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January 21, 2015
Only days after the Paris terrorist attacks, policy makers, regional observers and civil society representatives throughout the Middle East are grappling once again with another wave of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and their seemingly inevitable violent protests. Does freedom of expression trump respect and deference to one’s religious convictions and beliefs? What actions — if any — can be taken to reasonably and adequately protest against another’s use of freedom of expression? What could the West do to mitigate the current climate of distrust? The various answers to these questions throughout the regional media are hardly unequivocal.
The general thrust of most conversations reflected in the regional dailies is that, while it needs to be respected and safeguarded, freedom of speech should not trump the feelings of millions of people. For example, Asharq Alawsat’s Salman Aldossary, in a recent op-ed expresses his disagreement with what he argues was a “misuse” of the freedom Charlie Hebdo enjoys: “Indeed it is a catastrophe when this freedom is considered more important than the feelings of such a considerable body of people, and when it is completely incompatible with whole nations and cultures. And so this conception of freedom of expression is distorted when it is used to insult people’s most cherished beliefs and their religion....Pardon me, monsieur president; provoking and offending hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world as a response to the anger felt due to the actions of a handful of terrorists is not freedom of speech — it is an attack on it.”
Suggesting that to “stem radicalism” the West needs to do its part to resist “fanning fundamentalism, the Khaleej Times editorial asserts “There can’t be a one way traffic in which certain paranoid elements in the West continue to shower their hatred and get away in the guise of freedom of speech. Similarly, there isn’t any dearth of people in the Muslim community who propagate a jaundiced version of the great religion, and are bent upon radicalising the society in terms of extremism....The Muslim world from Somalia to Nigeria and from Syria to Afghanistan is already facing the curse of radicalism, as the Daesh, Al Qaeda, Taleban, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and the like, are on the move and had literally paralyzed their respective civil societies....The jingoism from the West likewise, coupled with the caricature enigma, has revived the debate of clash of civilizations. World leaders have a responsibility to dispense at this crucial juncture and the least they could do is to stem the tide of fanaticism.”
Samar Fatany, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, continues on this theme and warns against facile explanations of what is going on in the region, arguing instead that much of the solution lies with the policies and the role that the West continues to play in the Middle East: “let us hope that world public opinion will not be manipulated and led astray with false allegations against innocent Muslims living in the West, thus creating another threat on a larger global scale....Arab and Muslim countries are very diverse and the silent majority are moderate, peaceful people who are struggling to achieve progress and live in dignity. The emergence of terrorist organizations in the Arab and Muslim world are a threat to its people more than they are to the rest of the world....The deliberate Judaization of Al-Quds and the systematic changes in the demographic make-up of the city is an antagonistic practice that is also the source of much rage in the Arab and Muslim world.... Advocates of peace are called upon to continue their quest to put greater pressure on American and European countries... to change direction and form policies promoting justice, global prosperity and peaceful co-existence.”
Unfortunately, the ongoing terrorist violence as well as the response of some in the West to it, undermines any progress towards of peaceful coexistence. At least that is the argument made by Daily News Egypt commentator Karim al-Andalusi, who challenges his coreligionists to give lie to the stereotypes constructed in the West: “Muslims, and maybe others around the globe, claim that Europe’s rooted culture of discrimination and double standards can clearly be measured at times of conflicts and internal tensions. Europeans can demonstrate the authenticity of this hypothesis, or negate it, in their response to Charlie Hebdo shootings. Unfortunately it has proven true to some extent in the mosques vandalized in Paris, the Muslim women being attacked, etc....Europe’s problem with the Charlie Hebdo shooting is the killing of freedom of speech. For Muslims, it is about the Prophet, but also about the sweeping annihilation of lives in the Muslim world while the world is turning a blind eye.”
Which is why, as The Daily Star’s Nicolas Hindi writes, regardless of the offense taken, one must abstain from violent actions, showing instead restraint and maturity in dealing with a challenging situations: “The most recurring accusation among the #JeNeSuisPasCharlie crowd is that Charlie Hebdo, hiding behind freedom of speech, deliberately targeted Islam and by doing so insulted the entire Muslim community. That may be true, but is it reason enough to kill it? And by killing it I don’t mean literally. Rather, are the authorities entitled in shutting the newspaper down? I am guessing that my #JeNeSuisPasCharlie friends would indeed have favored such action. That is where I have to disagree....To anyone who felt insulted by what they perceived as being an abusive form of expression, remember that no matter how shocking it might be, it still falls under the rubric of freedom of speech, as long as it does not jeopardize the safety of others or incite violence. You could choose to confront the underlying idea with any means of expression you want, scorn it, or even turn a blind eye to it, but you cannot prevent it from existing.”
Building on a similar argument in favor of increased tolerance and accommodation, Hurriyet Daily News’ Ahmet Hakan, presents his readers with two clear choices: “We have two paths in front of us: We can either settle for a dignified and civilized protest against those lame caricatures, with such a protest that would make everyone, friend and foe alike, green with envy. Or we take machine guns in our hands and kill cartoonists, bomb magazines and newspapers. If we do the first, then we act like a community that suits the prophet of mercy. If we do the second, we inflict far more harm on the prophet of mercy than these caricatures could ever cause. The issue is as simple as that.”
Judging from a report by Arab News’ Ibrahim Naffee, it seems that the latter option is indeed being chosen by some who are looking at alternative ways to protest against the drawings and, more broadly, the West’s policies in the region: “Some Saudis and expatriates have called for a campaign to boycott French products because of the offending cartoons published by the Charlie Hebdo magazine last week....The messages on several websites include the names of popular French products available on local shelves that citizens and expatriate consumers should boycott....Meanwhile, Jordanian social media users have launched a campaign calling for the boycott of French products, entitled ‘Boycott France.’...Organizers of the initiative, which has reportedly attracted more than 4,000 people on Facebook, said the campaign seeks to place pressure on France to put an end to the publication of ‘offensive cartoons.’”
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