Right now, the media community—and much of the world—is mourning the deaths of twelve individuals at the hands of masked gunmen. The attack on the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris has sparked a number of divergent discussions about free speech, hate speech, and the “clash of civilizations.”
On Thursday, USA Today—the second-most widely-circulated newspaper in the United States—published an op-ed by Anjem Choudary, a British Islamist who supports Sharia law in the UK has often been called an extremist by his fellow countrymen. In it, Choudary chose to speak for his 1.6 billion co-religionists, stating: “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.”
The idea of Choudary speaking for all Muslims is laughable, and yet the paper seemed to buy it, presenting his as the only opposing viewpoint to their editorial in support of a free press and in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. As the Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill wrote, “Choudary too often gets a microphone as though he does represent all Muslims [and] many other Muslims are furious about it.”
When I pointed this out on Twitter, USA Today’s Forum editor repeatedly pointed to polling in Muslim countries, as if to suggest that Choudary’s view is indeed not that far from the mainstream.
The thing that shouldn’t need to be said is this: Muslims make up about 23% of the world’s population and live everywhere from the United States to Indonesia. Like Christians or Jews, their piousness varies widely, as do their belief systems and practices. Some Muslims support the liberal idea of freedom of speech, some don’t. Just like everyone else.
In France, Juan Cole writes, only a third of the Muslim population say they are interested in religion. Cole argues that the motivation of terrorists to attack Charlie Hebdo was not to silence journalists per se, but to “sharpen the contradictions” by getting “non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims.”
It seems to be working. Since the Paris attack, there have been a number of retaliatory attacks against Muslims. By presenting Choudary’s odious views as representative of the Muslim population, USA Today is feeding into the increasingly popular narrative of us vs. them. We, the civilized Westerners who merely struck out with pens; they, the savages who can’t handle mere speech.
Of course it’s not that simple. There is nothing that justifies the vicious massacre of journalists…there is also nothing to justify the West’s aggression in the Muslim world. Or to paraphrase an excellent line from a blog post I only partly agree with, it’s worth remembering that “Western Civilization’s mighty pens” aren’t the only missiles pointed at Muslims. Speech does not occur in a vacuum.
I’ve spent the better part of the past decade working in the Arab world with some of the most incredible free speech advocates I’ve ever met, many of whom are Muslim. While they hold diverse views on what constitutes “hate speech,” most of them work from the ethos of “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Friends like Alaa Abd El Fattah have spent time in prison for their speech (while getting slandered by the Western media for it). Most live in countries where censorship has historically been heavy-handed and therefore understand first hand what happens when we pick and choose what’s acceptable speech.
Choudary, on the other hand, has lived in the UK—a country that, while by no means ideal when it comes to rights, offers far more speech rights than his parents’ native Pakistan—his entire life. From his perch there, it’s easy for him to purport to speak on behalf of more than a billion Muslims whose struggles he hardly understands.
Here are five articles and writers that USA Today could have given space to instead:
- How the Prophet Muhammad Dealt with Insults by Harris Zafar
- Charlie Hebdo: This Attack Was Nothing To Do With Free Speech — It Was About War by Asghar Bukhari
- Why Muslims Are Talking About Islam And Blasphemy After Charlie Hebdo by Jaweed Kaleem
- That Radical Cleric in USA Today Is Absolutely Wrong About Islam and Blasphemy by Sarah Harvard
- The Paris attacks were not about freedom of expression by Azad Essa
Jillian is a writer, activist, researcher, and blogger. She serves as the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Jillian is also a volunteer representative on the Global Voices Board of Directors.