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Free speech – fostering understanding between the religious and the “Charlies”

je suis charlie AFP
Image - AFP

By Howard Lee

I started writing this piece not knowing if I would ever complete it.

Part of it had to do with ignorance, and I’m sure I am not alone. When news broke that a couple of gunmen have shot to death a number of writers and cartoonists from French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in the name of Islam, I had no idea who “Charlie” was. When I did eventually read some of its published works, I discovered that I understood very few of the pieces – it takes an appreciation beyond language, it would seem, to be able to receive communication.

But mostly, it had to do with the deluge of information that poured in. Immediately, there was outright condemnation of the Muslim gunmen, with the Imams of Paris leading the charge. There was even mention of a Muslim policeman, Ahmed Merabet, who unwittingly inspired a parallel social media movement, when he was shot dead by the same gunmen while trying to uphold the peace.

However, soon to follow was condemnation for the Charlie Hebdo editorial team, who were chastised for their irreverent depiction of not just Islam, but any major religion you can think of. These caricatures were sometimes lewd, even downright insulting to the faiths they chose to parody. Even though they published that “all is forgiven”, there was so much suspicion that Muslims chose not to see it as an olive branch, but as another inflammatory piece.

There are even more strident claims, which basically say that Muslims have been marginalised in France, such that Charlie Hebdo was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some were quick to point out how oppression by “the West” on Islam (or to be more accurate, Islamic fundamentalist groups) was merely the fuel that needed a spark to trigger a militant response.

Central to all this, which is what I wish to discuss here, is the concept of free speech. Many, no less those in Singapore, have argued that Charlie Hebdo had taken advantage of their right to free speech, and have ventured into territory where free speech has become irresponsible speech. Some even went close to suggesting that they should have expected the backlash from the Muslim community.

Image - screen capture from The Telegraph
Image - screen capture from The Telegraph

At this point, I make my stand: No matter how offended you might feel about what someone else is saying, it does not grant you the right to murder. And any way you look at it, the brutal slaughter of Charlie Hebdo staff is plain murder. There is no justification for taking another’s life, simply because you find his/her words offensive.

That said, there might be a lot of misunderstanding of those who used with the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. The literal meaning of “I am Charlie” had been taken out of context – critics might argue that those who supported Charlie Hebdo see themselves as “one of them”.

Yet using that tagline can mean anything from a show of solidarity against needless murder, to the support of open discussion about religion in media. To each his own, and it would be too sweeping to generalise “Je suis Charlies” as condoning the cartoons and racial discrimination.

More importantly, what does this episode tell us about freedom of expression and how it works in our society?

Any understanding of what “Je suis Charlie” means to the French needs to be placed in their context, as much as how it manifests in ours. It is perhaps right to believe that the French have embraced the right to free speech, while we have always made reference to our limits to free speech. Our Sedition Act, Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, Internal Security Act and defamation laws have, wittingly or not, placed both real and perceived barriers to citizens seeking to voice out openly about what matters to them.

Because of our cultural context, which values “responsible speech” over “free speech”, we tend to side with those who are moderate in speaking. While we are necessarily conditioned to do so, let us not lose sight of the fact that it the same need not be apparent to Charlie Hebdo.

The question to ask, then, would be this: Is free speech for Singapore? The answer might lie in a closer examination of what happened in France.

Put it back the other way around, by looking at the views of the men who gunned down Charlie Hebdo staff, why did they perceive a need to do so? Perhaps they were seeking attention and wanted to make a statement. Perhaps they have been conditioned to adopt violence as the first solution, which is clearly not the Islamic way.

Did they try petitioning or a public protest, maybe picket the Charlie Hebdo office? Did they feel too marginalised to even think that they could have asserted themselves openly, without also being seen as “extremists”, “fundamentalists”, “terrorists” or any other term that can be used to limit their right to expression? The answer lies within each Parisian.

In truth, the case of Charlie Hebdo might not really be about free speech versus religious sensitivity. Rather, it is likely about the degree to which individuals and groups in a society feel they have access to free speech. And in that regard, we might have a lot more in common with France than we think.

je suis charlie gun pen
One of the images circulating online, used to show support for Charlie Hebdo.

The only place where we can speak freely is at Hong Lim Park. Holding strikes “without permission” is an offence. Gather more than four in a crowd and we can be arrested for rioting. Some of our most reasonable bloggers and critical academics have been publicly demonised, even sued. Public discussion on race and religious issues is illegal, to the point of being taboo.

If we reside in the limits of free speech, we will be missing out on an important aspect of what complete free speech gives us: The right for all of us to openly debate and discuss ideas, beliefs and yes, even prejudices. If we do not take this unequivocal right and extend it to one another, religious and non-religious alike, we would be guilty of the same limitations that some have accused the French government of placing on the Muslim community.

Free speech is not about expression. It is about understanding. Satire might not breed understanding, but a gun definitely won’t. Only when do not feel a need to be militant about defending our beliefs, when we see a way for us to have a heated but reasoned discussion, can we truly mend the divides in society.

Until then, the blame game gets us nowhere.