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Caribbean Perspectives on the Charlie Hebdo Free Speech vs. Intolerance Debate

The "Je Suis Charlie" slogan, uploaded by flickr user Clément Belleudy; used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The “Je Suis Charlie” slogan, uploaded by Flickr user Clément Belleudy; used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

The murder of 12 people, including police officers and journalists, earlier this month at the Paris offices of the irreverent satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is still resonating across the world. Two Caribbean bloggers, one from Jamaica and the other based in Bermuda, have shared their perspectives on the tragedy and religious extremism in general.

Carolyn Joy Cooper, who blogs at Jamaica Woman Tongue, was actually in Paris at the time of the attack, ruminating on European attitudes towards other cultures — something that seemed to take on new significance after she heard about the Charlie Hebdo killings on the news later that day:

For most of the day, I was playing tourist at the Louvre museum. I visited the Egyptian Antiquities galleries. […]

At the Louvre, Europe is clearly the centre of the world. This is understandable. What is less acceptable is the way the rest of the world is represented. In the Egyptian collection, I was struck by the following text which I’ve translated: ‘The Egyptian slept on a low bed, even on the floor, the head resting on a wooden support, as is still done in some countries of Africa.’

The peculiar phrase, ‘in some countries of Africa’, seems to imply that Egypt is not in Africa. If it were, ‘other’ would have been used instead of ‘some’.

The peculiarity of phrase was reinforced in her mind after a BBC report curiously referred to the “flawless French” of the perpetrators, Cherif and Said Kouachi, who were of Alergian descent. Cooper noted:

In other words, they didn’t sound like foreigners. Language continues to be seen as a marker of identity. But it is sometimes quite unreliable. Despite the flawless French of the Kouachi brothers, they were unquestionably alienated from mainstream French culture. Though born in France, they had a fatal flaw. Their home culture was not French. Their religion was not Catholicism; it was Islam. And they were radical Islamists at that.

Making the connection between their differences and mainstream French culture, she had an interesting take on the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan that became symbolic of the tragedy:

In this formula, the collective ‘I’ is the French nation united against an unstated, but clearly implied, ‘you': those outsiders who do not share the normative values of French culture.

Furthermore, to assert that ‘I am Charlie’ is to claim freedom of expression, particularly the cutting art of satire, as an essential constituent of French national identity. The capacity to laugh at one’s own weaknesses and that of others is at the heart of satire. Nothing – no one and no god – is sacred. In effect, failure to pass the satire test means failure to become French.

In Bermuda, Breezeblog was struck not only by the Charlie Hebdo killings, but also “by news of the horrifying massacres by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the public flogging of activist Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia“, saying:

My emotions have run the gamut from shock and outrage to fear and defiance. It has made me question what that freedom really means to me and what my values and beliefs are. As a former journalist, I have had conflicted feelings about freedom of speech and the role of the media. Like many others I was quick to change my Facebook profile to ‘Je Suis Charlie’ in solidarity. However after the last few days of debating, reading and watching the deluge of coverage, I’m inclined to change it to a more nuanced ‘avec Charlie’.

The author of “Infidel“, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who Breezeblog cites in his post, is of the opinion that freedom of speech does not have limits, noting that “in the press, in the universities, in the schools, we have to make sure that Muslim immigrants who come to the West understand that our rules protect satirists from jihadists, and not the other way round.” Carolyn Joy Cooper addressed this point in her own post, saying:

Devout Muslims who insist that Allah must not be mocked alienate themselves from their adopted homeland. They fight their god’s battles and they take no prisoners. One of the most insightful condemnations of the murders came from a representative of the Muslim community in London who was interviewed by the BBC. I’m so sorry I didn’t catch his name. He asserted that it is antiquated ideologies that need to be murdered, not journalists.

But Breezeblog called out a double standard, saying:

Poking fun at Muslims is considered freedom of speech. Satire of Israel is anti-Semitic.

He cited figures which suggested that “around 40 percent of Muslims in European countries want to live under sharia law […] The figure is reportedly higher among 16-24 year olds, many of whom want Western countries to become Islamic states.” But then, in referring to the oft-quoted ideal to defend freedom of speech — “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — he makes the point that “we can no longer afford to tolerate intolerance”.

Cooper agreed, suggesting that the Charlie Hebdo narrative could be “seen more positively as an opportunity to rethink what we consider to be natural and normative”:

Can France begin to conceive the nation as fundamentally multicultural, making space for marginalised communities?

Our work building bridges across cultures, languages and perspectives is more urgent than ever before.

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