14 January 2015

E pluribus unum: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo, Baga, Etc.

I am still reeling from the attacks last week that snuffed out the lives of sixteen people in Paris and at least 2000 villagers near Baga in Borno State, Nigeria. And these are not the only tragedies that deserve our attention.

I mourn for the people of France. I mourn for the people of Nigeria. I am troubled by the string of attacks that Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban have carried out since the New Year began, not just in Paris and Baga but also in other parts of Nigeria, in Cameroon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Last week in Yemen, a car bomb that exploded in the capital Sanaa killed 33 people and injured 62.

But I am also troubled by some of the responses I am seeing directed at Muslims by western societies in the wake of these horrific events.

Much of the rhetoric promulgated following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo has been framed as an attack on freedom of speech. I don’t buy this. TejuCole has eloquently shown how western societies have sought to control what their citizens can and can’t say, often with impunity and with chilling results. Freedom of speech, then, has been under attack by the very people who purport to defend it.

Nor are the surveillance apparatuses that countries like the United States have put in place dismantled when a new administration with ostensibly different objectives takes over the reins of governance. Rather, these tools are continually tweaked and updated in the name of free speech. Barely seven days have passed since English Prime Minister David Cameron, in expressing his solidarity with France, stated that we must defend this right and others. Yet Cameron vowed yesterday that, if reelected, his government will move to curtail free speech by givingpolice and surveillance agencies virtually unrestricted access to phoneconversations and online communications.

I want to be clear. Terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban present an immediate danger, particularly to Muslim women, but also to people from all walks of life. They are made up of men who seek to impose their extremely narrow-minded world view on everyone, frequently through violence, rather than welcome differing points of view. We should be outraged when they commit atrocities in the name of that world view. We should take more than a passing interest when they seize land and resources as they did in Nigeria last week in an effort to remake the world as they see fit. And we should mourn for the innocent people they rape and slaughter.

But here’s the thing. In our rush to condemn the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, many of us have quickly distilled what happened down to a caricature of what the Muslim world as a whole looks like. Many people took to twitter with the hashtag #killallmuslims. Many people, some of whom I love, have made comments that Muslims who do not appreciate the freedoms that they are afforded by western societies can get out and stop threatening “our” way of life.

These kinds of distilled responses have consequences that can be difficult to see from the point of view of those who make them but have a real and lasting impact on those whom they target. First of all, they go against the tenets of free speech that we purport to cherish in that they quickly dominate the discussion and silence differing views that are not necessarily opposed to our own, such as the views of Muslims in France who have condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo but who also rightly point out that they are treated with suspicion and mistrust by their fellow citizens and by their government.

These responses also obscure the real suffering that Muslims within and without the western world have endured. Few of the people decrying this attack on free speech have recognized that Ahmed Merabet, a French Muslim police officer, died in the attack on Charlie Hebdo, though some have via the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed. Likewise, as Teju Cole and others have pointed out, western media outlets provided almost no coverage of the attack on Baga. This despite that the attack there took place before the events in Paris. Despite that Boko Haram spent five days raping and killing women and children. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an atrocity that deserved our attention. But that news should have reached us on the heels of news of the attack on Baga rather than vice versa. So too, the attack in Yemen, which took place hours prior to the attack in Paris. And this is to say nothing of the history of violence that has been enacted upon Muslims since Islam’s inception.

I am outraged and troubled by the events we have born witness to over the last week. We all should be if we are the kind of people we think we are. But our outrage and grief do not gives us carte blanche to trample on the rights of others who are every bit as outraged and grief stricken as we are yet are concerned about how we view and treat them. And while I hardly think we’d be better off under the kind of policies and doctrines that Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Taliban would give us, I also don’t think we do ourselves any credit by sweeping under the rug our own attempts to monitor and silence ourselves and those who disagree with our sometimes narrow minded views, all in the name of liberty.

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