Free speech or freedom to abuse?

Free speech or freedom to abuse?

Being a member of the tribe that earns its living by the pen, I cherish free speech. A journalist and writer is nothing without his freedom—the freedom to speak his mind, freedom to take a stand and speak truth to power. As someone who has paid a price for exercising this freedom, one knows how essential and invaluable free speech is for a free press.
There is a difference between free speech and freedom to abuse though. Liberty is always underpinned by responsibility. Indeed, liberty means responsibility, as Bernard Shaw would put it.
Free speech is a powerful weapon. And those handling it must know how and when to use it—with responsibility and to make a difference to society. You cannot just run amok with it like some of those angry kids in US schools, gunning down everyone. Imagine the consequences if some of those countries with nukes and other fearsome weapons at their disposal decided to exercise their ‘freedom’ to hit their favorite targets.
Most European nations until recently had strict anti-libel laws. Publications would be shut and journalists and writers could be put away for a long time if they crossed redlines. Any attack on Christianity and its icons or powers that be could invite swift and serious punitive response from the state.
Spanish painter Francisco Goya was punished by Fernando VII for the cartoons that he sketched. In France itself, Honore Daumier’s caricatures of King Louise-Philippe and the French legislature landed him in prison. Even now free speech is not entirely free in the glorious, liberated state of European Union. There are certain redlines that you cannot cross.
Free speech cannot be a license to hurt and purvey hatred. As the adage goes, your freedom ends where my nose begins. And if you are hell-bent on waving your big stick in everyone’s face, perpetually provoking them, as ‘Charlie Hebdo’ did, should you be terribly surprised if you eventually find yourself at the receiving end?
The Paris weekly provoked Muslims by abusing and insulting someone who is loved and revered by more than a billion people. This reverence is not limited to the Last Prophet; respect for all messengers of God and scriptures that came before him are part of the Islamic faith. Muslims would be equally hurt if Jesus, Moses, Joseph and other figures from the Abrahamic faiths were similarly humiliated.
Unfortunately though, “free speech” in the West has come to mean and been reduced to singling out one faith for ridicule and abuse. And this isn’t a new trend. There’s a long history and European tradition, from Islamic Spain to 19th and 20th century Orientalists, of viciously targeting Islam and the Prophet. This is why this debate is not about free speech or freedom but the old-fashioned Islamophobia and racism in the West. As the Marxist commentator Richard Seymour suggests, Charlie Hebdo may be mocking the extremists but that mocking itself reveals a certain racist undertone. The passionate defense of free speech and solidarity with ‘Charlie Hebdo’ by European leaders and media in the wake of Paris attacks is touching. But could ‘Charlie Hebdo’ have gotten away with the same sickening abuse against the Jews and Israel? It would have been hit so hard by the powerful Jewish lobby and European governments themselves that it wouldn’t know where to hide.
Even fair and objective criticism of Israel and the Zionists and their crimes can land you in trouble in Europe. Anti-Semitism is a serious crime in the land of Magna Carta. Islam is always fair game though.
European and world leaders descended in their droves on Paris for the million men march in solidarity with the 17 victims of shootings. It’s good that many Arab and Muslim leaders were there in their prominence.
But why haven’t we seen such solidarity marches by world leaders for the victims of terror far worse than this? What about the Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian, Yemeni and Pakistani victims? Who marches for them?
Israel’s Netanyahu, who led the Paris march from the front, only months ago killed more than 2,200 Palestinians. Did he deserve to be there? If this isn’t hypocrisy and duplicity of the first order, what is?
By God, this is no defense of the misguided men who targeted ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and its journalists. Their shortsighted attack on the Paris weekly ostensibly to avenge the abuse and scorn repeatedly heaped on the Prophet has done more harm to Islam and Muslims than those targeting the Last Messenger might have accomplished over the years.
They have managed to put Islam itself in the dock, not to mention the fierce backlash this attack could provoke in Europe and the rest of the West against Muslims. Already, there have been widespread attacks against mosques and Arabs and Muslim targets in France and elsewhere in Europe.
And there are signs that Europe, already witness to increasing Islamophobia and nervousness about the so-called Islamization of the continent, could react the way the United States did after 9/11 strikes.
This is why many voices in alternative media like Paul Craig Roberts and Stephen Lendman have suggested the possibility of the Paris attack being staged by intelligence agencies.
According to UK’s Guardian, the brothers had been flagged in a US database as “terrorist suspects” and barred from flying into the US after they were identified as being part of a terror cell established in 2003.
Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury under the Reagan Administration, told Anadolu Agency that the events in Paris appeared to have been a “false flag” operation carried out with the involvement of Western intelligence agencies, in order to bring France “back into Washington’s orbit” and to “realign Europe with Israel.”
Whether or not it is a false flag operation, the shootings are clearly being used for a wider purpose or purposes, to create hatred against Muslims and support the ‘war on terror.’” Whatever the reality, this crisis calls for a responsible response from both Muslims and the West. Muslims societies must find more nuanced and effective ways of countering both extremism of the kind seen in the Paris attacks and Islamophobia that provokes such responses.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East based writer.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view