Islam and free speech: What’s so funny?

Western media keep using Charlie Hebdo attack to fan propaganda about the ‘Islamification’ of Europe.

The media seems reluctant to investigate the causes of radicalism that lead to such attacks, writes Nashashibi [AFP]

Media coverage of the Paris shootings is typical of previous incidents involving Islam and free speech in the West. Much of it has veered between the misleading, sensationalist and absurd – such as a “terrorism expert” on Fox News branding Birmingham a “Muslim-only city”.

Journalists have jumped on the “Je Suis Charlie” bandwagon. Many would never condone Charlie Hebdo’s content, so why self-identify with the magazine? One can condemn the murder of its staff without embracing what it stands for.

The media seems reluctant to investigate the causes of radicalism that lead to such attacks, as if doing so implies justification. Thus, there is little discussion about Muslim alienation in France and elsewhere in Europe.

The result is a simplistic discourse of Islam versus free speech. The latter is naively portrayed as absolute and non-negotiable, emboldening racist elements of society when European far-right sentiment is increasing.

Islam v free speech

In fact, there are limits to any right. In France, freedom of expression “is limited by strict defamation and privacy laws”, and “some of the toughest hate speech laws in the EU”, according to Index on Censorship.

Muslims are disproportionately surveilled. Wearing religious signs or clothing in schools is forbidden, as is the face veil in public places, and Islamic prayers in the streets.

In France – and other European states – it is a crime to deny the Holocaust, but not other genocides. Muslims are disproportionately surveilled. Wearing religious signs or clothing in schools is forbidden, as is the face veil in public places, and Islamic prayers in the streets.

The media has largely glossed over such limitations in France and other countries that claim unrestricted free expression.

Also largely absent, though crucial, is acknowledgement of the double standards in applying free speech.

Charlie Hebdo fired one of its employees over anti-Semitic content. Similarly, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten said soon after publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in 2005 that it would not publish cartoons offending Christians and Jews.

In my 10 years as head of a British media watchdog, it has become clear that Muslims are often described in derogatory ways that are unacceptable regarding other communities.

The effect that the right to offend has on minorities compared with wider society is not addressed. A minority facing discrimination and disenfranchisement will feel existentially threatened, and be potentially radicalised, when the majority exercises its right to offend. The status of society at large is not at risk when the situation is reversed.

This right is portrayed as a cornerstone of western values, while tolerance and respect – values that have attracted many immigrants, and are crucial in multicultural societies – are touted as appeasement.

To uphold the right to gratuitously offend, without any sense of responsibility that should accompany freedom of expression, is childish, even dangerous. What point is proven by doing so? A foundation of journalism is awareness that with power comes responsibility, but many journalists in democracies forget how influential their profession is on public opinion and politicians.

Taking responsibility

Consider the effect on Muslims of international media mogul Rupert Murdoch saying they “must be held responsible … until they recognise and destroy their growing jihadist cancer”.

This view is regurgitated by his numerous news outlets and by countless industry colleagues, many of whom have used the Charlie Hebdo attack to fan propaganda about the “Islamification” of Europe and the inherent violence and backwardness of Islam.

Listening Post – Lead: Charlie Hebdo and the media

They demand that Muslims apologise for and condemn acts that they have neither committed nor condoned. “I want real Muslims to … make it crystal clear that these terrorists don’t act in their name,” wrote Piers Morgan in an article titled “If I can accept that the Paris murderers aren’t real Muslims why won’t the MUSLIM world say so too?”

Abundant condemnation from Muslims suggests that Morgan and others are either ignorant or refuse to listen.

Similarly puzzling is the context in which Islam is mentioned in relation to the Paris shootings. The attackers’ religion is integral to their descriptions.

The same cannot be said of murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet or Lassana Bathily, who saved shoppers in a kosher supermarket. Is someone’s Muslim faith only relevant in a negative context?

As in the past, there is more discussion of Muslims than with them. An example is the BBC’s flagship political debate programme, Question Time, which fielded a panel of five talking about the Paris attacks without a single Muslim.

Amid round-the-clock coverage of the shootings, reprisal attacks against Muslims have been remarkably under-reported, as have other deadly attacks against civilians and suppression of free speech worldwide. Violent incidents in Nigeria and Yemen in the last week led to far more civilian deaths than in Paris (up to 2,000 in Nigeria), but they were not deemed as newsworthy.

The solidarity rally in Paris was attended by a who’s who of enemies of free speech and independent journalism. Those hoping the mainstream media would highlight this hypocrisy were disappointed.

The irony was not lost on Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop, who said: “We vomit on all those people who are suddenly saying they are our friends… I’ve got to laugh about that.”

Yet, recurrent problematic coverage is no laughing matter.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.