Why I am Ahmed and not Charlie: The price and purpose of free speech.

On the 7th of January this year, three gunmen entered the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire. Twelve employees were killed, and a gun battle outside resulted in the death of Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet, who died protecting the surviving Hebdo employees. The three gunmen soon fled and at the time of writing, a man-hunt is ongoing.

Reactions in Western press and governments were predictable, referring to the event as barbaric, as terrorism, and the like. Hardly uncontroversial, but what has been controversial for a long time are the cartoons and images that employees at Hebdo have produced. Crass, deliberately provocative, and downright demeaning.

kissing_hebdo

(One of Hebdo’s cartoons, depicting the prophet Mohammed engaging in a kiss with a Charlie Hebdo employee. Title reads: Love, stronger than hate)

That isn’t to suggest that the employees and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo had it coming. The blame for this attack rests solely on the shoulders of the gunmen involved, and I hope France catches them and pursues justice to the fullest extent.

What I do take issue with is our distorted notion of what free speech means. Yes, free speech involves the ability to say and publish ridiculous, rude, offensive, and even weird things, if that is your sincere wish. But that has become its sole purpose. No longer do we viciously defend our right to criticize our governments. No longer do we try to initiate social change by throwing around revolutionary ideas and challenging deeply-held social institutions. Our discussions revolve around “political correctness gone mad” and TV debates across the Western world are devoted entirely to questions such as “why can’t white people say the N-word?” and “is it actually offensive to call someone a faggot?”

Now, free speech is about being as grotesque and vile as is humanly possible with no repercussions. The question we should ask ourselves is not “am I legally allowed to say this?”, the question is “is this worth saying in the first place?” Indeed, if the best defense for your argument is that you’re legally allowed to say it, your argument sucks. Why has this sacred institution of free speech and expression degenerated into a child-like attempt to provoke, antagonize, and demean hundreds of thousands of people at a time? Why is free speech now a worthwhile substitute for free thought?

Cartoonists have produced incredible works of art. I have some favourites that succinctly sum up my feelings towards an event or political situation in a way that transcends the power even of words. Then there’s Charlie Hebdo.

Are we really content to let free speech – an institution that many countries do not enjoy, and that took centuries for us to get hold of – deteriorate into a relentless attempt to poke fun at people? Of course, that is your right, but question whether it’s one you want to fully employ, when it could go to so much better use. We have grossly squandered this sacred right, put it on a pedestal of bigotry and detracted from its original (and proper) use.

What’s even more grotesque is how badly French Muslims have been treated in the wake of this attack, and the apparent unwillingness of the mainstream media to give Muslims the credit they deserve. Grenades have been thrown at Mosques, Muslim holy places have been fired upon, and a kebab shop near a Mosque has exploded. A Muslim man is responsible for defending the offices of Charlie Hebdo (three pages of coverage in the New York Times, and not a single reference to Ahmed Merabet’s religious beliefs), and another Muslim man is responsible for hiding shoppers during the Kosher deli attack. How sick then, that the mainstream media is content to paint the “Oh look, Muslims did it again” narrative, so simplistic it could have been written by a six year old.

And yet anti-Islam pundits like Bill Maher are absolutely silent in the face of this Islamophobic violence, and New Atheists have very little to say about these brave acts of heroism. It’s almost like violence is only unjustified if somebody screams “Allahu Akbar” just before they engage in it, and heroism is only worthy of praise if it’s done by somebody who doesn’t believe in a deity.

Never mind that there is evidence the Hebdo attack was done out of personal reasons and not religious ones. That doesn’t fit the narrative we in the West are desperately trying to construct, the narrative that sees us as one-sided victims of Muslim aggression, the narrative that a ‘clash of civilizations’ is coming, and the narrative that Muslims ‘hate us for our freedoms’. Terrorism is not a spontaneous event. People are born into various political contexts that influence their beliefs and their decisions. We must not be content to put it down to “typical Muslims” and actually examine what drives people to these acts.

That’s why I identify more with the #JeSuisAhmed Twitter hashtag, instead of the #JeSuisCharlie one that cropped up immediately after the massacre went public. I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever grotesque and deliberately inflammatory cartoons they conjure up, and they should be able to do so without any violent repercussions. All I question is why they’d want to.

The power at cartoonists fingers often far exceeds that of writers, and especially that of bloggers. So why squander that power and produce deliberately inflammatory works towards a marginalized group of people? There may be 1.6 billion Muslims, and 5 million Muslims in France alone, but you’re kidding yourself if you think they are welcome or powerful there. They have been brutalized, marginalized, and criticized ceaselessly without the power to do anything about it. Laws have been drawn up in France which specifically target members of the Muslim community. Why add fuel to that fire?

Are the anti-Semitic cartoons of 1930’s Germany suddenly permitted, if all we’re interested in is “freedom of speech” with no guiding principles or moral compass? No, because we understand the hurt and propensity for hatred that they incite. But that principle apparently doesn’t apply to cartoons about Muslims.

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