Je Suis Charlie: In Defense of Free Speech

Jan 09

Je Suis Charlie: In Defense of Free Speech

Posted on Huffington Post, January 9, 2015.

I admire Charlie Hebdo for standing up against threats to free speech, but I am saddened to see them pay such a heavy price for their beliefs. Cartoons and satire, even the most provocative ones, remain vital for a healthy civil society. Only the deranged are threatened by them. Charlie Hebdo wanted to spread a little laughter, albeit in ways that are were often distasteful and provocative.

The killers in Paris did not nothing to defend Islam’s Prophet. They made the faith of 1.6 billion look like a murderous cult that views beheadings, bombings, kidnappings, and mass killings as religiously sanctioned response to grievances. They forget that the pen is mightier than the sword. The very Prophet whose name they are purportedly defending said, “The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.”

It is indeed heartening to witness Muslim leaders condemn the barbarism in Paris that killed the editor of Charlie Hebdo and several of its cartoonists. The killers also gunned down two policemen, one of whom happened to be Muslim. However, beyond the condemnations lurks a murky question: Why is some of the most egregious violence being repeatedly carried out in the name of Islam? Charlie Hebdo had offended Jews, Christians and a myriad of political leaders. Why did only Muslims lash out in such a violent manner? Certainly Muslims have no monopoly on deranged individuals.

Imams and Muslim leaders have usually responded by asserting that such killers do not represent “real” Islam. While a modicum of truth is indeed inherent in this argument, it does not illuminate the situation. While many acts of violence are being perpetrated in the name of other faiths, by actors ranging from Christian militias in Africa to Buddhist monks in Burma, the acts of violence in the name of Islam shock the conscience like no other. The gunning down of cartoonists, the beheading of journalists, the bombing of schools — all are headlines from just the last two months!

The rage sweeping through certain parts of the Muslim world and the Muslim diaspora is indeed rooted in the pervasive feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. This culture is exasperated by a sense of perpetual victimhood that undergirds the narrative of most Islamist groups. (Islamists are defined as those who use Islam as a fundamental pillar of their politics.) Psychologists define victimhood as a mentality that makes one feel powerless to affect their own circumstances, so for every wrong suffered, they blame and lash out at others. While many Islamists are engaged in peaceful political struggles, their fanning of victimhood often triggers violence, particularly among the marginalized victims.

The grievances of the Islamists and their militant counterparts overlap. Both groups dream about the establishment of a utopian society with Islam and Muslims at the top of the totem pole. However, the peaceful Islamists and the militants differ in their means of achieving this goal. Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami want to transform society into voluntarily accepting Shariah as the law of the land. Militants such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS want to implement Shariah by brute force and feel no moral outrage at the idea of killing others to achieve their goals.

Even moderate Islamists such as the AKP in Turkey seem threatened by free speech. In recent months the Turkish government has jailed journalists, cartoonists and even children who allegedly mocked the president. In Saudi Arabia a blogger was publicly flogged for allegedly insulting Islam. In Pakistan blasphemy laws are used as tool of political oppression. Such intolerance often gives way to the violence of extremists as the distinction between peaceful advocacy and deranged violence is too easily blurred because not enough commitment has been made to the principles of nonviolence, neither by the state nor by the Islamists. Even amongst the Muslim diaspora in the West, free speech and freedom of religion struggle to find unequivocal acceptance.

It is ironic that the very week that this heinous political violence erupts in Paris also marks the release of the epic film Selma, which chronicles the transformative power of nonviolence in the face of state violence. The Prophet Muhammad urged his followers to never be afraid of learning something useful and beneficial, even from those who do not share their faith.

Therefore it is time to look beyond condemnation. It is time for Islamists to unequivocally embrace nonviolence and distance themselves from all forms of militancy in the name of Islam. It is time for repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia to open up their societies to free speech and free exercise of religion. It is time for Muslim democracies such as Turkey to end their paranoid attacks on freedom of the press. It is time for Islamic republics like Pakistan to repeal their blasphemy laws. It is time for Muslim imams to lead their flocks in recognizing free speech and free exercise of religion as integral part of Islam. It is time for Western societies to stop asking Muslims what they feel every time radicals perpetrate yet another spectacular act of violence. Only then will “Je suis Charlie” find real meaning.