I’ve been hearing so much about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and what it says about society, about liberalism, about Islam, about immigrants, about freedom. The whole thing is absolutely terrible. I’m heartsick about the killings.
But I’m also heartsick about the way those killings are being used to demonize Islam and justify attacks on French Muslim communities – “reprisal attacks”, one article calls them.
I’m heartsick when I see people making the point that good satire punches up, only to be shouted down by a virtual chorus of “FREEZE PEACH!” and “WHY DO YOU HATE FREEDOM?”
Because, yes, I am a defender of freedom of expression, and try to adhere to Voltaire’s maxim that “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (not actually a Voltaire quote, fyi). Nobody should face physical attack for expressing their thoughts and ideas. And I am very dismayed to see anybody striking out violently at any publication for expressing certain views or making fun of certain targets.
But it is not an attack on free expression to point out that attacks on disempowered cultural groups are neither edgy nor subversive, they’re just mean and kind of cowardly. Nor is it an attack on freedom of expression to comment that “we mock everyone equally”, in the context of a society where power is shared unequally, isn’t the most laudable position.
The Globe and Mail takes up the question in an article that tries to contextualize the French satiric tradition, writing:
As a rule of thumb, satire that punches up is more commendable than satire that punches down. To attack the powerful is noble; to mock the weak is ignominious. Yet, in the context of France, there’s ambiguity about whether mocking Islam is punching up or down. As a global religion, it is a powerful force, and as worthy of satire as the Catholic Church [. . .] But in France itself, Islam is the religion of the marginalized, those who, even if they are born in France, are seen by many of their fellow citizens as forever foreign.
For me, that’s the key distinction. Context matters.
I also think it goes a long way to helping us understand the reaction of radicals who commit acts of terror. It’s not just a reaction to some in-poor-taste cartoons from a magazine that makes in-poor-taste cartoons about everybody. It’s a way of lashing out in the context of a society in which the message that Muslims are Other, less trustworthy and less accepted, gets repeated over and over on a daily basis.
Some will say that it’s wrong to care why these attacks happen; all that matters is shutting them down. I wonder, if we cared more about why the attacks happened, could we find a way to make them less likely?
For all our yelling about freedom of speech, I think it’s important to understand that we take a lot of our own freedom for granted. I can say these things on the Internet without worrying that vigilantes – or, worse, my country’s government – will come after me. My freedom may be imperfect, but I can feel confident that my nation’s resources are not going into a campaign to silence me because I have negative things to say about the current administration, or a particular religion, or about the culture in general – all things I’ve critiqued online before.
Which brings me to #JeSuisRaif.
Image via Center for Inquiry.
Raif Badawi is a Saudi blogger who has been sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and one thousand lashes – one thousand! – for such various crimes as “insulting Islam” and “promoting liberalism” and “not obeying his father”. In the wake of the popular hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, honouring the people who died in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a similar #JeSuisRaif hashtag has evolved for those who want to protest this parallel violation of free speech.
I can identify with Raif Badawi. I’m also a blogger (obviously, if you’re reading this) and I’ve said some things about religion that could be called insulting, disrespectful, or even blasphemous. I have never insulted Islam; since I have never been Muslim, that religion isn’t mine to discuss, critique or insult. But I’ve been pretty involved in Catholicism in the past, though, and once I became disillusioned with that religion . . . let’s just say I wouldn’t have done very well if I’d lived during the Inquisition. I have also been known to promote liberalism and disobey my father, sometimes both at the same time.
I refuse to identify with the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag for the reasons I described above. I identify much more with #JeSuisRaif.
But the truth is, I can only imagine what it’s like to live in a country where censorship is this entrenched, where your government can arrest and punish you for speaking frankly about the national religion. I have only the vaguest notion of what it’s like.
So can we please stop saying “I am [name of person whose current circumstances are in no way similar to mine]?” I get that it’s supposed to mean something along the lines of “this person is no different from me” or “it could happen to me”. But no – under the current circumstances of your life, it probably couldn’t.
If you have the freedom to tweet under #JeSuisRaif, the conditions of your online life are probably very different from those of Raif Badawi.