The “Charlie Hebdo” Tragedy: With Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression, When Do the Rules Apply?

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By Cesay Camara

As a Muslim who is American-born and living in the United States, my hijab is an obvious symbol of the religious denomination to which I belong: Islam. However, that is not all.  To some people who are blinded by their ignorance, the word Islam is synonymous with oppression, subordination, and perhaps an affiliation with a terrorist organization like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Every terrorist attack since 9/11 has had me question elements of my American identity, including concepts like freedom of speech and freedom of expression.


Hearing what happened at Charlie Hebdo—a French satirical weekly magazine located in Paris, France— on the 7th of this month deeply devastated me and reminded me of the imminent danger that terrorists from every denomination pose to everyday civilians. On that day, 12 souls were wrongfully killed by Said and Cherif Kouachi—two brothers linked to Al-Qaeda whose acts have been confirmed to be an act of retaliation against the magazine’s cartoon depiction of one of the Muslim prophets, specifically the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Among those killed include 2 national police officers, the Hebdo editor Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier and 7 Hebdo staff writers.


While firing fatal shots, the brother’s were heard saying “Allahu Akbar”-Arabic for “God is Great”. It is disheartening  to see how terrorists like the Kouachi brothers  have contributed to tarnishing Islam’s reputation-portraying the religion as one that solely promotes violence and retaliation. They have spread these “extremist”  doctrines globally  through social media outlets making many people-non-Muslims and Muslims alike- easily susceptible to their radicalism.  Some people have bought into it by either becoming a terrorist or by arriving at the conclusion that most Muslims are terrorists, leading them to assume that all Muslims are somehow responsible for every terrorist attack done by their “own kind”. Terrorists like the Kouachi brothers use Islam as a way to push their own radical agenda while hoping to rally support from the Muslim community.  Ironically, the religion they claim they pledge allegiance to condemns violence of any kind.  Most Muslims are standing in solidarity with those who condemn the terrorists’ actions even though they regard Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the Prophet as disrespectful and blatantly offensive.


In the aftermath of the attack, the twitter hash-tag #jesuischarlie (“I am Charlie” in French), emerged.  Although meant to be quite literal, the hash tag means different things to different people.  Some say “jesuischarlie” to show that they stand for the magazine’s exercise of its freedom of speech and expression, and that no journalist should have to die for his or her willingness and bravery to speak his or her mind.  Others say it to express empathy for the lives lost on that day.  While Charlie Hebdo does have every right to freedom of expression and speech, and its staffers did not deserve to lose their lives on the 7th of January, one must confess that it was insensitive of Charlie Hebdo to deliberately release a disrespectful or satirical depiction of the Prophet, especially given that there had been outrage expressed by the Muslim community over similar depictions of the Prophet in 2006 and 2011.


The Twitter hash tags did not stop with just #jesuischarlie.  A new hash tag, #jesuisahmed (French for “I am Ahmed”), also began. The purpose of this hashtag was to honor the life of one of the murdered police officers, Ahmed Merabet, a Musllim man of 42 years of age who in a matter of minutes was shot dead by the Kouachi brothers while protecting Charlie Hebdo.  Muslims and non-Muslims alike regard Merabet as a heroic man for protecting a magazine that satirized his faith.  Unfortunately, many fail to realize that Muslim men and women lilke Merabet are also targets and victims of terrorists.  Terrorism isn’t about Muslims vs. non-Muslims; it’s about terrorists versus civilians.


In a statement to CNN, Merabet’s brother states: “One must not confuse extremists with Muslims.  Mad people have neither color nor religion.  I want to make another point–don’t tar everybody with the same brush.  Don’t burn mosques or synagogues.  You are attacking people.  It won’t bring our dead back and it won’t appease the families.”  Merabet’s brother’s message is a message echoed by many Muslims all around the world who wish to say that Islam does not equal terrorism, and that terrorism requires no specific background.  All terrorism requires is a willingness to instill fear by threatening to harm the opposition, and then being willing and able to execute those threats.


“Freedom of speech,” and “freedom of expression.”  Despite the centuries these catchphrases have been in use, they have gradually become ambiguous and used to justify or legitimize bigoted, inflammatory, or slanderous speech, which are all forms of harmful propaganda sometimes collectively described as “hate speech.”  Ambiguity over exactly what kinds of speech should be protected by law may be why the rules for protecting free speech can at times appear to be somewhat arbitrary or unclear.  Chances are that if someone were to submit for mainstream publication some cartoon or article that deliberately said something offensive to or about Jews, that person would be automatically considered anti-Semitic and the publication would most likely refuse to publish their work.  Is that not considered censorship?  So why is it that someone can use the free press to say something offensive to or about Muslims and yet not be considered dangerously Islamophobic?  Do the so-called “limits” on freedom of expression and speech not apply here?  That is a question that remains to be answered.


For now, it seems as though there is still a large gray area which determines how we define censorship as well as how we define freedom of speech or expression…especially when the definition of these terms appears to shift according to the situation.  Until these definitions are re-examined and the rules around them made more clear, anything published that is deliberately offensive to Muslims will continually be passed off as freedom of expression and freedom of speech, while content offensive to other groups and denominations will not be passed off as excused and legitimized by these freedoms.

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