Charlie Hebdo & our right to think and say what we want. Four off-the-mark commentaries


Charlie Hebdo attack opens a Can of Worms, by Jason Crislip The comparison of President Obama to Hitler by Rep. Randy Weber (R) of Texas….Rupert Murdoch’s (unsurprising) comments on the responsibility of ‘all Muslims’….. and Steven Emerson’s ‘leading expert’ blooper on Birmingham being an only-Muslim town….  There’s been quite a bit of “wish I hadn’t said that” in the recent commentary on the Charlie Hebdo attack.

The quest for real insights, a healthy public debate and the spirit of ‘leaving no angle uncovered’ means we’ve seen some less-than-well-thought-out commentary. Regardless, its important to remember that freedom of expression and opinion is a human right- that particularly today – needs to be protected and promoted, but also considered alongside our responsibilities to protect the rights of minority and marginalized groups.

In the spirit of healthy debate, here are four of the most interesting commentaries in the mainstream media on the Charlie Hebdo attack that we believe are”off-the-mark”. We explain why:

1.“We need to talk about virgins in heaven” is the title of this opinion piece published in The Huffington Post, UK edition.
Can we please add name-calling to the list of things we need to talk about, Mr. Sturgis?

While his piece hits on a couple of factors that research has found to be significant in recruiting young people into ideologies that espouse the use of violence – poverty (put simplistically, a push factor) and the material and social rewards ( again, highly simplistically, pull factors)- the uncritical thinking (or is it a desire to provoke?) prevent this piece from adding  insights to the debate, but rather simply stirs the pot. Would Mr. Sturgis write in such a way about African-American and Latino youth and gang culture in America’s cities? I doubt it, because while that would sit firmly within his right of ‘freedom of expression’, it would be considered a little too close to ‘uninformed and prejudiced self expression’. Does he wonder why the ‘silly little boys’ (that’s a quote from his piece) are not enthralled with the idea of spending “10 years as pizza delivery boys?” Or what factors are at play that relegate them to such employment? The tone and content of his commentary unintentionally hammers home the point that, while freedom of speech must be protected, some acts -either individually or taken together- can actually prevent a full range of rights being enjoyed by ALL groups in society. Still, this article is worth a scan just to see how close one can come to touching on the real issues at the center of this horrific killing, and yet how off-the-mark one can be. 

2.“The murderers’ sick minds”
The usually thoughtful Ezra Klein of Vox wrote a  commentary for which he is taking a lampooning from the far right as well as from the liberal online media. The issue that I take with his piece is its deliberate avoidance- and call to others to do the same- of a more critical and thoughtful analysis of the situation,  motives of the killers and of the societal dynamics that may have contributed to the tragic killings.  He wrote:

“Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won’t be found in Charlie Hebdo’s pages. They can only be found in the murderers’ sick minds.”

Quite a heady call to justice by Klein. Except that locking them (and other terrorists) up and bombing the parts of the world from where they come or have trained may satisfy our desire and laws upholding  retributive justice, but it will it not prevent more of the same happening again. Klein goes on to say:

“They [the killings] can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do”.

Klein seems to have forgotten that state-sanctioned and extra-judicial killings (by state and non-state actors alike) in the name of values and for an ideology is a widespread reality.  However, it is a reality that we rarely interrogate when its our own values and our own country and people doing the killings-  for example military operations to help spread democracy and fundamental freedoms, and the death-penalty in response to morally-determined ‘heinous’ crimes spring to mind.

3. “Al Jazeera staff divided over Charlie Hebdo”, as first reported by the National Review  and then by Buzzfeed, The Christian Post, the Washington Post, The Guardian (UK) and others.

Why exactly is this news-worthy? What point is it that these articles  are trying to make? Of course the staff of Al Jazeera are divided; Countries are, families are, individuals are. Being a journalist may well predispose one (although not necessarily) to a particularly strong reaction to assaults on the right to freedom of expression,  but as we’ve seen from NPR, the BBC, the Washington Post, FT and other media outlets’ policies on reproduction of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, even the industry is not on the same page about republishing material that may be particularly offensive and provocative.

Nor should we be expect them to be undivided. People are allowed to hold opinions that diverge from those of their neighbors and from the stereotyped identity-labels thrust upon them, even on the most fundamental issues. Why is it so surprising that the Al Jazeera broadcast network is divided in its opinions? Is this a generalization about the staff working for the Qatari-backed channel? Or more propaganda levied at the already beleaguered non-mainstream network? Also, does ‘divided’ really capture the complex mix of emotions and positions  that exists for each of us concerning the Charlie Hebdo attack? –  a complexity that prevents many people from feeling like they can take a black and white position, other than condemnation of the killings.

4. “Why Making French Muslims more French is such a challenge” broadcast on Public Radio International

Ok. This was not actually not such a terrible broadcast  But the title was so jarring I wanted to include it, and also because it captures the content of several other commentaries that talk of “why Muslims are so hard to assimilate into mainstream society” or ” the problem with self-isolating Muslims in Britain”. The article itself actually points out the problem with thinking about the concept of ‘French’ (or any other) national identity from an externally (and often oppositionally) defined, fixed set of characteristics, and the way in which  and state laws and policies – such as the the banning of wearing religious symbols- may harm citizens as self-identifying as ‘French’. There is a very large body of literature out there that has dissected and critiqued our nation-building approaches for marginalizing and polarizing non-mainstream identities, but clearly, many writers have no knowledge of it.

As a counter view on the limits to freedom of speech; here is one of the best commentaries I’ve read. Its clear, uses lots of relevant examples and is compellingly written.















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