The January Charlie Hebdo shootings have stirred up a great deal of controversial discussion surrounding the issues of free speech, Islamophobia, radicalism and censorship. The “reasonable person” may, at a glance, quickly condemn the Islamic radicals. After all, how can one rationally defend murder, censorship and radicalism? Yet, the implications behind the attacks are much deeper. It is easy to quickly assign blame and move on, but this pleads ignorance of the root of the problem. So what should we be taking away from the reaction to these attacks?
During the second week of February, The Reckoner conducted a small-scale survey within MGCI to gauge reaction and response to the attacks.
Most students surveyed were aware of the events and details surrounding the attack. The majority of participants came to the conclusion that the attacks had a negative impact on the image of Muslims around the world, although their opinions on what this impact was differed. One participant commented that Islam is often portrayed in media as a violent and extremist religion, and these attacks only reinforced that image. Another expressed that the attacks didn’t do much at all to change individual beliefs: “The people who believe Muslims do bad things will still believe so and the people who believe it’s just extremists will also still believe the same. It’s recreated the controversy around Islam but may have not added anything that wasn’t there before.”
One student expressed their concern that the line between free speech and responsible speech is often blurred. Numerous students commented that just because free speech is a universal right, it doesn’t give people the right to slander or otherwise intentionally offend others. A student commented, “I don’t think that abusing another religion and calling it free speech is right, but, in no way should this be an excuse to use violence and pick up weapons and kill people because killing doesn’t solve a problem, it creates one.” Another expressed their prediction that Western governments would take this as an opportunity to impose new censorship laws.
The vast majority of students put the responsibility for the attacks on the radicals. However, numerous students commented that Charlie Hebdo was not without fault, as their actions were provocative and unnecessary. A few individuals argued that both sides were equally responsible, with the attacks being retaliation to slander and mockery.
Although participants were promised anonymity, many students were uncomfortable with sharing their personal opinions on a sensitive issue ripe with the possibility of public backlash. Ironically, it is this very form of self-censorship that we are attempting to stand up against. Political responses to the terrorism appear willing to treat free speech as a casualty.
Many governments around the world have pushed legislation that would impede free speech, citing the Charlie Hebdo attacks and past terrorism incidents as support for their actions. In France, an aggressive anti-terror law was immediately introduced following the Paris incident, granting authorities the power to monitor suspicious citizens through wiretapping or location tagging. Additionally, authorities are allowed to detain suspicious individuals without evidence, keep surveillance over the internet and social media, and censor websites deemed inappropriate without a court order.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently proposed Bill C-51. Similar to the anti-terror law in France, this revision of the Anti-Terrorism Act first imposed following 9/11 would give the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) the authority to suppress communications deemed a threat to public security, as well as criminalizing the expression of statements that promote and advocate terrorism. People suspected of being a threat to Canada could be detained without evidence. This induction of censorship would effectively be a direct attack on free speech. Arguably, it bridges on violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Moreover, the aim of such legislation is misguided.
While the preservation of free speech is paramount, it is important to realize that the primary goal of the radicals was never to impose censorship. Rather, their goal was to make our society more hostile to those they desire to recruit. They want people to blame the average Muslim for the actions of a few. By breeding this sort of bigotry in the West, it gives radical platforms credibility for recruitment. These effects of anti-religious and xenophobic statements is ultimately what results in controversy over the extent of how far free speech can go.
As a result, it is integral that blame is not extrapolated from the radicals to the Islamic religion. Sadly, there is already evidence of this happening. Following the attacks, a record 25,000 people participated in an anti-Islam rally in the German city of Dresden. Many have called on Muslims to apologize for the attacks, but they are not responsible and should not be held responsible for the actions of a small group of radicals. What we must remember is that freedom applies to everyone, arguably towards religious freedom and expression than towards the works of a satirical magazine whose work borders on hate speech. Pressuring a group towards a certain response operates with the same underlying intention of restricting free speech as the radicals.
The legislation that governments are pushing to “protect their people” merely propagate this effect. Instead of trying to isolate minorities and encourage the profiling of specific demographics, we should embrace greater cultural diversity and acceptance. Bill C-51 only serves to divide Canada, which stands as one of the most multicultural nations in the world. Terrorism such as the Charlie Hebdo incident or the Ottawa Parliament Hill shootings should instead serve as a launching point for the discussion of fair and equal treatment of every culture. The feeling of inclusion would have a much greater effect on combating hatred against society than ostracism of those already at risk. If we wish to preserve free speech and everything else freedom stands for, we cannot allow the foundation of equality and fair treatment that these monuments stand upon to be shaken by terror.