Is this really what we mean by freedom of speech? Or is it thinly veiled islamophobia hiding behind freedom of speech? The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have been horrific. What do they have to do with defending human rights for Palestinians in Canada? Quite a lot, I think.
Canadian airwaves have been filled with reporting and commentary on the recent events in Paris. Over a dozen killed in the original terrorist attack, and many more including suspects and hostages in the subsequent events.
Most of the commentary in Canada has focused on the importance of defending “freedom of speech”. “Our values are under attack” said one editorial. “We must not allow ourselves to be intimidated”, said another, intimating that Canadian media should encourage publishing more such cartoons.
Of course freedom of speech is an important value that needs to be defended. Its main worth comes from the fact that it allows us to criticize those in power, limiting their ability to abuse that power. That’s why dictators hate it.
Our right to criticize and even make fun of kings, presidents, prime ministers and corporate leaders is central to our democracy. But freedom of speech should not be a cover for expressing racist, misogynistic or hateful thoughts.
I am free to make fun of midgets, or mentally handicapped people, or Newfies, or lesbians, or obese people, but I don’t do so because it is mean, disrespectful, and hurtful.
Some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed are disgusting – and seem aimed to ridicule not only him, but Arab/Muslim citizens of France.
Making fun of people in power is quite different from making fun of those who are disempowered – people of colour or aboriginal Canadians, for example. The former is fair game, the latter is not. France has a huge underclass (8%) of Arab origin, a product of its colonial past.
The social situation of Muslims in France can be compared to that of blacks in the USA. Who thinks mocking Martin Luther King is a wonderful way to defend freedom of speech? Only racists.
What Canadian thinks that caricaturing Jews (with moneybags or long hooked noses) would be a good example of “freedom of expression” – even if were legal to do so? Only a racist.
Fortunately, Canadian Muslims have become much better integrated in Canada than is the case in France. But Canadian Arabs and Muslims (including Palestinians) are still outsiders here. Different. A minority still looking for equality and respect.
Many Canadians are uncomfortable with Muslims and Arabs. Latent fear of Arabs is one of challenges we face in Canada to develop support for Palestinian human rights. We must deal with it directly.
The call to “have the courage” to reprint more cartoons mocking Arabs and Muslims under the banner of “freedom of speech’ is misplaced and dangerous. Whether intentionaly racist or not, cartoons like these are a distasteful and disrespectful attack on a minority.We must be careful that the defence of “free speech” does not become a cover for Canadian expressions of Islamophobia. It will make our task of developing support for Palestinians human rights even harder.