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No time for complacency

empty speech bubble

Ian Burt under a Creative Commons Licence

What happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last Wednesday was an unbelievable act of cruelty that the media and public were right to condemn. Twelve people tragically lost their lives at the hands of those who have been called ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, because of their shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is the greatest) on opening fire.

The press coverage has highlighted this as an Islamic attack on Western principles of free speech and on Western society as a whole. The ‘JeSuisCharlie’ hashtag aims to show that people will not give up on these values, at any cost. This perspective has also led many, such as the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, to deem the attacks as indicative of a sort of ‘clash of civilizations’.

Free speech, we are told, is something we enjoy in abundance in the West, but which isn’t compatible with Islamic ideology. ‘We’ live in a free society, ‘they’ do not. Time and time again we have heard this, as well as listened to celebrities and politicians talk about the importance of free speech.

But are we being complacent? The idea that we enjoy unwavering free speech in the West or, more specifically, in France, is simply untrue. At its worst, it is a gross exaggeration and misrepresentation of the truth. Western society is simply not a bastion of freedom and progress, faced with a barbaric and backwards East.

It’s true that we do enjoy some freedoms in the West, and many will even argue that we enjoy a host of freedoms, relative to those living in the Islamic world. However, many of the most repressive states in the Islamic world are direct trading partners and ‘strategic allies’ of the very ‘progressive’ Western politicians we revere here in Europe. Britain has extensive arms deals with Saudi Arabia, for example. And it is British-trained troops that are quelling pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. Britain’s friends in Saudi Arabia have also been closely linked to helping facilitate the rise of ISIS.

Aside from the obvious hypocrisy of Britain’s foreign policy, through which ‘we’ are contributing to ‘their’ lack of freedom, European domestic policy is also not as free as we are being told.

In 2014, France saw a controversy develop over comedian and satirist Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who performs the ‘quenelle’ gesture, an inverted Nazi salute. Many saw this as anti-Semitic, leading to his show being cancelled in France and a ban on performing in Britain.

Were the political classes staunchly defending his right to express his free speech? No. They were condemning him for the tones of his performance. This is not a consistent message on free speech. Why did the same people then defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend by printing controversial images of the Prophet Muhammad, which were bound to bother Muslims, a marginalized community within France?

Britain is no better, having recently begun censoring pornography. Whether you agree with this or not, it doesn’t play into the discourse that Western society is unrestricted in its freedoms. How free is a society which systematically spies on its own citizens? Not very, in my opinion.

So to promote Western values above all else, or what we believe to be Western values, is certainly dangerous. We have a veneer of freedom here that leads people to become complacent when critiquing the status quo. Our freedoms have limitations, and we must be aware of this.

These limited freedoms are also not distinctly Western in nature. Nor is a lack of freedom a distinctively Islamic or Arab trait. This is the dangerous territory that many people, particularly advocates of the ‘clash of civilizations’ perspective, are getting into.

David Wearing said it best in his excellent CNN piece:

‘If democracy and freedom of speech are antithetical to the values of Arab or Muslim culture, then how to explain the thousands, even millions of people in the Middle East that have, especially since late 2010, fought and risked their lives for precisely these things, often against regimes backed by Western states? Are we to airbrush from the picture those participants in the Arab uprisings who are both Muslim and defenders of human rights, ignoring their bravery and their sacrifices?’

The much-praised ‘Free Speech’ rally that took place in Paris at the weekend was attended by some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Representing the so-called progressive states were Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (whose forces killed 17 journalists last year) and British PM David Cameron, whose government authorized the destruction of documents obtained by the Guardian and threatened prosecution. Also in attendance was the US Attorney General, representing a country whose police in Ferguson have recently detained and assaulted Washington Post reporters. Not to mention the consistent crackdown on whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

We mustn’t get complacent about freedoms at home. Instead, we must always push for a fairer and more nuanced press, as well as really question how far free speech actually goes. We must also be aware of the gross double-standard that exists in the freedom of speech principle.

The huge problem we now face is that in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack, people in the West could lose even more freedoms. Freedoms they’ve been losing under the guise of ‘the war on terror’ ever since 9/11. One Conservative minister, David Davies, has reasoned that the attacks are evidence that Britain should scrap the human rights act altogether.

The rise in terrorism and terror threats has resulted in a huge loss of civil liberties and freedoms at home, as Britain and the US increasingly look like police states. We must take care to prevent that at all cost. 

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