[Content note: white, Christian-heritage person discussing racism and Islamophobia. It’s not the job of Muslims or people of colour to educate me, but if you do want to call me out on something I’ve got wrong, I would welcome that.]
I’ve lost respect for a lot of people and organisations over the last week. Apparently we are all now Charlie, and also incapable of recognising irony or nuance, or understanding power.
Because this apparently needs saying, let me start with it: I support everyone’s right to free speech. This includes racist speech, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic speech, anti-immigrant speech, misogynistic speech. I believe you should have the right to say those things and to not be persecuted for them by the state. Frankly, I believe this largely for selfish reasons: because it is way too easy to ban radical left speech under the guise of banning radical right speech, and I find it easier to deal with individuals’ free speech than with a state apparatus aimed at silencing. I also believe in people’s right to life, and by extension that no one deserves to die as a consequence of their free speech.
Now, having stated the obvious, let’s move on to irony, and nuance, and power which have so eluded us over the last week. I’ll start with the irony, because that’s the easy one. “Let’s fight for free speech with more surveillance!” said the leaders of nations which routinely jail or assault journalists, send their secret services to destroy hard drives, or have blasphemy laws on the books. If you don’t see the irony in that, I’m not sure I can help you. But I promised nuance too, so let me ask you this: when the security services use Charlie Hebdo as a pretext to get their current wishlist of additional surveillance powers, whose free speech do you think will suffer most from that? Is it the Johns and Pauls and Marys of this world that they will go after, or the Ahmeds and Mohammeds and A’ishahs?
Heck, even if we somehow manage to stop new surveillance powers, the free speech impact on Muslims is already there: because every time a Muslim wants to raise issues of racism and Islamophobia, they have to go through a three-paragraph spiel about how Islam is the religion of peace and how they condemn any violence committed by any Muslim ever.
Dear fellow white people of Christian heritage: try that for a day. Try having to start every conversation with “I apologise for and condemn the crusades, and colonialism, and the homophobia and transphobia we exported to the rest of the world, and the fact that my religious heritage regards women as second-class citizens incapable making decisions about basic health care, and slavery, and genocide, and every war we’ve started in the last 300 years, and the fact that we continue to do these things today, with impunity.” Try that, and see how far you get with your free speech.
Here’s a bit more nuance for you: I can support your right to free speech, however obnoxious it is, but that doesn’t mean I have to give it a platform. Regardless of whether you buy into the terrorism story or are at least aware that, had these two young men been white, we would be talking of “confused and troubled individuals”, republishing the cartoons, marching on the streets and using #JeSuisCharlie all create a discourse that normalises the terrorism narrative as well as offending a lot of people and making them feel unsafe. Free speech has consequences, and when it is exercised by the powerful against the powerless, in the vast majority of cases it is not the speakers who suffer. With every republished Islamophobic cartoon you are causing pain. With every #JeSuisCharlie you are sending out a signal to Muslim people that they are not safe around you. And every individual joining a march is making someone wonder whether it’ll be their mosque shot up next. Exercising your free speech in a way that has these consequences, frankly, makes you a dick.
All of which rather neatly brings us to power. Charlie Hebdo is not racist or Islamophobic, we are told – those few of us who dare question it. You just don’t understand the French context. It is written for a French audience, we are told, where this kind of thing is not racist. Analysis about as incisive as “Actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.”
Everyone – including Charlie Hebdo – operates in an existing context of power relations. Sometimes this context is so naturalised and normalised that we are not aware of it, no matter how good our intentions. If you’re telling me that a publication which routinely and deliberately publishes cartoons intended to mock Islam and offend Muslims is not racist or Islamophobic to a French audience, you are restating and reproducing those power relations. You are using your authority and power to define what a French audience looks like; and the French audience you’re describing – regardless of the number of caveats you include – is white and non-Muslim. If Charlie Hebdo is the best the radical left in France has to offer to Muslims and people of colour, and if the rest of white, Christian-heritage Europe gets behind that, our problems are a lot bigger than we thought.
By all means, defend free speech. Defend it from the state, and from private corporations, and from confused and misguided angry young men with guns. But defend it in a way that challenges and overthrows existing power structures, that makes people feel valued and safe, that reaches out rather than pushing away.