Whilst apprehensive about ‘verbal delict’, open disapproval by decision- and opinion-makers of public statements and pictures considered offensive by Muslims, coupled with education about ‘the Other’, might increase inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding; thereby reducing fear among Westerners and the feeling of humiliation among Muslims. Paradoxically, a short term victory for the defenders of Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, may result in the long-term loss of various freedoms.
|Suggested Reading||Conflict Background||GCCT|
By Vladimir Ninković
As I argued in my previous piece, entitled ‘Solipsism and free speech – a bleak morning in Paris’, free speech can hardly bring any good if it is saturated with solipsism and a lack of understanding of the prevailing context. In situations like these we should rely more on logic and pragmatism than on wishful thinking.
According to Kant’s Logic:
“an error in which the semblance is evident even to common sense is called an absurdity. The charge of absurdity is always a personal reproach which we must avoid, especially in refuting errors. For when a man maintains an absurdity, the semblance which is the source of this evident falsity is not evident to him. We must first make it evident to him. If he still abides by his error, then no doubt he is absurd, but then we can do no more with him. He has thereby made himself both incapable and unworthy of all correction and refutation. For we cannot prove to anyone that he is absurd; all reasoning would be thrown away on this...”
The political and religious worldview of extremists and terrorists of all creeds will be regarded as absurd by rational people. Such absurdity is, however, attractive to those who, in their own perception, have nothing to gain from ‘normal’ ideologies and interpretations of religion. On the other hand, although their ideas might appear absurd, their behavior is completely rational in the sense that we can predict what they can do in certain circumstances. If provoked, they will react with violence and disregard for human life, knowing that it can increase the respect and the aura of martyrdom (and more often than not, in case of suicide attacks – and Charlie Hebdo is one variation of suicide attack, the perpetrators knew that they wouldn’t get out alive – their families will be taken care of by their patrons). It has been proven so many times in the last couple of decades that there is very little to be gained by analyzing it further.
Instances of inspired extremists-terrorists refuting their beliefs and becoming apologetics are extremely rare, so rare that it can be considered almost anecdotic. They are even less frequent when talking about ideologies that have their pillars in religion; in this case, Islam. The absolutist Manichean narrative (good vs evil), strong bonds with their new ‘family’, promises of a rich afterlife and financial security for their families in this world after their sacrifice, as well as the risk of retaliation towards them and their families in case they decide to turn their back to ‘the cause’, makes abandoning extremist cells extremely difficult. It also complicates efforts to deradicalize Islamist radicals, which has had few palpable results thus far.
Indeed, the overused quote of ‘draining the swamp’ might indeed be the only feasible way to combat Islamist extremism. It means helping the non-radicalized, but still vulnerable and indecisive population, prone to manipulation, to shy away from extremism.
However, the Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures added more larvae to the swamp. They stirred an unnecessary controversy all over the Muslim world, providing radicals with additional proof of Western disregard for Muslims, thereby further proliferating their conspiracy theories. Whilst there were laudable statements from leading Muslim religious leaders who expressed condolences to the victims of the terrorist act, as well as staunchly stating that violence is against Islam, these wise words didn’t resound well within the poor and uneducated masses; as we can judge from angry demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Indeed, it would not be surprising if new research finds a further skewing of public opinion towards radicalism, anti-Semitism and increased hatred towards West.
It also fueled populist/far right/Islamophobic groups that have been going from strength-to-strength in Europe since the onset of the economic crisis. Sensationalist media and the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement aimed precisely at what is the most powerful sentiment among Europeans – the fear of ‘the Other’ who represents a threat to free speech and ‘our’ way of life. Several mosques in France and Holland have been desecrated and a number of hate crimes against Muslims committed, thus creating a spiral of violence. Furthermore, governments of several EU countries adopted measures that will curb citizen freedoms, including freedom of speech (for instance, an increased number of people being monitored on social media). Paradoxically, a short term victory for the defenders of Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech may result in a long-term loss of the very same freedoms.
Radicalism is often graphically represented as a set of concentric circles. The smallest, central circle is comprised of terrorists – namely, radicals/extremists who are ready to use violence in defense or promotion of their political/ideological goals. The second, larger circle would be its active supporters; with the third, even larger circle representing the sympathizers; the fourth being those who are indecisive, and the area around signifying the moderates/non-radicals. Trigger events like these serve as centripetal forces that tend to attract people to the centre of the concentric circles, moving moderates to neutrals, neutrals to sympathizers, sympathizers to activists and activists to terrorists.
In brief, Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures caused nothing but a series of tragedies and exacerbated tensions whose long-term negative consequences are difficult to ascertain. If anything positive can be expected, it is that perhaps the media will take their own responsibility for obvious consequences more seriously. Nevertheless, it is extremely difficult to avoid the pitfalls of, on the one hand, irresponsibility and, on the other, self-censorship. It is clear that there is no absolute freedom of speech in the Western world; plenty of taboos left. One of the most eminent researchers of radicalism, Kas Mudde, stated that the existing ‘taboo’ topics in the West, of which some are punishable by law, such as Holocaust denial and racism, should be broadened in order to include insulting Islam and Muslims. Indeed, there are very few journalists in Europe that would joke about such topics and their publication would certainly be ‘welcomed’ with public outrage. Whilst apprehensive about ‘verbal delict’, open disapproval by decision- and opinion-makers of public statements and pictures considered offensive by Muslims, coupled with education about ‘the Other’, might increase inter-cultural and inter-religious understanding; thereby reducing fear among Westerners and the feeling of humiliation among Muslims.
Vladimir Ninković is a project officer for security at TransConflict Serbia.
This article is published as part of TransConflict’s project, Confronting Extremism, which aims to improve understanding about the concept of extremism itself, plus the groups and ideologies that manifest extremism in their aims, rhetoric and activities. This article does not reflect the views of any particular organization.