Charlie Hebdo: Mockery is a weapon to be aimed at the powerful, not at the marginalised and disenfranchised

'Free speech’ is a privilege accessible to those who can afford it

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The Independent Online

I was giving a lecture shortly after 7/7 when a participant arrived late. He had been jumped on by a gang of “skin heads” who shouted Islamophobic obscenities while beating the crap out of him, ending with “Go home Paki”? He was a cockney atheist but, to be fair, he was flaunting a deep tan at the time, which, under the circumstances (media whipping up hatred of any one “foreign looking”), was foolhardy.

The Paris killings were barbarous and my heart goes out to the victims’ loved ones. There is no justification for murder. There is however a duty to properly debate critical societal events. The attribution of heroic status to the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo ignores the role it may have played in normalising xenophobia in France. It has ironically served to close down debate and fails to acknowledge the fact that freedom of speech comes at a cost.

As someone who believes that the pen is mightier that the sword and who engages the potent properties of satire, I also accept the (ethical) rules of its engagement. Mockery as a tool to hold a mirror up to the powerful, is legitimate and strengthens democracy. Wielded against the marginalized and disenfranchised minority however, it’s cruel, divisive and its proponents threaten the democratic principles they claim to uphold.

I do not accept the narrative that the Paris massacres were an attack on free speech. On the contrary, the brutal, tragic, murders were, in my view, indicative of a society wherein “free” speech is seen as a privilege afforded only to those who can afford to buy it. There are 5m Muslims in France, more than in any other European country (except Turkey), yet they are conspicuously absent from the legislature and the media.


In contrast, 60 per cent of prisoners in the country are Muslim and hail from poverty stricken suburbs, where youth unemployment is around 40 per cent (the Paris killers, brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, were orphaned early and having occupied menial jobs, got involved in petty crime ending up in prison where many Muslims become radicalised). Add to the mix the rise of the far right in France and the daily attacks on immigrants, Muslims and blacks, all of which is disseminated by the media and fuels inter community hatred. France’s mantra of Equality, Liberty and Brotherhood has been exposed, like free speech, as a lie.

When I criticized Charlie Hebdo’s original cartoons depicting Islam as being synonymous with terrorism it summoned the charge of “political correctness”, as though it is shameful to avoid “forms of expression that are perceived to exclude, marginalize or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against”, which is the largely forgotten meaning of the term (source: OED). It is disingenuous for those in the media to defend their “entitlement” to free speech for the mere sake of it and to rail against a concept that might render their gratuitous attacks on the powerless and voiceless, as socially unacceptable.

The Paris killers, like those who brutally murdered Lee Rigby in the UK, were deranged, sick individuals. They are no more representative of Islam than I am of Catholicism.

As well as the unequal distribution of “free speech” and economic resources, there’s another player in the dock. Foreign policy that sanctions torture abroad will always come back to bite. There’s no greater recruiting sergeant for terrorism than torturing innocent civilians. We know from history that if we oppress and deny people their right to self-determination, abuse them and deprive them of recourse to justice, they will fight back. Whilst the killings in Paris were indefensible and abhorrent, spare a thought too for all the thousands of innocent Muslims in Iraq, Palestine, Darfur and Afghanistan, for example, who have seen loved ones slain but will never receive justice.

A generation of young Muslims throughout Europe are faced with the prospect of long term unemployment, alienation and anger. Inequality and injustice on this scale is a recipe for social unrest. Terrorists are filling a position made vacant in the minds of some of our most disaffected young people by a world that will bail out miscreants in suits but starve our youth of investment, care and any hope for the future. If you have nothing, there’s nothing left to lose.