Former Time magazine editor-in-chief Henry Anatol Grünwald once said: “Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”
Whenever I see this quote I think of the powerful words of Robert Fisk, which still make me weep today, in his article written as he entered the Palestinian Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. It was published on 17 September 1982 and triggered in me a desire as a young journalist to give voice to the voiceless. Journalism done well is certainly something that is taken for granted whereas those who set out to shock and distort the truth with their own twists and spin get far more attention; it’s a bit like the squeaky wheel on an old pram.
This brings me to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the massacre of its staff and contributors, about which the West is still reeling in disbelief and outrage. Let me say unequivocally that the killings were unacceptable and I, like millions of other Muslims across the world, refuse to accept that they were done in the name of our great faith or to avenge Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
How would people react, though, if I attempted to satirise the deaths of the Paris 12 with a cartoon? I ask because back in July 2013, when nearly 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo were massacred as they held a peaceful sit-in demanding the reinstatement of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo set about mocking the dead with a particularly savage front page.
“The Qur’an is sh*t, it doesn’t stop bullets,” mocked the caption. Somehow I don’t think anyone in France, or anywhere else for that matter, would find it funny if a similar cartoon was drawn poking fun at those slain in the editorial offices at the newspaper’s HQ in Rue Nicolas Appert a few days ago.
However, as distasteful, hurtful and questionable the editorial judgment of Charlie Hebdo is, I would defend its right to free speech. That, though, comes with a degree of responsibility, something that the more pompous, intellectual elite in the West forget.
The outpourings of grief and anger so far have been fairly predictable as politicians and these so-called intellectuals have scrambled over each other like frogs in a bucket to condemn the murderous assault as an act of terrorism intended to damage freedom of speech. This is complete hogwash and we must not allow them to manipulate and distort what really happened in France, for it has absolutely nothing to do with an attack on free speech.
For a start, the West does not have a monopoly on freedom of speech, liberty or peace. These are the aspirations of most people no matter where they live. The problem is that too many people are denied some or all of them because of endless wars, injustice and hypocrisy forced on them by the never-ending “War on Terror” instigated by Western neoconservatives.
Moreover, let’s face it, if such Western politicians really hold these “Western values” so dear they would not be engaged with spying on their own people, phone-tapping and bugging political allies in other countries. Nor would they be threatening to restrict freedom of movement and strip their people of their citizenship through the kind of draconian laws used by their dictator friends in places like the Middle East.
Freedom and liberty in the West are actually becoming something of an illusion. At the moment, new regulations and laws are being introduced aimed specifically at Muslim communities across America and Europe. Smug commentators and others keen on being “hard” on Muslims should remember that these new laws could just as easily be used against environmentalists, anti-fracking campaigners, student activists or animal rights groups – or even smug, right-wing commentators – to name but a few of those whose activities might upset the politicians.
Although denied outright by Western governments whose policies result in endless invasions, war and injustice across the Muslim world, they are the real reason why such carnage visited Paris this week. The US-led invasion of Iraq may have happened more than a decade ago but it is still causing shock and anger in the region for millions to this day.
The current Egyptian dictator massacred 54 people during a peaceful protest and there was no reaction other than titters and smirks from a few godless Charlie Hebdo readers sneering at a religion that they view as barbaric and intolerant. Fast forward to today and we have global condemnation of 12 deaths at the hands of suspects whose motives may never be known.
Whatever the reasons for what these gunmen did, their murderous act will be catastrophic for the Syrians refugees who, in their millions, are still reaching out for help from the West to escape the barrel bombs and chemical weapons of Bashar Al-Assad. The Middle East is in the grip of a fierce winter and there are Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians and others in dire need of food, clothing and shelter. Most of their difficulties can be laid eventually at the door of Western foreign policy.
The actions of the gunmen will also have a serious impact on Muslims living in the West, especially those in Europe who are already the target of an increasingly vociferous far-right. I fear especially for Muslim women who are usually more visibly and thus regarded as soft targets by racist bigots manipulated and fuelled by hatred from extremists, thoughtless journalists and politicians.
Yes, the Paris murders were an outrage, but we need to keep them in context and perspective. It was certainly shocking but not, I would venture to suggest, as shocking as the massacre of 513 Palestinian children by Israel in its latest war against the civilians of Gaza. Nor was it as shocking as the hundreds, possibly thousands, of peaceful protestors mown down by Egyptian security forces at Al-Nahda and Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Squares in August 2013. Not as shocking, that is, unless you believe that not all humans are equal or that human rights only belong to specific places and people dependent on ethnicity or nationality.
Furthermore, all of these awful deaths are dwarfed by the 1.5m and rising killed since George W Bush and Tony Blair unleashed Shock and Awe on the people of Iraq in 2003. Their war was based on the lies and deception of a handful of men who tried to convince the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction when their real motive was regime change and lucrative business contracts.
Instead of blathering about freedom of speech, which is being eroded daily by our own governments in Washington, London and Paris, what we need to do is analyse why 12 families are grieving today in France over the needless loss of their loved ones. What happened on 9/11 is a clue but it was not the start of something new; it was the continuation of American and European injustices that have roots in Palestine and neighbouring countries in the region where literally millions have been killed, injured and displaced in the name of the West’s much-vaunted freedom and liberty. Very few of the alleged beneficiaries of the West’s neo-crusades are better off in any way whatsoever.
On 19 September 2001 President George W Bush addressed the US Congress thus: “Americans are asking, ‘Why do they hate us?’… They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East.”
After that speech and with support from his European coalition of the willing, Bush unleashed his ill-advised war on Afghanistan before charging recklessly into Iraq with Britain riding shotgun. There was no respite with the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House; he ramped up “Drone Wars” in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen while Western intelligence did its best to undermine the Arab Spring and still, to this day, gives unconditional protection and support to some of the most brutal undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and Asia.
When the Palestinians elected Hamas in free and fair democratic elections, the anger from America was palpable; when the Egyptian people chose Mohamed Morsi to lead them into a new democratic era panic erupted from Tel Aviv to Riyadh and back to Capitol Hill. The West might love its acclaimed freedoms and liberties (which, remember, are being eroded with each new piece of legislation) but it is clear that with its unconditional support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and other tyrannical regimes, it doesn’t want democracy breaking out in the Middle East any time soon.
No wonder there is a tidal wave of anger engulfing sections of the Muslim world, the victims of US, British and French foreign policies at play alongside those of other Western nations. The continued meddling and determination to snuff out the embryonic flames of the Arab Spring has led some to believe that the only way to bring about freedom and liberty is through violence. It isn’t; violence hasn’t worked for the West, despite its repeated wars and drone massacres, and it will not work for those who brought death and destruction to the Charlie Hebdo office.
The only way forward now is through dialogue, otherwise it is clear that things are going to get much, much worse for all of us, wherever we live and however, or even if, we pray. It is time for less, not more extremism. This should be borne in mind by politicians and media editors as they prepare their response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.