In the context of Western attacks on the Islamic world, could we view the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo as acts of war?

Can Free Speech ever be an act of war? Strange things happen in these difficult days. During any war, it is commonplace to denigrate the enemy, so troops can kill with impunity, without feeling empathy. Today “our” enemy is commonly felt to be the jihadis of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia and North Africa. We cringe when told of their barbarities. Our media spreads the message.

So when Michelle Stanistreet returned from the Je suis Charlie march in Paris, she wrote:

“We will not accept the targeting of journalists and the threats of intimidation and violence that are commonplace in some parts of the world. We marched yesterday for global rights of freedom of expression, something that goes beyond borders.”

Michelle Stanistreet was stating clearly she was representing Journalists, Freedom of Expression and above all Free Speech; “We marched yesterday for global rights of freedom of expression, something that goes beyond borders.”

To achieve this end she joined the Heads of States of Europe, Israel and Saudia Arabia among others. Am I being naïve in thinking that, denigrating Islam, is the essence of Free Speech today? Is the right to say what you want, how ever offensive it might be to others, the kind of Free Speech we all should stand and fight for?

To people of the Islamic faith across the world, Allah, is ‘the sacred’. The Western world armed forces have been invading a variety of Islamic peoples since 9/11. There is a precise correlation between our invasions and the growth of Jihadi resistance over the last two decades. So when a small privately owned magazine, denigrates and humiliates the sacred of ‘our enemies’, it becomes an act of war. Charlie Hebdo was supporting our Western leaders in their fight against the Jihadis everywhere. The Jihadis certainly thought so, and a few individuals reacted violently. Should we be surprised?

Were those cartoons simply Free Speech, and is this really what we want Free Speech to be about? Can we find no understanding with movements that are struggling to rid themselves of their invaders? Or do we side with our National Leaders, with the forces of Imperial conquest?

This short note asks more questions than it answers. I want to question the wisdom of Michelle Stanistreet’s article. If so many Western leaders joined the Je suis Charlie march, should we not be asking more heart felt questions than simply joining the crowd….. how ever horrified we all felt by the killing of the artists and journalists.


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Roger van Zwanenberg

Dr Roger van Zwanenberg is the former managing director of Pluto Books.

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