Who is it that threatens free speech? When the French government bans all Gaza solidarity demonstrations at the height of a vicious massacre in Palestine, it’s not a threat to freedom of speech: it’s a public safety measure. When the French state bans Muslim women from wearing the veil in public, it’s not a threat to freedom of speech: it’s a defence of secularism. When fanatical Zionists plant a bomb under the car of a French Jewish journalist who won’t toe the party line on Israel, it’s not a threat to freedom of speech: it’s a criminal act, certainly, but not an existential threat to the general ability for you or for me to say whatever we want. In the UK newspaper offices are raided by spies and kids are sent to prison for burning artificial poppies; this isn’t a threat to free speech either. It’s strange. The capitalist state, once the existential enemy of all freedom, a monster to be kept constantly under watch, is now the armed guarantor of liberty. Threats to free speech don’t come from the powerful any more. It’s “the Muslims”: a mass both hydra-headed and faceless, like a handful of worms. A persecuted minority, the suffering conscience of Europe. (Did you know that it’s now illegal to build minarets in Switzerland? Or that several towns in Italy have banned non-Italian restaurants? Whose freedom is under threat?) Or if it does come from a state, it’s one far away, surrounded by barbed wire and guns pointing inwards. The poor and the despised: this is who we must defend ourselves against?
How do you exercise free speech? You don’t do anything. You hoist up your Je suis Charlie placard, you queue in the cold to see a stupid and ugly Seth Rogen film, because this is your duty to the ideal of liberty and free expression. Freedom means obedience. Is this Hegel we’re reading? You must passively and dutifully admire the courage of those who dare to ruthlessly satirise any and all targets. In other words, those who have stockholders and distribution networks, while you have forty Twitter followers and the right to pen a letter to the editor. Freedom of speech belongs to the brave, the few, the moneyed.
What does free speech do? It offends, and there’s no such thing as a right to not be offended. Fine. But why is it assumed that what really offends “the Muslims” is the mere depiction of the prophet Mohammed, that if all other things were equal “they” would still fly into a murderous fury at stick-figures? France has been killing and occupying in Muslim lands since 1830. Across Europe Muslims are subjected to discriminatory laws and police surveillance; outside Europe Muslims are slaughtered by the hundreds from the air; Muslim-majority countries are plunged into chaos and bloodshed on the whims of a paternalistic Atlantic elite – and all of it is done in the name of freedom, a freedom that quickly reveals itself as the freedom to mock the victims. Such bravery. It’s just cartoons, it’s just satire: but it’s not; it’s bombs and missiles,
Is this all it is? Is freedom of speech nothing more than the freedom for a multi-million dollar studio to make a warmongering film, or the freedom to publish a racist magazine? Freedom that only punches down, that only repeats and intensifies the discourse of power and oppression that already comes from all sides (but especially from above), that is lauded by presidents and parliaments, that is threatened only by those that it oppresses – is this, in the end, really the best we can do? Is the freedom to repeat really freedom?
The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?
The line now is that you cannot criticise Charlie Hebdo, because they had the bravery to criticise anything. Je suis Charlie: you have to identify yourself with an openly racist publication. Why this identification? Protesters in the United States said that they were Mike Brown and Eric Garner because they, too, could be killed by cops, because they, too, were black. Do you also say that the French are stupid like blacks? Do you also show Boko Haram’s kidnap victims as pregnant grotesques demanding welfare money? When the Egyptian coup regime was killing thousands of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo, the cover of Charlie Hebdo showed a bearded man holding up a book against a hail of gunfire and being shot through the chest; the caption read The Qur’an is shit: it doesn’t stop bullets. If they were really ‘equal-opportunity offenders’ relentlessly satirising anyone and anything without any thought for taste or morality, their next issue will be of this type, a ruthless mockery of the victims. We never liked them anyway, or something like that. It wont happen.
As soon as you question the value of this free speech that isn’t really free, the assumption from your defenders is that you must want to impose some kind of censorship. I have no desire to censor. My title here is from Louis-Ferdinand Céline, another French racist, whose hatred was this time ranged against my self and my people; a great writer, even a great writer of antisemitic screeds, who I would never want to censor. It’s assumed that you must want to limit criticism of Islam. I have no particular love for Islam; there’s a lot about it I don’t like. I don’t like the concept of tawhid, or the figuraion of the One as a uniqueness. I don’t like the circumscribed universalism, the community always facing the horizon-figure of the kuffar. I will always support the freedom for anyone to argue against any set of concepts. But this is different from the victimisation of an already persecuted minority. I also support the right of people to fight against those that would destroy them. Free speech fanatics have pointed approvingly to the verdict in the Skokie Affair; where would they have stood in the Battle of Cable Street? I believe in satire; sometimes I even try to do it myself. But I also believe that satire only works when it punches up, that free speech is only really a freedom when it threatens power, not when it becomes the cruel laugh of imperial sadism. The Interview didn’t do this, neither did Charlie Hebdo. Nobody should be killed for this. But they mustn’t be applauded either.