Our silence over Charlie Hebdo — freedom of speech for whom?

(Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann)

(Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann)

Earlier this week, British journalist Tim Wilcox was “let off” the hook after apologizing for a comment he had made on a BBC report last month, in which he stated that Palestinians “suffer greatly at Jewish hands.” His comment, labeled as an anti-Semitic slur, offended many people, many of whom asked for him to be fired. I wonder how many public figures have apologized for the hateful Islamophobic commentary that followed the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris in January.

A familiar shock ran through my body when I first heard the news of the attack. My mind went blank, save a phrase that I could not stop repeating to myself: “Please say the killers weren’t Arab or Muslim!”

But despite my silent pleading, they were. The identity of the gunmen was quickly released and just like that, it was open season on Islam and anyone of Arab or African descent all over again. In France, this meant over a dozen reported attacks against Muslim communities in less than a week, while people of color were harassed in the streets and glared at in efforts to discern if they were the “good or bad” kind of Muslim. Meanwhile, the nation mobilized and took to the streets with a loud battle cry coming from every corner for the protection of people’s freedom of speech.

Sitting with that contradicting reality, memories flooded my psyche: my childhood as a French-Algerian youth in 1980s Paris when Arabs were systematically harassed, targeted and policed in public spaces during times of unrest that would precede the Algerian civil war of the 90s; and my young adulthood in California post 9/11. My well-known survival mechanisms kicked back in. I found myself treading more carefully, cautious with the smells and spices coming from my kitchen and the Rai music bumping from my headphones, careful not to be too intimidating with the ancestry and blood lineage that flow through my veins. I sought out cover from hostile eyes and political views, from those who would simplify the aftermath of such tragic deaths as a one-dimensional struggle for freedom of speech, while allowing rampant Islamophobia to thrive, unchecked.

In the days to follow the attacks, pouring over dozens of responses online, I noticed that most of the voices speaking out were those of Western academics, journalists and justice advocates. Did my people not have anything to say? Was I not looking in the right places? Or were people also seeking cover, protecting themselves and measuring their words carefully, for fear of the accusations and threats to follow?

Expectedly, news outlets and the public at large were quick to paint a clear black-and-white scenario for Muslims to fit into: a loud condemnation of the attacks or a silence that could only translate to an endorsement of terrorism. But as a métisse (mixed race) woman of color born into a French Catholic and Algerian Muslim household, I know that important truths lie in the grey area in between.

Contributions of the voiceless

Feministing blogger Katherine Cross wrote in her response to the spread of the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie:“And [many voices] certainly [argue for] no free speech for Muslims who are loudly expected to do nothing but “condemn” this atrocity, and then make no other meaningful contribution to this discussion.”

In what ways are Africans, Arabs and Muslims granted permission to contribute meaningfully?

In today’s media-driven society, the label terrorist has practically become a synonym for anyone practicing the religion of Islam, any person of Arab descent, or anybody living in the Middle East or any predominantly Muslim nation. Our men are portrayed as terrorists — or at the very least violence-seeking criminals — while our sisters are reduced to the role of hijab-wearing victims waiting to receive salvation from their Western feminist counterparts.

In moments when one’s entire culture or religion is placed under severe scrutiny, many of us have learned that the safest thing to do is to remain silent. This silence is by no means for a lack of opinions and reactions, but rather a precaution given the hypocrisy and double standards that define Western advocacy for democracy, liberties and freedom of speech.

The world responds

Within minutes of the attacks that would ultimately result in 17 tragic deaths, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was created, and overnight people the world over became experts on the sociopolitical racial and religious tensions in France. When only a few days later, over 2,000 people were brutally slaughtered by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, the news were slow to harvest considerable international attention, and certainly did not provoke a widespread Twitter response as a show of solidarity for the victims. Clearly some people’s lives were more valuable than others.

Within hours of the terrorists’ identities becoming public, Muslims in all continents were expected to somehow atone for any and all terrorist attacks that have been carried out by extremists. The Catholic Pope himself asked Muslim leaders to condemn fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. Of course, good practicing Muslims condemn the taking of lives, and are just as outraged and shocked as anyone else. (Though I doubt that even if all Muslims in all corners of the world apologized, that mainstream media would stop fostering sentiments that Islam is a social threat.) The double standard is the slap in the face here: that other world religions and their leaders are not held to the same expectations whenever a Christian or Jewish person commits an act of terror anywhere on the planet.

Within less than a week, on Jan. 11, over 3.5 million people marched through the streets of France, reportedly the largest demonstration ever recorded in the country’s history. In Paris, over 50 global leaders led the march through the capital in the name of solidarity and unity against terrorism and in defense of freedom of expression. Ironically, many of the heads of state present in the capital that day have some of the worst track records when it comes to civil liberties and free speech. They have been responsible for attacks, disappearances and the killing of journalists in their home countries.

At a corresponding march in a smaller French city, one of my family members reported that participants noticed and lamented the lack of a significant African and Arab presence. I knew that without the assurance of strength in numbers that one can expect in a larger city, I probably wouldn’t have felt safe there either.

Freedom of speech for some

While France continues to applaud individuals’ freedom of speech, more than 100 people have been placed under investigation, for public statements they have made, under the guise of a new anti-terrorist law. At the same time, a boar’s head and entrails were left in front of a Muslim prayer center in Corsica with a threatening note: “Next time it will be one of your heads.” Yet, in a country with the largest Muslim population in the European Union (roughly 10 percent), this hate crime and very direct threat has received little media coverage or public condemnation.

In recent days, according to The Guardian, President François Hollande has deployed 10,000 troops around the nation to hunt down accomplices, and ensure people’s safety, which is considered the largest ever mobilization of troops on home soil. Given the current tensions and racial dynamics, one wonders whose safety is being considered.

We live in a complex world, full of interconnected layers and deep wounds from years of colonization and imperialism. These most recent attacks in Paris do no exist within a vacuum; nothing does. French-Muslims have been alienated, harassed, and mistreated, both economically and socially, for decades. From school curriculums that omit the horrors of colonization, to banlieues, or French ghettoes, that leave youth without resources for their development or outlets for their anger, to women being targeted and now punished by law for wearing burqas, the treatment of French-Muslims in the country that birthed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights leaves much to be desired.

The hypocrisy and selective valuing of lives in the aftermath of tragedies is what makes some us of sit with shock and traumas, silent and invisible to those around us. People of color the world over have learned (time and time again) that our experiences and our lives are not as relevant or valuable to world affairs as the lives of white people. We have learned to assume that the states in which we reside will not protect us, and that those who harm us will most likely not be held accountable.

This means that I have come to expect hateful and ignorant anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination after any terrorist attack anywhere in the Western world. It also means that I wasn’t surprised by the recent response to the bombing of a NAACP office in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Jan. 6. Despite the blatancy of this racist act, the white suspect is not being labeled a terrorist, and not every white person is urgently being asked to hold themselves accountable for this hate crime in the name of their entire race.

Not so simple as black and white

So no, the sociopolitical context within which we exist is never black and white for me. While I whole-heartedly condemn terrorist attacks as loudly as anyone and while I find inspiration in millions of people taking to the streets as a massive show of solidarity, I am also heart-broken by the social commentary that has intoxicated much of the public dialogue since then.

I almost remained silent as a result, paralyzed by fears and traumas, fearful that anything I said would be misinterpreted and used against me.

But I made a decision: that this story could not continue to be told largely by those who have nothing to fear in speaking out. Maybe when I get attacked for writing these words, as I already have in other settings, those whose free speech is indeed protected and who have the privilege of space to speak, just maybe, they will stand up for me and protect my freedom of expression too.

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