On Wednesday, we witnessed 12 people people pay the ultimate price for free speech. I of all people know how valuable free speech is, this blog is a testament to that sacredness. But we need to be honest about how we honor these lives, and to what extent we criticize what Charlie Hebdo stood up to. There is a fine line between defending free speech, and perpetuating racism through ignorance.
As in any event of violence, the appropriate–and no doubt expected–response to such events should be remorse and sympathy. All of us who were affected by the Boston Bombings, the shootings of Sandy Hook Elementary, and more recently, the deaths of black men to the state stand in solidarity with the people of France.
The most important thing for these events is to remember that sometimes random acts of violence are just that: random. To place them in a larger context of systemic problems can be accurate, but sometimes we end up only fueling the problem. As so many people did last week with the shooting of two NYPD officers by someone who is clearly mentally ill, it seems the same goes for those hoping to ignite an argument against Muslim Extremism. To use these events as a means to lump an entire region together seems not just wrong, but a double standard to the success of western capitalism and its own history of religious extremism.
To defend free speech is one thing, but to use it as a means to generalize a world full of people who practice a peaceful religion is a dangerous path to take, and it seems like that is the one so many people are leaning towards. The work of Charlie Hebdo reflects trends of a worldwide view already established. Their deaths will only fuel a movement to discredit peaceful muslims all over the world that is already gaining momentum. Attacks against Islam are not just racist, islamophobic, or xenophobic, but show our willingness to be ignorant of what we don’t fully understand. To say Charlie Hebdo stood for free speech and call them heroes without giving a critique of how their drawings were not just offensive, but mocked the legacy of real heroes of free speech is lazy. It will only fuel more persecution of the peaceful, law-abiding muslims around the world.
Muslim extremism must be criticized and ridiculed. I’m a strong believer in religion–all religions–and holding those religious adherents to the standard of the words they preach, but we can’t claim that interpretations are the origins of a religion. If that were the case, we should be passing the same criticism towards Christianity and the inequality it not just perpetuated, but created. It was in the name of Jesus Christ that Europeans justified colonizing Africa. It was Christianity that helped so many white Americans justify the enslavement of Africans, and the manifest destiny behind exterminating millions of Native Americans and the western colonialism of Central and South America. It was the Christian cross that burned–with the intent to instill fear in African Americans–for much of the 20th century. Yes, Christians don’t do that today, many will argue that point, but the damage has been done and western privilege established.
So many of us in the West today use our global privilege to ignore the history we are products of, and only examine events that seem like we took no part in. What the Muslim extremists are doing is no different from what the Church did in Europe for much of the last Millenium. We may not do so today, but we built a civilization on religious extremism, and when other regions of the world attempt do the same, we call them barbarians when all they are doing is taking note on what has been done so many times before. Muslim extremism does not exist in a vacuum. Those countries we look at with suspicion are the same countries with histories of being placed at war to the Christian extremism of the crusades. When Israel bombs Palestinian children, we never say Judaism is inherently flawed, so what makes Islam any different?
We are the proponents of free speech and democracy–this much is true–but we need to also understand that we hail from people who weren’t much different from these Muslim extremists. The history of western freedom was fueled by the economics of religious extremism. Missing from so many conversations and debates is an understanding of the commonality of those people the media perpetually casts as the other. It is either intentional, or by the blindness we’ve been conditioned to think with.
At its worst, Charlie Hebdo was simply racist, and the double standard of our history guarded this as free speech. When we don’t realize this, we fail ourselves.