Nigger! There, I said it. Now where do you stand on my right to free speech? What if I used faggot or cunt? Are you leaning towards outrage, condemnation or maybe even violence? Supposing I created a cartoon depicting an unflattering image of your long-gone, sweet grandmother or someone else you cared about? Have you the urge to start an ‘I am Gari’ campaign? In Germany, it is against the law to depict images of Hitler in a positive way or do the Nazi salute. Would you protect the right of the neo-Nazis to do just that?
Why do we make a great, justified, effort to respect the wishes of black people, yet not only fail to do the same with the wishes of Muslims, but actively act against them? Isn’t the right to free speech a right for all groups and individuals: Charlie Hebdo the magazine as much as any racist guy called Charlie? Why are we picking what expressions we choose to set free?
It is not enough to say that ‘nigger’ should be banned because it offends individual black people, but to ridiclue a religion is ok because it only offends an ideal or a belief. As someone who teaches English in Morocco, I have the pleasure to meet with a lot of Muslims on a daily basis. In classes I teach, I have discussed the recent events in Paris with more than 50 Muslims; all have expressed sadness and hurt. My students voice the feelings of Muslim people all over the world who are genuinely hurt by the actions of the magazine publishers, its justification as freedom of speech and the ‘Je suis Charlie’ fad.
Not a single Muslim I know thinks that the gunmen are justified. No one wants to see people get killed. The point isn’t worth arguing. Yet one of my students described the events as ‘A bad day for Muslims’. When I asked her to explain, reminding her that innocent people who were not Muslim were killed that day, she spoke of how the media (and therefore people in the west) would see this as an act supported in some way by all Muslims. It is, she said, something that we will have to live with for months to come and we will be punished for it.
Another student pointed out that the punishment has already started with the posting of the magazine images over and over again in blogs and websites across the world. Each posting is seen as a further attack on a people who already feel vilified and treated with contempt and suspicion.
Its clear that western media (and the people who are sucked into it) are looking at the events in Paris from an entirely different perspective than Muslims. One side looking at this as freedom of speech and the other as an attack on the right to be respected. Whilst neither side is putting much effort into seeing it from the other’s point of view, Muslims are being forced to see the world as it really is. Religious values that they hold dear need to be re-valued in the real, modern world. This is being forced upon them by the west. They see it as harsh and unfair.
There is no or little evidence that the west is asking the same difficult questions about freedoms of speech. The west is setting the rules of what is and is not acceptable; the rest of the world has to learn to live with it. Is that really the meaning of freedom of speech?
My belief is that freedom of speech protects us from punishment as a result of our expressions. It is not permission to disrespect others. We can, and should, condemn the act of the gunmen in Paris as well as the cartoon publishers.
Wherever we draw the line at freedom of speech – and we all do draw the line somewhere: The word ‘Nigger’, the Nazi salute, images of the prophet Mohammed – we mark it with the scent of hypocrisy. If we do not stand with the Muslims; who are genuinely offended and upset by the cartoons depicted in Charlie Hebdo then we cannot complain when someone attacks our sensibilities. In truth: We need to look at what the right to freedom of speech means at the same time when Muslims are looking at the values of Islam in the modern world.