Since the appalling murder of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris two weeks ago, Western politicians have touted positive words about democracy and the right to “free speech.”
But, as the facts clearly demonstrate, freedoms of expression and the press only apply to certain privileged groups and individuals.
Media reports showed world leaders, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Francois Hollande, and Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, participating in the mass rally in Paris in support of Charlie Hebdo on January 11.
As Intercept journalist, Jeremy Scahill, commented on Democracy Now, it was a “circus of hypocrisy … every single one of those heads of state have waged their own wars against journalists.”
After all, France is the first country in the world to ban pro-Palestinian protests. The United States, for its part, demonstrated its devotion to press freedom by bombing Al Jazeera’s bureaus in Baghdad and Kabul, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Since the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader in July 2013, the Egyptian government has censored any media criticism of the new regime. Among the victims of this attack are three Al Jazeera English journalists, who are currently languishing in an Egyptian jail serving sentences of 7-10 years just for doing their job.
Israel has admitted to deliberately targeting and killing 17 journalists during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza this past summer. IDF Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich acknowledged Israel’s deliberate targeting of journalists and media buildings during the conflict in a letter to The New York Times:
Such terrorists, who hold cameras and notebooks in their hands, are no different from their colleagues who fire rockets aimed at Israeli cities and cannot enjoy the rights and protection afforded to legitimate journalists.
This clear admission of guilt has spurred little international attention or condemnation.
Just two days after the massive march for freedom of expression in Paris, police in France arrested French comedian Dieudonne over a Facebook post that satirized the Hebdo event.
Even cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo itself have learned there are certain lines that cannot be crossed. Maurice Sinet violated those taboos in 2009 with a short column in which he wrote about the engagement of Nicolas Sarkozy’s son to a Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain. Commenting on the rumor that the president’s son planned to convert to Judaism, Sinet wrote: “He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad.”
For these comments, Sinet was fired and charged with “inciting racial hatred.”
Fear-Mongering against a Marginalized Population
Of course, no reasonable Western publication would publish satirical pieces about the 9/11 attack or Holocaust victims, and rightly so. So why, then, are pornographic cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed OK?
Instead of attempting to resolve this contradiction and examine the social inequalities, as well as state and social practices, that breed violence in Western countries, right wing political parties have used the Charlie Hebdo massacre for scapegoating and fear-mongering that furthers their own political agenda – the last thing Western society needs right now.
In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s right-wing Front National Party, immediately declared war on Islamism. Her solution to the attacks: to reinstitute capital punishment and purge French mosques.
This fear-mongering is, however, counterproductive.
In the weeks since the events at Charlie Hebdo, there have been 60 Islamophobic incidents reported in France; 26 mosques have been attacked with gunfire, firebombs, pig heads, and grenades. In one particularly devastating hate crime, a Moroccan man was stabbed to death 17 times in his own home in southern France.
There has been a general sense of panic and exaggeration regarding the rise of violent extremism in Europe. As this graphic map shows, in the throes of these fears, Europeans have grossly overestimated the percentage of Muslims amongst them. On average, the French estimated that 31 percent of their compatriots were Muslim, when the actual figure is 8 percent.
What Le Pen and many others refuse to realize is that the Charlie Hebdo attacks have little to do with religion; this is politics hiding behind a religious façade.
Studies show that more than 95 per cent of terrorist attacks are politically motivated.
The University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism examined more than 2,200 suicide attacks worldwide from 1980 to present. As this research demonstrates, more than 90 per cent of suicide attacks are directed at an occupying force. Of the 524 suicide terrorist bombings carried out in the last three decades, more than half of the attackers had non-religious motives.
As journalist Eric Margolis noted in an op-ed published on his website:
Until recently, Islam meant little or nothing to young French of Muslim origin. Islam was the antique faith of their grandparents’ Africa. But the destruction of Iraq, Syria and Libya by the western powers released fanaticism and anarchism from out of the burning Mideast, and fury against the western powers, notably the United States and France.
France is one of the most active when it comes to intervening in the Muslim world. As Margolis noted, the French government has conducted military operations in Libya, Mali, Chad, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Abu Dhabi, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
It is also well known that North Africans in France are oppressed and marginalized members of society. They face high rates of unemployment and largely live in banlieus (suburbs) on the outskirts of Paris, in impoverished ghettos separated from the rest of French society. 60 percent of France’s prison population is Muslim.
For French Muslims from immigrant backgrounds, one of the few things that holds life together is faith. For many (though far from all), Muslim identity provides a sense of dignity that is otherwise denied.
Rejected by French society, these individuals often do not find a sense of belonging in North Africa, which is in many ways culturally alien to them. Trapped between various worlds, they become easy prey for radical groups who exploit their despair and loss of identity.
Journalist Chris Hedges recently explained this process of “radicalization” in an interview on the Russia Today program, Breaking the Set: “It’s not anything endemic to Islam or the Qur’an; it’s a response that’s bred out of dispossession, poverty, aimlessness and despair,” Hedges said.
Here, in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is also revving up fears about terrorism for his own benefit.
Two days after the shootings, a post soliciting donations to support his re-election campaign appeared on Harper’s Progressive Conservative website.
“When a trio of hooded men struck at some of our most cherished democratic principles — freedom of expression, freedom of the press — they assaulted democracy everywhere,” the web page quoted Harper as saying.
“Canadians can count on Prime Minister Harper and our Conservative government to ensure the safety of Canadians while protecting their rights,” the post added.
Federal elections are coming up in October 2015 and this is a chance for Harper to stand out as Canada’s savior.
While there has been no proof the deadly assault on the National War Memorial in Ottawa last October by gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was terrorism-relate, the mainstream media and Prime Minister Harper have repeatedly spoon-fed this narrative to Canadians.
Harper’s remarks are also surprising given his efforts to muzzle scientists and curb access to information for journalists. Canada has repeatedly received dismal grades for freedom of expression from the CJFE (Canadians Journalists for Free Expression).
On Friday, January 9, Harper made the front page of the Toronto Sun newspaper, in a headline that read, “’THEY HAVE DECLARED WAR.’” In the article, Harper vowed that “Canada and its allies will not be intimidated.” The Prime Minister said he planned to introduce new anti-terrorism legislation to protect Canadians. Under this bill, security agencies will have more power to arrest suspects.
There is, however, no evidence that legislation like this makes anyone safer. What is clear is that these efforts place curbs on individual, civil rights.
In response to the proposed bill, Glenn Greenwald, co-editor of The Intercept told the Canadian press, that Canadians have a greater chance of getting hit by lightning than being victims of a terrorist attack.
In responding to perceived terrorist threats, Canada should look to Norway as an example. After Anders Breivik carried out a murderous rampage on July 22, 2011 in Norway, killing 77 people, the government did not introduce a single piece of anti-terrorism legislation; democratic and civil rights for Norwegians remained unchanged.
No one called Breivik a terrorist; instead, he was labeled mentally unstable.
Nothing justifies the murder of journalists. But if we are to speak in favor of freedoms of expression and the press, then these rights should be applied across the board. Unfortunately, instead of doing this, politicians are adding fuel to the fire by spreading bigotry and fear in an already volatile Islamophobic atmosphere.