World leaders are marching in solidarity with the “Je suis Charlie” masses, yet their own records on free speech are questionable in some cases, deplorable in others.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the kosher market where four hostages were killed, in Paris, France, Monday, Jan. 12, 2015. Photo: Francois Mori/AP
The satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo has become synonymous with the fight for freedom of expression since French gunmen of Algerian descent forced their way into the magazine’s Paris offices and killed 12 members of the magazine’s staff on Jan. 7.
As rhetoric — especially that employed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — has focused on the “Islamic threat,” the official discourse has largely neglected the Muslim employee at a kosher market who led Jewish people to hide in a freezer during the rampage, and the Muslim police officer who became the first casualty of the siege amid his attempts to protect the magazine from the attackers.
The attacks on the magazine’s offices and a kosher market, which have rightly drawn international condemnation, were carried out by four members of an al-Qaida-linked group in Yemen, as retaliation for the satirical magazine’s derogatory caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Lauded in the West as an inherent element of democratic values, freedom of expression has deeper ramifications that are concealed through the separation of current events from historical colonialism. Journalistic satire, ostensibly a medium through which to provoke criticism of the ruling elite, was manipulated by Charlie Hebdo in a manner that targeted minorities to increase the magazine’s profitability and contributed to the current climate of incitement and agitation.
Stoking Islamophobia, in particular, has proven to be a financially viable business model for Charlie Hebdo — a point the media has come to ignore. Prior to the killings, the magazine was veering toward bankruptcy, selling only half its printed quota each week.
However, it has since discovered that it can leverage Islamophobia as a money-making machine. Following the killings, the magazine’s newfound notoriety enabled it to regain its financial footing, secure funding pledges — including from other media outlets — in the name of freedom of expression, and commence with a print run of 3 million copies of its latest issue.
Characterized as another instance of freedom of expression, Charlie Hebdo used its first issue since the attacks as an opportunity to feature another caricature of the Prophet Muhammad. When it hit newsstands on Wednesday, the cover featured the Prophet Muhammad holding a sign that says “Je suis Charlie,” the slogan that’s become the international show of support for the victims of the attack. Above him, it says, “All is forgiven.”
A history of inflammatory cartoons
This was not the first time though that Charlie Hebdo was targeted for its distasteful ridicule of religious figures. The magazine’s premises were firebombed following the publication of similarly controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2011.
A caricature of the Prophet Muhammad the following year prompted a statement from French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault: “In the current climate, the Prime Minister wishes to stress his disapproval of all excess and calls on everyone to behave responsibly.”
This call for responsible behavior, however, fell on deaf ears. Not long after Boko Haram’s mass kidnapping of teenage girls, Charlie Hebdo ran a front page illustration in October which made a mockery out of the sexuality and impoverished conditions of various minorities living in the Western world, making specific references to the recipients of welfare benefits and fuelling further prejudice and bias inherent in class inequality.
Another example of the magazine’s apparent exercise in free speech involves a cartoon that ridicules the massacre of Egyptian protesters ordered by Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s army chief.
Caricatures ridiculing Islam or depicting the Prophet Muhammad have been defended within the parameters of free expression, but those same protections haven’t been extended to everyone working at Charlie Hebdo. Maurice Sinet, who penned a column considered to have incited “racial hatred,” was fired on accusations of anti-Semitism in 2009. The intellectual elite backed the magazine’s decision to fire Sinet — among those pushing for his dismissal was the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, the same propaganda figure who pushed for NATO intervention in Libya.
On the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack, an attack by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2,000 civilians. Media coverage, however, was dedicated to the unfolding events in Paris and, notably, world leaders’ reactions to the shooting, which utilized the scene in Paris to indulge in two related, yet distinct issues – propaganda and the quest to preserve colonialism.
French President Francois Hollande stated, “Our great and beautiful France will never break, will never yield, never bend,” in reference to the “Islamist threat.”
“They died so that we could live in freedom,” he said of the three police officers who were killed by the armed gunmen.
Hollande’s statement to reporters, published by EuroNews, is replete with references to unity, freedom and terrorism. The “exceptional act of barbarism,” also referred to as a “terrorist attack,” elicited a response that is rhetorically similar to former U.S. President George W. Bush prior to initiating the so-called “War on Terror.” Hollande, for example, declared, “No-one can be allowed to think they can get away with such things in France, and strike at the heart of republican values through one of its pillars, an independent press.”
Dismantling an illusion of freedom of expression
France’s concept of freedom — or rather, the restriction of it — was evident last year, when it became the first country to ban pro-Palestine demonstrations opposing Israeli apartheid, thus dismantling the illusion of unlimited freedom of expression. What is equally affirmed within this illusion is the absence of victims within the concept of freedom of expression. Hence, France’s definition of terror is divested from history in the same way its interventions in other countries have allegedly been carried out in the name of freedom.
Historically, France’s concept of freedom of expression had, in some instances, resulted in state-sanctioned massacres. On Oct. 17, 1961, between 50 and 120 Algerian anti-war protestors were massacred by French police, then their bodies were thrown into the River Seine. The protest had been organized by the Algerian National Liberation Front – a liberation movement that was also fighting for Algerian independence from French colonial rule.
French colonialism in Algeria resulted in the massacre of approximately 1.5 million Algerians from 1830 until 1962. In 2006 Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stated, “France committed a genocide of Algerian identity during the colonial era. Colonisation brought the genocide of our identity, of our history, of our language, of our traditions.”
While French colonial rule in Africa is considered a historical phenomenon, the consequences of domination are visible — particularly through the manipulation of conflict resolution, peacekeeping and the maintenance of military bases in Africa. French military intervention in Mali from 2012 to 2014, codenamed Operation Serval, for example, resulted in cycles of debt with the International Monetary Fund following the bombing of an already limited infrastructure. Another recent example would be France’s involvement in the destruction wrought on Libya by NATO under the auspices of the United Nations in 2011. In both scenarios, the victims have been obliterated under the guise of freedom, as Western democracy describes its penchant for humanitarian intervention against alleged acts of genocide.
“Immigrate to Israel”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who participated in the Paris demonstrations with other world leaders involved in various forms of foreign interference, utilized the killings — in particular, the deaths of four Jewish people at a kosher grocery store — to promote Israel’s colonial project.
The Times of Israel quoted Lieberman as saying, “The most important message for French Jews is: immigrate to Israel. If you are looking for security and a safer future for your children there is no other alternative.”
This sentiment was echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid – the latter also invoking the Holocaust as a reference.
On Jan. 11, Netanyahu tweeted a message to “all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe,” telling them that Israel is their home, “not just the place in whose direction you pray.” The remark is reminiscent of early Zionist propaganda which encouraged Jews to flee anti-Semitism and move to a state of their own creation — a state created through colonial massacres. Again, as in the case with Hollande’s rhetoric, Netanyahu imposes and encourages oblivion with regard to the victims — Palestinians, in Israel’s case.
Directly related to the freedom of expression issue, Netanyahu’s vision of freedom during Operation Protective Edge resulted in the deaths of 17 journalists. Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh was imprisoned by Israel in 2013 on allegations that he’d drawn cartoons associated with Hamas. On July 22, 1987, Israeli Mossad agents shot Palestinian cartoonist Naji Salim al-Ali, who was famous for his political satire criticizing Israeli and Arab politics.
Yet Netanyahu was also present at the demonstration to show support for the victims and freedom of expression over the weekend. Alongside him were various imperialist leaders and their supporters, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy; German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who supplied Israel with submarines during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge; and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose collaboration with Israel increased the oppression of Palestinian civilians and restricted the anti-colonial struggle.
Following the solidarity march, British Prime Minister David Cameron made an impassioned defense of freedom of expression and a free press. Yet he didn’t wholly dismiss concerns that British stores selling the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo might be targeted for reprisal.
“I think we are at risk because there are a group of people who believe in this fanatical death cult of Islamist extremism and frankly you can’t appease them,” Cameron said. “They hate our democracy, our freedom, our freedom of expression, our way of life.”
While seemingly divesting from the political aspect in an attempt to win over public sentiment, the real issue behind these sporadic acts of violence is not Islam, but that of the West reaping its colonial and imperialist legacy.