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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Charlie Hebdo - Many speak, few listen

The massacre in the offices of French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was a tragedy. Twelve people were murdered and eleven injured when three masked gunman burst into the office and fired on them. Two days later the perpetrators were killed by police, following another siege. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo. (1)

Charlie Hebdo has courted controversy because it often publishes offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. For a number of years, the offices and some of its employees have been guarded by police because the depictions of Muhammad have infuriated many Muslims, with some threatening violent retaliation. On 7 January 2015 that retaliation came in the most tragic of ways. The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo have sworn to keep the magazine open and to continue publishing its acerbic satire regardless of who it offends.

Interestingly, Charlie Hebdo was happy to offend Muslims but not to offend Jews so much. Charlie Hebdo is taking the 'freedom of speech' high ground over this attack ... but in 2008 the magazine sacked cartoonist Maurice Sinet for anti-Semitism after he made a jibe at French President Sarkozy's son (2). There are two things with this. Firstly, attacking Islam and Muslims is apparently fair game while criticising a politician marrying into a Jewish family isn't. Secondly, it's ok to offend those who have no political power, those who are the fodder in the West's war on terror or the victims of Israel's genocidal policies, but it's not ok to criticise someone with influence. Politicians are constantly the victims of satire and criticism, including Mr Sarkozy. The only reason Sinet was sacked was because his satire dared to ridicule Jews based on a common stereotype. How is that different to the magazine's depictions of Islam? The only difference is that it is probably less offensive, in that it didn't use sexual or perverted imagery. Yet Sinet was sacked.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo is being labelled an attack on freedom of speech. Without doubt, there are less violent ways to resolve issues with those who cause offense. Freedom of speech means that there will always be someone who is willing to push the boundaries of decency and respect. That doesn't mean they deserve to die.

Voltaire once stated 'I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it'.

The attack was followed by an outpouring of anger, sympathy and solidarity for freedom of expression. Twitter was rife with #JeSuisCharlie (I Am Charlie) as people expressed solidarity with the victims. Not all who condemned the attack agreed with Charlie Hebdo's satire, but they were willing to defend its right to freedom of expression.

A free and just society should defend freedom of speech, however, this freedom is a two-edged sword. One person's opinion may offend another. But the other may also say things considered offensive. If we ban speech, where is the line drawn. It is a two-edged sword but one that must exist.

In Australia, freedom of speech came to a head in 2014 when the government considered repealing Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act which makes it unlawful for a person to act in a way that is likely to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group' based on 'race, colour or national or ethnic origin'. (3) Many on the right-wing saw this as left-wing, do-gooder, political correctness. The Attorney General, George Brandis, supported repealing 18C and stated that 'people have the right to be bigots'. I agree with him. People do have a right to voice their opinions and this includes the opinions of bigots who, sadly, walk among us still ... even in the more enlightened 21st century. This doesn't mean that offensive comments and behaviour isn't illegal under a host of other laws, such as defamation or incitement to violence.

While Brandis is happy to defend bigots, the conservative government he belongs to wages war on the publicly owned ABC and SBS networks because they don't always give favourable scrutiny to the government, it's policies or even of Australia's actions. Abbott even claimed the ABC took everyone else's side except Australia's when it was covering a story of allegations of abuse of asylum seekers by the Royal Australian Navy (4). Why should it take Australia's side? It's there to report news and make comment (remember, freedom of speech). There should be no 'sides' when it comes to revealing abuse, corruption and criminal behaviour.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre played into the hands of Islamophobes the world over. They predictably blamed all Muslims, blamed the Koran, blamed Islam. Some of these comments came from Christian pastors as if their own religions, creeds, politics or nations aren't guilty of encouraging racism, xenophobia and violence. Grenades were thrown at a mosque in France, a Muslim prayer hall was fired upon and a kebab shop was firebombed.(5)

The Islamophobes seem to have not realised that one of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre was a Muslim. In fact, this particular Muslim, Ahmed Merabet, was a police officer tasked with guarding the offices of Charlie Hebdo; the magazine that regularly attacked his Prophet with some of the most vile imagery and suggestion. Ahmed died protecting the free speech of a magazine that regularly ridiculed and deliberately offended his religion. (6) News of Ahmed's sacrifice was followed by many tweeting #JeSuisAhmed, in support of his selfless actions.

To argue that Islam is opposed to freedom of speech ignores the fact that in his lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad, was subject to abuse and torment. He didn't respond violently. He called his followers to show love and compassion. When was the last time a Muslim country invaded a Western one? Centuries ago. For at least the last 200 years, almost all invasions and incursions have been perpetrated by Western nations, and often into Muslim lands. But its easy for the West to pick on its victims when it fails to show empathy.

One of the problems with racist satire is that it reinforces stereotypes in the mind of the easily led and it erodes empathy for others. This lack of empathy means that most Islamophobes have no understanding of the terror that their nations have inflicted on Muslim countries and people, nor do they care.

The media doesn't help with unbalanced reporting.  Some media reported the Charlie Hebdo attack as the first terrorist attack in Europe since 2005. Apparently, they forgot about Christian terrorist, Anders Breivik going on a bombing and shooting spree that killed 77 people in Norway. Breivik wrote a manifesto in which he demanded the deportation of Muslims from Europe and annihilation of Marxists and multicultralism. His was a terrorist attack. He was a Christian. Where was the outrage from those who rise up every time a Muslim kills an innocent? When terrorists kill in the name Islam, Muslims quickly condemn them, Imams speak out against them. Where was the outrage in the church after Anders Breivik killed in the name of God and an ideology embraced by many Christians?

The day before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a bombing occurred in the United States at the office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It received very little coverage. (7) Those who were offended by the lack of coverage hit Twitter with #NAACPbombing to bring attention to it. Had Muslims been responsible it would have been international news and no doubt followed by a Twitterstorm of Islamophobic hashtags.

It seems that people have either forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the West's attacks on the media. Before Muslims were attacking Charlie Hebdo, NATO bombed Tanjung, a state-run Serbian television station, killing 10 people and injuring 18. NATO justified it by claiming it ran propaganda from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic who would later be charged with crimes against humanity. Whatever the justification, the building contained 150 civilians, a number of whom were killed in the attack. (8)

In 2001, the United States bombed the offices of Middle Eastern journalism giant, Al Jazeera in Kabul, killing one employee and injuring another. The USA claimed it was accidental, however Al Jazeera claims that US forces were well aware of its location. (9)

In 2003, the US again attacked Al Jazeera. This time in Baghdad, killing one and injuring another. (10)

In 2005, reports emerged of a leaked memo between then US President George W. Bush and then UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, which indicated Bush's intention to bomb Al Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar. (11) Blair thankfully talked Bush out of it.

The attacks on Al Jazeera were because America felt that their's was the only version of events that should be published. Al Jazeera on the other hand, felt that they shouldn't bend to western propaganda and instead published views and facts that were devoid of undue influence from the USA.

In 2008, Israel deliberately killed a Palestinian journalist in Gaza (12). In the 2012, Israel bombed the Russian TV office of Rusiya Al-Yaum in Gaza during its horrendous bombing campaign(13). In 2014 Israel waged a genocidal attack on Gaza in which more 2,000 people were killed, most of whom were civilians(14). During that war, Israel killed 17 journalists (15), yet hypocritically bemoans the Charlie Hebdo murders.

In 2014, a number of US networks sacked journalists who failed to support Israel and dared to show empathy for the Palestinians who were at that time being bombed incessantly by Israel. (16) The US and its media giants only like freedom of speech when it favours them, their policies or their allies.

Freedom of speech cuts both ways, as does condemnation. Quite rightly, the Charlie Hebdo attack was condemned across the globe. Contrary to what some have said, Muslims across the globe have also condemned the attack (17) (18).

Muslims are in the middle, attacked by extremists abusing their religion, while bearing the brunt of the world's derision.

Muslims in the Middle (16)

If we're going to claim that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on freedom of speech, then we must condemn all other attacks on freedom of speech. Including the attacks on Al Jazeera and other media by NATO, US and Israel.

The only 'side' we should take is against terrorism, against attacks on innocent people. We should not emulate Prime Minister Tony Abbott's belief that the media should side with Australia regardless of what laws or atrocities have been committed. G.K. Chesteron once stated, "My country right or wrong" is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying "my mother, drunk or sober".

Freedom of speech includes freedom to criticise or roundly condemn what is said. That is not an attack on freedom, if anything it is an exercise in freedom. Being able to speak freely, to write freely, should help each of us be more circumspect in our beliefs and in our actions if we can truly listen to what is being sad, if we can challenge ourselves and what is written to help identify the truth whether it be through satire or biting political commentary. Shakespeare wrote 'Jesters oft prove prophets' otherwise meaning 'the truth is often spoken in jest'. The world has much to learn about itself, to learn why people resort to terrorism, why people are angry, why war in the name of anything is wrong, whether it be religion, democracy, drugs or whatever else. Violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred.

Is anyone listening to the voice of the people, of the victims?

While many are willing to express their freedom of speech they aren't so willing to express their freedom to listen and to learn.

Many speak, Few listen.


1. Al Jazeera, 'Deadly end to sieges', 10 January 2015,, accessed 10 January 2015.

2. New York Times, Basil Katz, 'A scooter, a Sarkozy and Rancor collide', 5 August 2008, Accessed 10 January 2015.

3. Australian Government, Commonwealth Consolidated Acts, Racial Discrimination Act 1975 - Sect 18C, Accessed 10 January 2105.

4. ABC News, Latika Bourke, 'Prime Minister Tony Abbott says ABC not on Australia's side in interview with 2GB', 4 February 2014, Accessed 10 January 2015.

5. The Telegraph, 'Paris shootings lead to firebomb attacks on French mosques', 8 January 2015, Accessed 8 January 2015.

6. World.Mic, Sophie Kleeman, '#JeSuisAhmed Reveals the Hero of the Paris Shooting Everyone Needs to Know', 8 January 2015, Accessed 9 January 2015.

7. Daily Kos, Shaun King, 'Frustrated by lack of mainstream media coverage, #NAACPBombing hashtag goes viral', 7 January 2015, Accessed 9 January 2015.

8. The Guardian, Richard Norton-Taylor, 'Serb TV station was legitimate target, says Blair', 24 April 1999, Accessed 8 January 2015.

9. The Guardian, Matt Wells, 'Al-Jazeera accuses US of bombing its Kabul office', 17 November 2001,, Accessed 8 January 2015.

10. BBC News, 'Al-Jazeera hit by missile', 8 April 2003, Accessed 8 January 2015.

11. The Guardian, Dominic Timms, 'Al-Jazeera seeks answers over 'bombing' memo', 23 November 2005, Accessed 8 January 2015.

12. The Electronic Intifida, Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 'Israel forces in Gaza "willfully kill" journalist', 17 April 2008, Accessed 10 January 2015.

13. Sputnik International, 'Israel Airstrike Destroys Russia Today TV Channel's Gaza Office', 16 September 2012, Accessed 8 January 2015.

14. Amnesty International, 'Families Under the Rubble - Israeli attacks on inhabited homes', November 2014, Accessed 10 January 2014.

15. Counter Current News, M.B. David, 'These 17 Journalists Were Killed by Israel', 29 August 2014, Accessed 10 January 2014.

16. World Socialist Web Site, Barry Grey, 'US networks remove reporters critical of Israeli attack on Gaza', Accessed 8 January 2015.

17. On Islam, by Shari 'ah staff, 'How Muslim Scholars View Paris attack (in-depth)', 8 January 2015, Accessed 8 January 2015.

18. Huffington Post, Jaweed Kaleem, 'Why Muslims Are Talking About Islam And Blasphemy After Charlie Hebdo', 7 January 2015, Accessed 9 January 2015.

19. Khalid Albaih, (@khalidalbaih), Al Jazeera, 'Cartoonists react to Charlie Hebdo Attack', 7 January 2015, Accessed 10 January 2015.

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