Pardon my French: fuck “Je Suis Charlie”. The social media hordes can save their pitchfork rattling until the end of the article, as I will demonstrate the harmful consequences of giving a blank check to the discrimination, marginalization, and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. In no way do I attempt to minimalize the loss and suffering of those directly affected by the tragedy, nor do I exonerate the perpetrators of their heinous and terrible crime. The crime I am referring to, if you have not guessed by now, is the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, resulting in the deaths of 12 people.
Do not misinterpret me; I do not attempt to curb the freedom of speech or the freedom of all artists to convey their opinions and feelings in whichever manner that suits them. I fully support the rights of artists, including myself, to express ourselves. We are very fortunate and privileged to live in states that permit us to do so. Congruently, we do not have to fear detention or torture for our beliefs and statements. I only seek to contextualize images, writings, music, and other forms of media that would marginalize religious and ethnic minorities and the beliefs they identify with.
Let us ask ourselves: Do the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo serve to directly combat the ideologies and tactics utilized by Islamic militants, such as ISIS? Do they attack Islamic regimes that commit gross human rights violations against their own citizens while deriving their legitimacy through the Quran, such as Saudi Arabia? Do they demonstrate tolerance, understanding, or even appreciation for the beliefs, practices, and traditions of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide? But rather, do they ridicule and attack the core values and tenets of Islam and its followers? Do they serve to reinforce and proliferate our own bigotry, xenophobia, and intolerance in Western societies towards Muslims? Do they widen the divide between the two, rehashing the old “Clash of Civilizations” argument and incite hatred and violence on both sides? Do they fuel the drive of persecuted and disenfranchised Western nationals, who find their fervently held beliefs demonized and attacked, to enter Turkey and attempt to filter into Syria and fight for the expanding Caliphate? I hope you do seriously ask yourselves these questions and consider multiple answers to them. If you find yourself without expert knowledge to sufficiently and wholly come to a conclusion, I ask that you utilize the vast amount of sources at your fingertips and consider public opinions as well as your own experiences. Or you could just continue reading.
For us who enjoy the freedom of speech that is legally granted to us, I think we need to be careful on how we choose to exercise it. If the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” is synonymous with free speech and expression, to what extent are its supporters and advocates willing to fight for and endorse it? Will they choose to exclusively support it as long as it aligns with their own self-interests and goals, or are they willing to extend that support to all who would choose to exercise these rights? The black-face actors and performers, who used their talents for crude and grotesque portrayals of black Americans, during the institution of slavery and for many decades after its demise, are they Charlie? The artists who depicted images of Japanese officials, soldiers, and citizens based upon racial stereotypes for the U.S. wartime propaganda machine while the government simultaneously relocated over 100,000 Japanese-Americans into internment camps that resulted in the loss of homes, businesses, freedom of movement, and life, are they Charlie? Those who created advertisements for everyday home products, stressing the domestic duties of women and their societal obligations to their husbands and men, which were reflective of the rigid gender roles and inequality that persist today, are they Charlie? The artists working under the direction of Nazi Germany, producing all forms of media displaying virulent anti-Semitism for the German public while Jews and other undesirables were relocated to camps for eventual extermination, are they Charlie? There are many more examples that would elucidate the point further; however, I think it is a rhetorical question to ask if our supporters of free speech would likewise support these works while decrying any consequences they faced.
Without an official state census on religious identity since 1872, Muslims constitute an estimated 5-10% of the French population, the largest community in Western Europe. This comes as little surprise considering the amount of Muslims who are exposed to and belong to French culture globally. Specifically, the states that were once under French mandate or belonging to France proper, like Algeria. These Muslims have the obstacle of belonging to multiple identities and assimilating to a society that tolerates them but does not accept them. In the wake of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, numerous mosques, restaurants, and businesses came under attack. This was carried out by means of grenades, gunfire, fire bombings, and even pig heads and entrails with the message “Next time it will be one of your heads”. In 2004, France instituted a ban on all displays of religious symbols in public schools, which has been viewed as explicitly targeting Muslim girls wearing hijab or headscarves. Numerous other incidents include mothers barred from entering school functions while wearing hijab and even a 15-year old girl who was sent home because her long skirt was a considered a religious display. In 2010, France banned all facial and body garments in public that covered the face, again preventing the religious freedom of many women. The reason: covering the face poses a security risk and goes against social norms. The message is clear, France has no qualms with attacking and limiting the freedom of religious expression and observance, especially for Muslims; while conversely, she is very willing to protect the freedom of speech that demonizes the religion of Islam and harasses and marginalizes its followers, which are religious and ethnic minorities all across the Western world.
What are the consequences of permitting and protecting Islamophobia in societies where Muslims are present? Currently, ISIS fighters represent over 100 countries worldwide and their forces have seen a 70% increase in foreign fighters over the past 9 months. An estimated 31,000 fighters are currently in the region, and Western nationals constitute at least a quarter of that. For us in the West it may be hard to imagine what forces could spur young men to abandon the high standards of living and large amount of personal liberties that we all enjoy. It may be hard to acknowledge that “Je Suis Charlie” and what it protects legitimizes the core ideologies and recruiting tactics of ISIS. Most pertinent being that Western societies and their Muslim citizens are incompatible, are in direct opposition to each other, and that coexistence is not possible. They advocate war on the West by claiming that the West has waged war on Islam and instigated it. The response given by Western governments and societies: We agree.
And for free speech, what can we say about our supposed unwavering support for free speech in all forms? ISIS has detained, murdered, and executed numerous journalists and members of the press including foreigners from Western origins but many more from within their own territory. The notion that “Je Suis Charlie” and what it represents has actually led to violent limitations on free press and reporting, including those of distinctly Western backgrounds, is ironic to a comical extent while simultaneously abhorrent and horrific.
As for me: I am not Charlie. I will never be Charlie. Instead, I am Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes to be received publicly. His charge of apostasy has been the result of starting a website that has been critical of the regime under which he resides and encouraging discussion among its participants. It seems unlikely that such a statement could start trending in Western nations or that their citizens will courageously stand up for his rights behind their keyboards and smartphones as they did for Charlie Hebdo. Despite this, I know what I will stand for and how I will exercise my rights to free speech. We should all be asking ourselves the same.