By Lucy Gleysteen
Why is the freedom to disseminate ideologies that reproduce inflammatory stereotypes accepted while the freedom to express condemnation of Charlie Hebdo is silenced? Why is it so difficult for the public to grasp the notion that terror and violence spring from environments in which violence is encouraged, environments that allow for anti-Islam protests to be acceptable, environments where black and brown bodies are not valued, environments where minorities are forced to apologize for the space their differences take, and environments where the state is the only one who can say when violence is in the name of justice and when it is an act of barbarism?
Last week’s attack on the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo was a tragedy, a tragedy for all those who lost their lives but also a tragedy in the global response that used this attack as an opportunity to create a platform where racism and hatred are reproduced. The widespread reaction of solidarity and anger in the aftermath of the shooting has illustrated the frightening reality of how the public can polarize their notions of good and evil, freedom of expression and voicelessness, and what it means to be barbaric or civilized. Immediately this attack became viewed as more than just an attack on a magazine, but instead as an attack on freedom of expression and Western ideology. The public outcry about the attack is a demonstration of the West’s failure to take any form of accountability for their role in creating a space where this type of attack could happen, a space where the status quo, is the only group who is allowed the privilege of free speech. What happened was not an attack on the idea that free speech is inherently wrong; it was a product of the cultural landscape that encourages the production and dissemination of hateful and racist ideology targeted at one of the most marginalized groups in France.
The pathos embedded in the massive call to solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and the hashtag “Je suis Charlie” have polarized the reactions to this event in a way that ignores the cultural and historical roots imperative to having a reasonable dialogue about what occurred last Wednesday. It seems that if anything, the environments that are already hostile to immigrants and Muslims have become even more volatile. Anti-Islam protesters are using the attacks in Paris as a platform to incite Islamophobia and racial hatred, a platform that European leaders are not so subtly appropriating.
The sentiments fueled by last week’s attack are not particularly shocking considering the violence that immigrants in France face on a daily basis. While only making up 12% of France’s population, police in France play a major role in pushing lower-call minorities and immigrants to the bottom of the socio-political hierarchy by utilizing their power over the media to control the way that crime is understood by the French public. This issue was highlighted by Didier Fassin in his book “Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing” where he illustrates the magnitude to which immigrants are misrepresented in the media as criminals because newspapers prioritize the voices of police officers. Muslims comprise 60-70% of the prison population, a ratio reflective of the institutionalized violence that allows police to target minorities.
For many, Islam seems like the convenient scapegoat of this attack because it is much easier to believe that violence comes from somewhere else instead of from the root of society. Before rushing to solidarity in defense of free speech, it would be helpful if angry protestors chanting “Je suis Charlie” paused for a second to examine how their own cultural nationalism is invoking the same sentiment of silencing that they are so eagerly fighting against.