It’s World Press Freedom Day today, 3 May.
The motive of World Press Freedom Day is that
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
It’s a right which is hardly upheld across the world.
Rights and press freedom came to the forefront this week due to the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Free Expression Courage Award being awarded to the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, for its “dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”
As you would expect, not everyone was happy about the decision. Over a hundred writers signed a letter protesting the PEN award which they argue “intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” Six of those writers – Teju Cole, Taiye Selasi, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Peter Carey and Francine Prose – also declined an invite to an annual PEN gala due to the award.
My view is that Charlie Hebdo is deserving of the award. It is an award for courage, which is a quality that they have displayed. Despite the murderous attacks, the publication continues to publish satire in accordance with its ideological views. To be sure, these are views that I may not share, but it takes courage to stand by them after what happened in Paris in January.
At the heart of the divisive debate are questions such as: is what we think of as freedom of speech truly free? Is the west, or France to be specific, in a position to proclaim freedom of speech as a value despite infringing on people’s freedoms around the world? Should we ignore how a culture of oppression informs the very culture of freedom that the west claims to champion?
The answer to those questions are no, no and no. Freedom of speech, as referred to in European contexts, cannot be entirely separated from tyranny, slavery, patriarchy and imperialism. From the ancient Greeks to the modern-day French, freedom of speech in Europe has never been a human right, inasmuch as it has been a right of indigenous European, well-to-do, land owning adult males. Charlie Hebdo is undeniably an heir of this ethnocentric, privileged white male dominant lineage.
But here’s the thing. We need to separate the politics of freedom of speech from the idea of freedom of speech. It is like an African talking drum. If the speaker whom the drum mimics is talking nonsense then however great the sound, the drum too will sing nonsense. Yet, the drum is still a drum. Freedom of expression is still freedom of expression. And it should be defended and lauded under all circumstances.
If I were on the PEN award jury my nomination would go to political bloggers around the world who put their lives at risk to voice the unspeakable. The Reeyot Alemus, Yoani Sanchezes, Dawit Isaaks, Aliaa Elmahdys, Dieudonné Enoh Meyomesses, Raif Badawis and Amie Sillahs. The journalists and bloggers who write anonymously to stay safe. Who have to go undercover. That are in prison. Who are dead. You are true heroes and heroines. Here’s a Bambara praise poem dedicated to all of you as well as to all writers who have lost their lives to religious fundamentalism, both in the west but above all in the Arab world.
Praise of the Word
The word is total:
it cuts, excoriates
cures or directly kills
amplifies or reduces
According to intention
it excites or calms souls.
Graham Askey says
The word courage can often be replaced by the word stupidity. It may well be courage that drives them to continue but it is certainly stupidity (with a hint of bigotry) which made them a target. Until we in the West come to accept Muslims in our societies as one of us we will only perpetuate the cycle of violence. In my youth sexist, racist, homophobic and anti semitic jokes were widely accepted in a way they are not any more, whilst they have certainly not disappeared they are generally now regarded as unacceptable because we are better able to accept these groups as our own. Why should Muslims be less worthy of this respect?
Of course, the oppression of Muslims in Europe is immoral but that is a bit of a red herring. I did not argue that it wasn’t.
In terms of the line between stupidity and courage, it can indeed be thin and all the more important, therefore, to try to understand carefully. Even if stupidity with a hint of bigotry made Charlie Hebdo a target (and that is a matter of debate as the magazine actually offends quite equally), the incident in Paris was an affront not only on CH but to all free speech, be it in Europe, Africa or indeed the Middle East where the most important struggles for freedom of speech today are taking place. As I tweeted earlier “When you talk about not offending muslims, which muslims do you mean? The ones fighting against fundamentalist tyranny? Thought not.”
It is bigoted in itself to assume that muslims cannot handle some satire, however tasteless.
Thus to answer your question: no muslims are not less worthy of respect but nor do/should they have special laws that exempt them from satire.
I am not arguing that CH deserves an award for its content, and neither am I suggesting that they are the only writers deserving of the PEN award (my own preferences in the post) but that’s how awards work. Everyone cannot win.
Graham Askey says
Sorry, didnt mean to give the impression I particularly disagreed with your post as it was well nuanced on this difficult subject. I would merely say that if we are going to get ourselves out of this predicament we need to build a better, more constructive and sympathetic relationship with Islam in general – by clearly demonstrating that we as a society have a respect for the religion we would then be in a position to have a reasonable discussion about how it relates to freedom of speech. The actions of CH only serve to demonize all Muslims by the actions of a few and provoke an inevitable violent reaction which continues the spiral of violence. This idealist approach to freedom of speech, regardless of whether anyone thinks it is correct, is only inflaming the situation and needs to be suspended to show good faith to the majority of Muslims, who are not inclined to violence, rather than constantly making demands.
Thanks for the comment. I genuinely welcome comments that disagree with me, by the way. It is an opportunity to learn.
I understand where you are coming from regarding an “idealist approach to freedom of speech, regardless of whether anyone thinks it is correct, is only inflaming the situation”
I do not agree that it “needs to be suspended”. Not in the slightest. In fact, I think that it needs to be expanded. Not only should we be freer to mock, criticise, satirise all religions including Islam, but also traditions, beliefs and all other sacred cows that impede intelligent, if uncomfortable, discussion.
Graham Askey says
Yes we should be freer to mock, criticise etc but I fail to see how we will get to this point by continuing a deliberate policy of antagonism which will only inflame the opinion of Muslims who would otherwise be sympathetic to a more thoughtful process and drive more of them to seeing it as an “us and them” conflict. I wholeheartedly agree with you as to what we should be aiming for just worry about how we are going to get there. I dont ask for any legal suspension of freedom of speech but a more widely accepted understanding of its negative effects and not just its use as a tool to offend.
CH have always been capable of an intelligent critique of issues about Islam but they chose to focus on causing maximum of offence with the minimum of content, which regardless of any discussion of free speech, has not been helpful, most tragically for themselves of course, but more generally for the discourse between ourselves and Islam.
Jennifer Hagan says
I used to live in France for very many years. I’ll say I disagree with you on that. Charlie Hebdo is offensive to everyone. It is a paper that is an anarchist, atheist paper. The idea is to be provocative and to push the limits of what people see. The Mohammad drawing isn’t the issue. It is can people dictate what you can write. We can all agree that it is in bad taste. They make fun of the pope, Abbé Pierre (a very famous communist priest/social activist) everyone. If any paper is on the side of racism, it would be them. However, the paper is totally against religion. All religion. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, everyone from every religious group gets it from Charlie Hebdo. I think only those who haven’t read the paper before the Mohammad issues wouldn’t know. I don’t agree with anyone making fun of anyone’s religion but you can’t go shooting people because you don’t agree.
graham askey says
Having lived in France as well I am perfectly familiar with their approach and it is one that I would normally tend to defend as I often read it. I am not calling for censorship of the subject but some measure of discretion at a time where elements on both sides of the argument are deliberately inflaming tensions to provoke a violent reaction. For instance, do you support Pam Geller’s hate speech group and their Mohammed cartoon competitions, or Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s Holocaust cartoon exhibitions, just because they have a right of free speech to do so? Just because something is justified by freedom of expression doesnt make it a good or sensible thing to do. Some of their cartoons made an intelligent critique of Islamic issues but some were just childish and pointlessly vindictive – Oh look! We can show a picture of Mohammed because it annoys Muslims, ha ha! That is neither funny or making a valid point. By all means mock the idea of forbidding certain images in an intelligent way or mock Islamic extremists, hate preachers, Saudi royal family religious hypocrisy etc because it raises an issue worthy of discussion, but just to say, “you are religious so you are an idiot”, is pathetic. That is why I have no hesitation in calling some of what they said is stupid but of course their murder was utterly indefensible. We will never bring an end to Islamic extremism if we just bang on about free speech, using it to alienate much of the Muslim population with whom we would like to have a constructive dialogue. I would also add that given a Charlie cartoonist was sacked a few years ago for an anti semitic cartoon their claim of even handed hatred isnt quite what some would like to believe.