Charlie Hebdo memorial, Trafalgar Square, London
The attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were the harbinger of a greater battle to come — not the prophesied “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam, but the storm of conflict between a free, equal society and one governed by fear and terror. Indeed, efforts in the West to restrict free speech — both before and after the Hebdo incident — have deepened the rift between Europe and the Muslim world, more than the January attacks ever could.
In response to the killings in Paris, many of the world’s leading powers have moved to restrict online channels of communication. The European Union, for example, outlined a plan to remove “hate speech” from the Internet while simultaneously reaffirming its commitment to human rights and free speech. United States Senator Lindsey Graham argued that the Paris attacks provided grounds for the expansion of NSA spying, saying that the “national security infrastructure designed to prevent these types of attacks from occurring is under siege.” Perhaps the most flagrant reaction came from UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who said that he wants to give his government full power to view all personal communication as well as ban encryption. France, for its part, had already enacted legislation two years ago allowing law enforcement to monitor Internet activity in real time.
This is not surprising. It can be expected that governments interested in controlling communication will attempt to do so in any way possible. The NSA, for instance, has already made clear the intentions of the US government. In the age of the Internet, it is only a matter of time before the hand of the state is extended.
Without free communication, however, there is no freedom of speech, and without freedom of speech there is no freedom of thought. To allow for the expression of only certain opinions does violence to any society founded on liberty. Much to the chagrin of the easily offended, free speech means all speech, even if that speech makes one uncomfortable or enraged. Without free speech, we limit our opinions to only those approved by the group in charge. Totalitarianism does not arrive displaying the banner of its evil; rather, it does so in seemingly innocuous ways, spreading the message that “certain opinions cannot be spoken here.”
Why is it that some speech is considered freer than others? Among Muslim communities in the West, for example, why are depictions of the Prophet Muhammad considered free speech while anti-Semitic phrases on Facebook are not? Why can an eight year-old Muslim boy in France be brought in for police questioning for commenting on the Hebdo affair? Why is it that the undeniably horrible murder of seventeen journalists is so decried while nothing is said about those who have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere? While millions marched in Paris to mourn those killed in January, where were the rallies protesting the “collateral damage” caused by drone strikes, which Noam Chomsky calls “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”?
The hypocrisy of the West is twofold. By restricting the scope of free speech for Muslim communities, Western governments display a predilection for the “Christian-Caucasian” over the Muslim. As a result, thousands quietly perish in the Middle East, while deaths in Paris receive outpourings of compassion. Without an honest discussion about the presence of Islamophobia in Western society, Muslims in the West may never receive the equal respect and rights that they deserve.
Moreover, if pointing out this injustice becomes defined as hate speech — as it so easily could under new legislation — then the injustice will never end. Speech from every corner of society must be allowed to flourish. With the open sharing of ideas, outrage can be expressed without fear of persecution and, in this way, perhaps terrorism in the West can be put to an end.
James Redd is an undergraduate in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, studying Computer Science and Philosophy.