Since the Charlie Hebdo attack, there has been one question you’re not allowed to ask in western Europe: how do freedom of expression and respect relate to each other in our multicultural societies, and (how) can they coexist? Asking that question is like opening Pandora’s box, and is met with defensive/aggressive responses reflecting a fear for censorship. Let’s burst the bubble: we exercise self-censorship every day. We know we have the legally protected right to say (almost) anything. Still, we don’t tell our sister her children are ugly, even if we think so. We don’t tell our cigarette smoking neighbor it is his own fault he got lung cancer. We practice self-censorship. Not because the law prescribes it, but because we want to respect the feelings of others. Whether we like to recognize it or not, together we have established invisible lines for what is socially acceptable; a minimum level of respect for other people’s feelings.
Some say that a religion is abstract, and ridiculing its prophet or teachings can therefore not offend or hurt.
Who decides that ridiculing someone’s religious identity repeatedly in media cannot be hurtful or offensive? Who decides which feelings should be taken into account, and which ones shouldn’t? Who is the authority on that? Can a primarily atheist majority decide that attacks on Islamic beliefs cannot be offensive or hurtful? Also, can a primarily white Dutch majority decide that Black Pete is not offensive or racist? And can a white American majority decide that jokes about slavery are okay? In countries with freedom of expression we have no authority who decides for us. WE decide, together. The invisible minimum standards of respect are shaped by living together, by dialogues, and by reflection. Our multicultural societies with widely varying views and identities requires that we to transcend our own points of view and experiences. And that makes it all the less helpful to take on a fundamentalist ‘all or nothing’ approach towards the freedom of speech. Relax, guards down, all-or-nothing-hats off; the legal right to freedom of expression is not being questioned.
“Satire is crucial for promoting debate and progress”
Some say that cartoons or other publications ridiculing Islam are necessary for stimulating thought and discussion. I agree that is a beautiful function of satire, but I struggle to see what thought or debate satire ridiculing islam as a religion is seeking to stimulate. Anti-Islam publications send a one-way message to a religious minority, saying ‘your religion is ridiculous’. Such messaging doesn’t invite for a discussion around Islam, provoke critical thinking, nor does it promote dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. What inclusive, thought-provoking debate has come from islamophobic satire in recent years?
Furthermore, the average western European non-Muslim knows about Islam what an average Mexican knows about Buddhism. It comes down to stereotypes. And stereotypes about Islam generally include terrorism, oppression of women, backward thinking, and violence. Publications ridiculing Islam promote already widespread islamophobia and social polarization, not honest questions or critical thinking. Every islamophobic or racist publication / speech is a microscopic act of aggression that chips away at the social fabric of our society.
There is also a danger in some of the terminology that is being used: spreading satire or speech about ‘Islamic extremism’ or ‘Islamic terrorism’ is like saying ‘Christian pedophilia’ or ‘Jewish crimes against humanity’. We associate an entire religion (and thereby its followers) with atrocities committed by a few members of the religion.
In the current context, ridiculing Islam is not innocent
Over the last 15 years we’ve seen an increase in antagonism towards Muslims in western Europe. There is widespread islamophobia, that has lead to attacks on Muslims and mosques (under-reported by mainstream media), and systematic discrimination of people based on their islamic background. Brushing off criticism on islamophobic publications/speech by saying ‘we ridicule Christianity too’ is therefore a shortsighted response.
Ask yourself: what are islamophobic cartoons, writings, and speeches feeding into? Mass media is very powerful, so we have seen in the past. I can’t help be being worried about where we’re headed. The genocidal hashtag #KillAllMuslims was among the top trending hashtags on twitter after the Charlie Hebdo attack. That should frighten everyone.
No Charlies when they’re needed the most
When murderers attacked our collective freedom of expression by killing 12 Charlie Hebdo staff members, we felt it as an attack on us all. One and a half million Charlies marched down the streets of Paris and elsewhere. The attack reinforced our common, protective stance on our freedom of expression. It also exposed how hypocritical we are.
Where were the Charlies last summer when France banned all demonstrations condemning Israel’s military offensive against the Gaza Strip? And where were they when Richard Makela and Sniper were put on trial for expression their views on France? Or when VU University in Amsterdam barred a public debate on Palestine from taking place in their building? Or when Herve Eon was convicted for insulting the president, after confronting Sarkozy with his own quote? Or when Quincy Gario and Jerry Afriyie were violently arrested by Dutch police for wearing t-shirts with the text ‘Black Pete is Racism’?
Regardless of individual opinions on any of these issues; if the freedom of speech is as holy to us as we claim, then where was our outcry to stand up against the infringement (by our authorities!) of our freedom of expression? I can’t help but wondering; how honest is our defense of our right to freedom of expression? The above-mentioned violations of our right to freedom of expression are apparently not worth a protest, hashtag, Facebook status, or even a critical column in the local newspaper. It is only our right to express the mainstream opinion – including ridiculing Islam – that is well protected, both legally and by popular opinion.