freedom of expression, and its subset freedom of the media, which has been fetishised through the Je Suis Charlie campaign, is not a sacred tenet as it has been recently constructed and paraded: it is simply an instrument of power relations, which is contingent and not absolute even in the most liberal societies like France. Such freedoms are constrained through the power of coercion by Capital, the political establishment, civil actors or in the name of national security or secularity. In other cases such freedoms are constrained through custom, morality, civility, etiquette or a civil compact to sustain social harmony. Libel, defamation, discrimination, sedition and blasphemy laws enshrined in many countries have a similar intent. The foundational principle of any society should be respect for human dignity and civility, which actually gave rise to the notion of freedom of speech and therefore precedes it. Freedom of speech has always existed throughout history for the powerful. The victory of freedom of speech is when it becomes accessible to the powerless – not to become its victims. As communities developed, plural citizenship became a reality and civility became an indispensable element to harmonise the community. In fact, some freedoms were sacrificed so that humans could live in harmony – which is the story and history of civilisation. Thus can freedom of speech be held with the same regard as its extreme forms of mockery, insult, racism, slander and bigotry that causes disharmony and mocks what many hold sacred? And should freedom of speech by the powerful be more sacred than the dignity of citizens, particularly the underclass? Should Muslims be part of the social compact and players in what constitutes acceptable standards of public discourse, or do they require more social standing and economic and political power to assert their rights?

Secularity is the ostensible motivation for the ban on Muslim women wearing the nikab (or face covering). Regardless of its legitimacy in Islamic Law or it being anathema to liberal sensitivities, some women prefer this mode of expressing their modesty. It is a matter of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. To ban it is simply outrageous and illiberal and gives lie to the notion of freedom of expression.

Furthermore, France has its own censorship: When Nicholas Sarkozy was Interior Minister in 2005 he ordered 25,000 copies of his wife’s biography pulped because it revealed details of their private life. In the same year, Frances Catholic Church won a court injunction to ban a fashion advertisement based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper on the grounds that it was “a gratuitous … act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs”. Also in that year Le Monde was found guilty of “racist defamation” against Israel and the Jewish people.

France’s legislation banning Holocaust denial is another inexplicable paradox. The prosecution of the comedian Dioudienne on charges of anti-Semitism further demonstrates the limits of freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo itself dismissed an employee for what it suggested was anti-Semitism – a limit of the freedom it espouses. The subjects here were the powerful Jewish community which exerted its power to censor.

More importantly, however, is that such censorship is contingent on appreciating Europe’s violent history against Jews, and the indignity victims of the Holocaust would suffer as a result of its denial. Three years before the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006, it rejected ones offering a light-hearted take on the resurrection of Christ for fear they would “provoke an outcry”. Its editor wrote to cartoonist Zieler, saying that “I don’t think that Jylland Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore I will not use them.” In other words, mocking Judeo-Christian symbols requires circumspection, but Muslims are fair game. Similarly, the USA and the UK have both invoked laws limiting freedom of expression or the media both during times of war or peacetime.

Beyond this, self-censorship by the media is the norm in these countries. In the USA, university staff have been dismissed or denied tenure because of their criticism of Israel: Norman Finkelstein and Steven Salata are cases in point. There is no uproar or public campaign around these individuals because they represent the underclass or at least speak for them. The cases of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are further demonstrations of the limits of freedom of expression. In the UK, the publication of the findings of the Chilcot Commission is eagerly awaited to hold Blair and his acolytes criminally responsible for an illegal military invasion. Few seem to be extolling the virtue of freedom of access to such information. Essentially, where the powerful exert a limit on this freedom it becomes the norm. On the other hand, freedom of expression becomes a weapon to continue to assault against the underclass and oppressed – those who have no recourse. But those that espouse liberalism have also targeted and killed journalists – the USA did it in Iraq and Israel in Gaza. Let us also remember the Western allies in Egypt where the military junta has imprisoned journalists from Al-Jazeera and has banned public protests; or Saudi Arabia where freedom of expression is a distant dream. Such censorship is perhaps not all done in the name of religion – a sign that modernity has moved sanctity from the sacred to the secular: nationalism has become the new religion.

Context is always important. Invoking freedom of speech without considering a historical and social context often results in insult and injury to victims. Considering historical contexts, would it be appropriate for Germans to mock Jews, the British to mock the Irish, The Turks to mock the Armenians, or the white community in South Africa to mock black people? This would not constitute neutral commentary – it represents a blow-back to the past and the continuation of that hubris and mindset. It’s worse if that injustice continues without redress. It’s pissing on your victims. In these cases entities which as a group oppressed, colonised and massacred the indigenes in history have lost the right to mock their victims – whether in satire or otherwise. The pain of these communities remains raw. In the case of Algerians they remain discriminated against, alienated and are pushed to the margins of society. It is like shooting at an ambulance.

The framing of the Charlie Hebdo saga as one between civilised norms and barbarism is misleading. It is wrong because it posits the western paradigm as one of ideas versus Eastern (or Middle-Eastern) violence. “They don’t like us because of our values” is a frequent refrain. It is true but for another reason: that the West was built on a foundation and value of violence to which it also owes its economic success – genocide (of the first nations), slavery, colonialism and imperialism. Someone has recently argued that there would be no ‘civilisation’ without the instrument of violence. So to be preached about violence from the West is rather rich in irony. It is also ironic because western barbarism in Iraq and Afghanistan was responsible for, and continues to be the trigger for the radicalisation of essentially secular youth. This radicalisation is a reaction to a gross injustice which renders its victims powerless – they have no recourse in law or in international instruments or institutions.

Western violence has been more brutal than the Islamist violence in numbers of innocent civilians killed in its ‘war on terror’. One would expect better with the sophisticated weapons employed. The victims of the ‘war on terror’ are the silent victims – victims of state terror variously ignored as ‘collateral damage’. Nobody remembers such victims. The American victims of 9/11 are more important than those killed by Americans in its imperial excursions. The dumping of oil in the Gulf of Mexico is more heinous than if it is done in Nigeria. We memorialise the deaths of Westerners and relegate those of the marginalised. It’s about the value we place on human life. Memorial cartoons have hyperbolised the conflict as between Western civilised ideas and uncivilised violence: note the imagery of the pen and the gun. This, of course, is bullshit. Ask the innocent victims of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Palestine about this Western civility and use of ideas. Ask the Americans why they murdered Anwar-al-Awlaki and his son in Yemen rather than arresting him and charging him for whatever crime he had committed.

South Africa’s Loyiso Gola puts it eloquently: “Stop killing people whose views you don’t agree with – that is America’s job!” This is not about values and certainly the western arsenal that results in its domination is not based on ideas, but superior weaponry: power using the notion of freedom to extend itself. Gary Younge quotes Steve Biko in demonstrating this hypocrisy where Muslims are being vilified twice – once as the subjects of the original cartoons and then again for having the temerity to protest them: “Not only are whites kicking us; they are telling us how to react to being kicked.” Another irony not taken up by the liberal media is where the Parisian Jews killed in the attack on a kosher supermarket were taken to Israel for burial: dead Jews are allowed to migrate to Israel and be buried on occupied land, while indigenous Palestinians are being ethnically cleansed! How’s that for another political gripe?

Another important question is whether Charlie Hebdo actually espouses and achieves a progressive political agenda. They have variously been described as leftists or ultra-leftists and defended against the charge of racism. The critical question is how the work of Charlie Hebdo and similar publications contributes to a progressive political and social agenda, aside from its claim to represent an absolute freedom of expression. Even this distinction is dubious as previously demonstrated. It simply demonstrates hubris: ‘that we will because we can’. Of course the minority extremists of all ilk should be challenged – but in doing so, should we do violence to a moderate majority? Could other forms of criticism achieve a more progressive outcome rather than infantile caricature and mockery? Zapiro is an example of a cartoonist who espouses a progressive agenda and uses his considerable skills to ‘afflict the comfortable’. Satire should check the powerful and not further hurt the powerless. There is nothing courageous to use your freedom to satirise, mock and ridicule the beliefs of the weakest sections of the community – who have no means of defence, except perhaps violence.

To be clear – there is no justification in killing: whether it is the journalists of Charlie Hebdo or the victims of imperial terror. All victims of terror – state or otherwise – should be treated with equal dignity and their loss mourned globally. Freedom of speech is essential but not sacred – human dignity and civility trumps it. Laws of censorship are not the solution since they are used by the powerful to promote their own agenda; rather a civil compact achieves more desirable outcomes. Critique is the lifeblood of any society if it is to progress. Critique should be sacralised, not insult in the guise of free speech. DM


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