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If free speech were really free

Why is the rise in this love for free speech only linked to the right to offend minorities in Europe? Can the offended minorities also have the right to speak back?

If free speech were really free

The recent display of solidarity with free speech, after the massacre at the office of Charlie Hebdo, looks like a coordinated exercise in hypocrisy and doublespeak. The sudden rise in a nation-state’s love for all types of freedom of expression appears to be a charade, a simulacrum, or legerdemain.

Of course, all violent deaths are to be condemned. Of course, human beings should be allowed to speak what they want to speak. But then why is the rise in this love for free speech only linked to the right to offend minorities in Europe whether they be Jews, Muslims, or non-heteronormative people? Can the offended minorities also have the right to speak back? It is almost unthinkable.

If free speech were really free, there will be no scandal surrounding the actions of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Glenn Greenwald. All they have done is publish some newspaper stories. If free speech was not a selective principle, why does Germany punish anyone who criticises the Jewish monopolisation of holocaust suffering? The Jewish people were not the only victims of Hitler. The death-distributing machinery of fascism also killed countless gypsies, immigrants, refugees, and dissident artists. But it is a crime to debate the issue in Germany. This kind of speech is immediately labelled as anti-Semitism and becomes an offence as if the Jewish people were the only Semitic people. All the Arabs are also Semitic people but offending them is not considered anti-Semitism.

If free speech were really free, there would have been no ban on revealing what went down in the chambers of horrors at Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. If free speech were really that sacred a value to the West, why does one Facebook status of Dieudonné, a French comedian, get him booked for a crime called “apology for terrorism”. All he did was to write “As for me, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly” on his Facebook wall. With this remark, he identified himself with the victimised newspaper (Charlie Hebdo) and the attacker of a Jewish grocery store (Amedy Coulibaly) at once.

But his speech is not really free. All this shows the speech is not really free anywhere. The existence of banned books is a proof of this statement. If free speech were really free in the West, there would have been no banned books in the West.

The media hype surrounding the tragic deaths of Charlie Hebdo is not about free speech at all. It is about selectively making some causes of death more newsworthy and others less so. Terrorism is more newsworthy even though it is nowhere near the top ten causes of death in the world. The world sees 1.2 million deaths in car accidents per year but there is no media coverage of this cause of human misery. Automobiles are products and are intimately linked with modern world economy; therefore, they are not the source of any concern for the global media.

Terrorism is more newsworthy even though it is nowhere near the top ten causes of death in the world.

And would you, dear reader, believe, how many people died because of terrorism last year recently? In 2013, there were approximately 10,000 attacks which resulted in 18000 deaths (Source: Global Terrorism Index). The preventable and lifestyle and economy-related deaths are more numerous and more easily preventable but it is difficult to imagine 40 heads of state gathering to show concern for the sheer number of road deaths.

It appears that the powerful rulers of the world have manufactured a selective way of imagining freedom of speech and linking it with neoliberal economic values. The global media is not free to investigate corporate crime but it is free to malign the minorities living in the West.

Let us suppose for a minute all Muslims of the world stop feeling offended about what Charlie Hebdo is doing with its freedom of expression. Will the ruling elite start doing something about the top 10 causes of human deaths in the world? The answer is no.

Islam was never a problem for the global elite of the so-called free world. Islam was an ally for as long as there was a Soviet threat. At that time, even purdah and other limits on freedom were promoted so that Muslim societies are not influenced by communistic ideas. Some people still remember the chador and chardeevari programme of Zia ul Haq. It is only after the demise of the Soviet Union that Islam was constructed as an enemy of Western liberalism.

It seems all ruling elites need a fictional enemy so that the real problems of the people can be ignored. A simple example will illustrate this point. Brazil is a non-Muslim and purdah-free democratic country with a Catholic population that enjoys complete freedom of expression. Why does it have favelas, slums, and shantytowns? The ruling elite of the developed world can easily go there and enjoy their Westernised lifestyle on Copacabana beach in Rio and solve the problem of poverty without any threat from any Muslim there.

But it is not happening. The reason is simple: they are not interested in solving the problems. They are only interested in maintaining the hierarchies that benefit them. Invoking the threat of terrorism and the bogeyman of Islam are very helpful in making the ruled populations docile. They even are thankful for just being alive.

TOP 10 leading causes of deaths in the world

10      Prematurity Global deaths: 1.2 million

9         Road injury Global deaths: 1.3 million

8         Diabetes mellitus Global deaths: 1.4 million

7         Respiratory cancers Global deaths: 1.5 million

6         HIV/AIDS Global deaths: 1.6 million

5         Diarrhoeal diseases Global deaths: 1.9 million

4         Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Global deaths: 3 million

3         Lower respiratory infection Global deaths: 3.2 million

2         Stroke Global deaths: 6.2 million

1         Ischaemic heart disease Global deaths: 7 million

Saeed Ur Rehman

Saeed ur Rehman
The author believes all human collectives are oppressive in some ways and uses writing to create tiny fissures of freedom whenever and wherever possible.

4 comments

  • I agree that objections to freedom of expression are selective . But why blame west. It is equally selective in other countries including India and Pakistan. In Pakistan you have blasphemy law. In India many books have been banned. Recently we have controversy regarding film certification of pk and messenger of God. But I am surprised at comparing murder with death as a result of diseases or accident.

    • The West is responsible for everything because it does not act as civilised world. It keeps determining the legtimacy of the things time to time.

    • On comparison of murder with death, how about the more than one million murders in Iraq brought about as a result of war built on false premises, now known to the entire world. Were the perpetrators put to any accountability. I only see Bush and Blair awarded accolades, invited for ribbon cutting, deemed to be the biggest protectors of human rights and freedom. There is no shortage of such accounts committed by the powerful of the world and yet hailed and all.

  • “If free speech was not a selective principle, why does Germany punish anyone who criticises the Jewish monopolisation of holocaust suffering?”

    excellent point.
    Seems like the holocaust is off limits & any criticism of Israel is ipso facto anti-Semitism whereas all Arabs are also Semitic people but offending them is not considered anti-Semitism…

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