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Are we really all Charlie?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-01-18 12:47:59
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In the wake of the recent Paris terrorist events there is presently in place a counter-terrorist operation in the EU, but there is also a debate going on as we speak on how much security should trump the taken-for-granted freedoms guaranteed by a democratic system.  EU politicians, especially those on the far-right, have all become champions of a perfectly democratic and free society and have adopted the slogan “Je suis Charlie.” Supposedly, in the West we are all Charlie now in solidarity against terrorists with extremist ideas out to destroy democracy as we know it. But are we really? Let’s see.

In the first place one notices that not many of the defenders of Charlie Hebdo can be considered long-time fans of the satirist magazine. In fact, many islamophobic far right people are now declaring their sympathy for a magazine that until recently they would have criticized as a communist rag, given that the magazine has in the past satirized the likes of Le Pen and Wilders who, surprise of surprises, have now declared themselves heroic defenders of free speech, when in the past they have advocated the banning of the Quran (which, in their opinion, incites their devotees to violence), never mind that 99.9 percent of Muslims are not violent.

In the second place, we are not all Charlie because most of us believe that a democratic debate should always be conducted in a civil atmosphere and should not provoke and upset people. The same point can be made without blaspheming and attacking people and institutions that are considered sacred by billions of people. This is not to deny that civility can be a rather slippery concept and may mean different things to different people. Unfortunately civility is often selectively and opportunistically defined by the interests of the current political establishment. Only certain groups get protected from uncivil discourse, while others are not. So those groups that are part of the establishment get shielded from uncivil discourse irrespective of the accuracy of what they are criticizing. In the long run this hurts the satirist too who will have no opportunity to reflect and improve the treatment of a subject toward which he/she may have a bias or a prejudice. That is why prudence ought to be considered, perhaps even refraining from what may be legal and permissible under free speech, but also slanderous in as much as it does not tell the whole truth about what is being satirized painting a picture with too wide of a brush. Which is to say, free speech too has its limitations.

In the third place, many are not Charlie, because they are not very brave and refrain from criticizing anything or anyone, especially if they are powerful or if warned by threats to their safety. They self-censor even when they happen to be professional comedians and satirists. Within a democratic system, the threat of violence is of course always reprehensible, but it does not mean that we should not learn from the anger and frustrations of an immigrant population which feels treated as second class citizens or even persona non grata within the host population. It is too easy and even banal to get off the hook by declaring that they simply cannot deal with our freedom of speech and the fact that in a democracy anything and anybody can be criticized. That is disingenuous at best. All one has to do is replace Muslim with Jew or Black and then ask the same politicians whether or not the criticism is still acceptable to them.

So, if democracies in the EU expect Muslims to abide by freedom of speech, then it should be totally free or protect everyone equally, and they should be accepted as equal citizens, especially if they were born and raised in Europe and therefore they are us, and it is their country too. So, before we begin considering the narrowing of freedom of speech and in the name of safety and security by limiting it to “civil polite speech” we may wish to consider living up to it and embrace it for everybody, including the anti-Semites and the Islamophobes  among us. We should be ready to critize and satirize all, from Christians and Muslims, and Jews to atheists, from far right to far left. Which logically means that we should be ready not to only to criticize and satirize extremists, the islamo-fascists, but also defend those who take them on before it is too late; for in a resurgent fascist Europe there will be precious few civil rights and freedom left. If there is any doubt about that just review the history of 70 short years ago.


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