Lessons from the Charlie Hebdo attacks: Liberty, Western hypocrisy, and cultural context

Liberty, Western hypocrisy, and cultural context

Mohan Jyoti Dutta

The recent terrorist attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo have put on the global center-stage the ideas of free speech and liberty.

Mainstream media and politicians, a large number of them from the West, have framed the attacks in the language of liberty, suggesting that the attacks are acts of violence on the ways of the free world, aka the West.

In solidarity with the magazine, the twitter hashtag #jesuischarlie has garnered global popularity. The hashtag expresses the global support for media to draw and voice diverse, even provocative ideas, freely.

The #jesuischarlie twitter feed also serves as a space for sharing many of the Charlie Hebdo images, equating the act of sharing the images with assertions of freedom and liberty. The images of a free global order juxtaposed against the images of extremist Islamic fundamentalists, are presented in a binary. The many different depictions of Islam and the prophet as the targets of satire stand in for the freedom and liberty of the Western civilization.

These growing global conversations on the question of free speech are indeed important conversations, fostering opportunities for discussions of the ideals of liberty and freedom, and the underlying values that guide these conversations.  

As a scholar of communication, I believe that it is vital for diverse worldviews to be heard and to be enabled. Conversations on free speech and the freedom to express our vital conversations to have globally, especially as we converse across sub-cultural and cultural norms, ideals of respect and dignity, and deeply embedded cultural codes on appropriate conversation.

Moreover, these conversations are particularly salient today as nation states such as Israel and the US operate globally to silence free speech and implement global networks of surveillance on our speech, ideas, and expressions. Notions of free speech and liberty are valued conversations in the backdrop of the growing consolidation of power in the hands of the global elite, the oligarchic ownership of media, the increasing global power of neo-imperial nation states, and the lack of transparency in communication and information about the various acts of war being carried out globally by powerful nation states.

The value of free speech offers vital lessons about the possibilities of expression in a diverse world. These ideas of free speech anchor our conversations on how we conceive the role of communication in society and the important role of nurturing a space for a variety of ideas, irrespective of the level of discomfort some of these ideas may create in some of us. They also point toward much-needed conversations on right to information, transparency, and accountability.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks raise important questions: What is the realm of acceptable speech? What is unacceptable speech? Who decides the limits to acceptability? Moreover, they also offer opportunity for asking questions that are currently not being discussed: How are conversations on free speech shaped by power structures? How are conversations on free speech deployed toward achieving specific political agendas and objectives? If free speech is also indicative of freedom of access to information, how free is access to information in the global order today?

As is depicted in the broader global discourses on mainstream media, in political speeches, and on social media such as the #jesuischarlie hashtag, the Charlie Hebdo attacks have been framed as attacks on the cherished ways of liberty and freedom in the Western world. Having been set up in the backdrop of depictions of Islamic culture and extremism, Charlie Hebdo has emerged on the global discursive space as a signifier of the supposed Western commitments to liberty and freedom.

The Western media as well as much of the social media discourse originating from the West in response to the attacks depict the attacks on Charlie Hebdo as the violent attack of Islamic terrorists on the Western ideals of liberty. The images show an act of violence threatening an otherwise peace-loving Western civilization.

As reflected in the march for liberty and mainstream media conversations, there is an increasing convergence on the depictions of the attacks as France’s 9/11. Close scrutiny of the 9/11 discourses point toward the ways in which these discourses were then deployed to create a climate of support for US and allied invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Depictions of liberty served as the instruments for violating the sovereignty and liberty of the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, suggesting the need to interrogate the attacks and their depictions closely and critically. The narrative unfoldings in Iraq and Afghanistan, and later in Libya and Syria, suggest that these discourses and propagandistic celebrations of free speech and liberty in the West however are far from the reality of practices of free speech in the West.

The jingoism and propaganda in the Western elite, media, and popular discourses suggest the need for caution in our interpretations of events. They suggest that any conversation about the ideal of free speech needs to be juxtaposed amid critical consideration of the actual practices of free speech in the Western world. Critical consideration also needs to attend to the depiction of a peace-loving Western civilization. These critical considerations hopefully offer anchors for global conversations on free speech, with careful attention paid to other anchors and values that need to be placed in the mix.

Let me begin by interrogating the materiality of practices of free speech in the West. Does the Western claim to liberty and freedom of speech hold up when interrogated by the evidence on hand?

For instance, what do Operation Iraqi Freedom and the US attacks on Afghanistan and Libya tell us about the Western ideals of liberty? Is the Western civilization an exemplar of peace and liberty?

The images of liberty circulated conveniently in the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, much like the images of 9/11 circulated after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, ignore the violence and attack on liberties of people elsewhere carried out by the West, such as the violation of the fundamental liberties of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan carried out by US-led and allied imperial invasions. These depictions of a peace-loving Western civilization strategically erase the war machineries and instruments of violence that form the fabric of Western civilizations. The binary in the depiction of Western liberty remains oblivious to the large numbers of deaths across the Middle East caused by Western imperial invasions. The metaphors of liberty and peace remain oblivious to the large numbers of civilian casualties in Pakistan and in the Middle East that caused by US-sponsored drone attacks.

Moreover, critical interrogations also point toward the Western attacks on spaces of articulation across the globe that have challenged or threatened the Western narrative of freedom and liberty. The Iraqi television station and a hospital in Falujah were some of the earliest targets of Operation Iraqi Freedom, justifying these aggressions as strategic attacks on Iraqi instruments of propaganda. Similarly, critical attention needs to be paid to the attacks on journalists. Consider for instance, US attacks on journalists across the Middle East. Early on in its attacks on Afghanistan, the United States bombed Al Jazeera, and then bombed the Sheraton Hotel in Basra, Iraq, housing Al Jazeera journalists.  Israel, another bastion of democracy and liberty, has been accused of involvement in carrying out war crimes against journalists, including killing 17 journalists. Or consider the cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh who has been jailed by Israel for speaking out.

The rhetoric of liberty originating from the West ironically remains silent about the attack on free speech reflected in the US response to the whistleblowers who have reported on the US army abuses of power and torture of civilians. The rhetoric of liberty remains conveniently silent about the violence on Bradley Manning for exercising his right to speech. Similarly, the US rhetoric of liberty and freedom of speech remains characteristically silent about the US treatment of Edward Snowden for revealing the large scale surveillance operations carried out by the US or the corresponding attacks on our fundamental communicative liberties by these large scale surveillance operations carried out by the US.

Moreover, when it comes specifically to the idea of free speech, close examination disrupts the Western propaganda of free speech. Western society is not equally open to all forms of speech. Which of the diverse worldviews are deemed acceptable by societal norms and which of these views are treated as not acceptable depend a great deal on the broader socio-political context and the structures of power within which these conversations about free speech are situated.

For instance when in 2006, the magazine Charlie Hebdo had published a series of images depicting the Prophet Mohammed in pornographic frames, the magazine was asked whether it would depict Moses in the same way, particularly within the broader context of Israeli attacks on Palestine. The magazine remained silent. In 2009, when the French cartoonist Sine, then working at Charlie Hebdo had published a cartoon that was considered by some groups as anti-Semitic in tone, he was asked by the then-editor to apologize and had to go on trial on charges of anti-Semitism.

In another instance, France, the supposed voice of Western liberty, banned the protests against Israel in 2014.

The exercise of tools of appropriate speech codes to subvert diverse academic expressions is also evident in the US academic structures and universities. In the US, the academic Professor Steven Salaita was de-hired from his job at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign for criticizing the recent spate of Israeli attacks on Palestine in strong language. A code of “incivility” was called upon to justify the de-hiring of this academic as a personnel decision by the administration. 

In each of these instances, civility, as a speech code, is positioned in opposition to free speech. This articulation of civility then suggests another axis to the conversation of free speech, noting that indeed in the West, articulations of free speech don’t exist in vacuum. Instead, decisions are consistently made by appealing to other sets of standards and values, and using these bases to justify speech that violates the dominant codes of conversation. The outcomes of these decisions on realms of speech thus deviate significantly from the avowed rhetorical position of commitment to free speech deployed in the propaganda campaign carried out by the West.

These incidences point to the hypocrisy in Western discourses of freedom of speech. That there is not such a monolithic idea of free speech, that freedom of speech is almost always situated in relationship to broader aspects of context are ideas that need nuanced consideration, especially as our circles of conversation become increasing global in scope. These critical and nuanced considerations are particularly salient within the broader context of the strategic uses of the language of freedom to carry out neo-colonial invasions on the global stage.

Free speech as an ideal therefore is almost always balanced with other ideals in a given society. As an ideal, the concept of free speech can certainly offer valuable guidelines for policies and for conversations on policies. Notions of free speech, I hope, can also address ideas of transparency, access to information, and the freedom to pursue information particularly in instances where such information is shrouded under opaque policies.

Conversations on free speech, in other words, are much needed in the world today.

Moreover, these conversations on free speech also need to be situated in relationship to the questions of the quality of speech. The question about the freedom of Charlie Hebdo to publish its Islamophobic cartoons needs to be complemented by conversations on the quality of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo, the racist undertones of the images, and the feelings of disenfranchisement that might be produced by images that attack the worldviews of a minority community. Especially worth considering in the debates on free speech are the effects of speech, especially within the context of the differential powers of different communities and the effects of particular forms of speech in certain communities. Worth considering for instance is the right to communicative dignity of communities that are disenfranchised or are at the margins. Speech that contributes to the disenfranchisement of marginalized and/or minority communities need to be considered in relationship to the potential effects of such forms of marginalization.

Depictions and negotiations of freedom of speech thus are shaped by the broader political, economic, social, and cultural environment, and the various commitments of any given society. As dominant power structures deploy communication to serve their agendas of consolidating power, free speech serves as a key tool for rendering visible the strategies of power consolidation. As a tool thus, free speech can provide important avenues for questioning the policies that are made within particular structures and the effects, benefits, and costs of such policies.

Free speech in a nutshell is an important value. As a guiding principle, it can offer valuable insights for how we come to understand the relationship among communication, culture, and society when it takes into account complexities, nuances, cultural values, and structural formations.

In a social media environment where the varieties of discourses about religion are grounded in diverse value systems, it is vital to engage dialogically with these differences and at the same time foster collaborative spaces for encouraging conversations on commonalities. Points of criticism and thoughtful debate might indeed offer bridges for exploring opportunities for dialogue amid difference, thus working through articulations of free speech not as a way to denigrate a culture or circulate chauvinistic ideas of two cultures, but to promote spaces for conversation through difference.

The concept of dialogic quality thus adds a much-needed layer of complexity and nuance to the current conversations on freedom of speech. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo offer an opportunity for these critical conversations.


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