Does Charlie Hebdo really represent free speech?

Does Charlie Hebdo Really Represent Free Speech?
Share this

As condolences for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack continue being expressed in France and worldwide by people standing up for the freedom of speech, the controversial satirical magazine published a new issue Monday, featuring Mohammad again on the front cover. In the cartoon, Prophet Mohammad is holding a sign “Je suis Charlie” under the headline “All is forgiven.” If anything, this new move of the magazine only adds to the already turbulent politics in France, a great part of which stems from the tension between Islamic communities and non-Islamic communities within the country.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. The migration of Muslims to France can be sourced to France’s colonization of North and Western Africa. France’s Colonization of Algeria did not come to an end until 1962, the year when Algeria declared independence. A lot of the migrant families became the lowest strata of the French society in terms of education, employment, and social status in general. The attack of Charlie Hebdo, followed by the 1.5-million-people march in Paris on Sunday and the magazine’s provocative new issue on Monday, threatened to deepen the fissure between the Muslim population and the Roman Catholic majority within France.

This series of events ultimately served to intensify the polarization of wealth and power by socially alienating Muslims from the rest of the society, so they became ever more confined to the poorer “zones” or neighborhoods in the cities. Considered within this context, is Charlie Hebdo really the symbolic free speaker of France, Europe, and even the world? Are we Charlie, but in the derogatory sense that our rallies and “free speech” contribute to the inequality between citizens? The most unsettling fact of last week was that Muslims were condemned as Muslims, not as French citizens, and the violent actions of a few individual Muslims as “Muslim violence” against the universal value of free speech.

The History of Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Speech has a long history. It was included in early human rights documents, and was fervently debated among philosophers and political theorists as early as in the 17th and 18th century when the establishment of a modern state posed questions to the relationship between the Church and the State. The history of freedom of speech has always been part of the history of the separation of the Church and the State. The socio-political context in which free speech became significant was the Church’s dominance in public speech and the rise of the power of the Civil State, which threatened to take away certain rights of the Church to grant them to the individual citizen. But in the Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath, the lack of discussion on the question of civil rights is alarming. To what extent the new issue of Charlie Hebdo might have harmed the civil rights of Muslims who are French citizens and have committed no crimes?

Freedom of speech was, and should stay as, a site of a political debate that involves two sides: the speaker and the side that can be potentially harmed by the speech. So long as speech is an act in the public domain, it should be held responsible for any harm it exerts on other citizens as all other public acts. The truth is there are no governments that do not restrict free speech. The discussion of free speech only becomes meaningful when the discussion is focused on the extent to which the freedom should be limited. In France, or for instance, in the United States, we often see free speech restricted by the right to privacy, national safety, or punished when it is categorized as hate speech.

What adds to the complexity of the issue of Charlie Hebdo is that their cartoons do not only involve French citizens, but also other nations which have a very different legal tradition and religion. Here, the question of free speech is, more than anything, a question of politics between nations. However, in the march in Paris last Sunday, the issue of free speech has undoubtedly been taken out of its context. It becomes an absolute, universal value for which France stands, and moreover, as President Hollande puts it, it stands ever more united. When any concept is taken out of context and wrapped in a national flag, we should sit up and worry.

Opinion by Joel Levi

Paris Charlie Hebdo attack: Rethinking the “War on Terror”

Charlie Hebdo Attack: Rethinking the War on Terror
Share this

Two militant sieges have taken place in Paris. One happened Wednesday, January 7, which caused the death of 12 people including 10 cartoonists and columnists of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the other happened Friday, January 9, which led to the death of several hostages and a suspect at a kosher supermarket near Paris’ Porte de Vincennes. The probable connection of the two incidents is still under investigation by the police.

Wednesday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo left the city in mourning on Thursday. Thousands gathered at a vigil held in the center of Paris to mourn the dead, but also as a protest for the freedom of speech. Vigils in memory of the cartoonists and in support of the freedom of speech were held simultaneously across the world in Lyon, Toulouse, Berlin, London, Sydney, Brussels, among other cities, with protesters holding the placards “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”).

One of the suspects in the Charlie Hebdo attack, Hamyd Mourad, 18, surrendered to the police, while the other two, the Parisian brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, 32 and 34, attempted an escape but were killed in a police raid early Friday. One of the suspects of the kosher grocery shop incident, Amedy Coulibaly, 32, was killed when the police stormed the supermarket. The other suspect, Hayat Boumeddienne, 26, is still on the run. She fled the scene in the confusion of the freeing of the hostages.

Europe has been shocked by the extremity of the violence, and so has been the world. The question that needs to be asked first and foremost is who these suspects were. The Kouachi brothers are being linked to Islamist extremism, as the younger brother was convicted for his participation in a jihadist recruitment ring in Paris in 2008. Coulibaly shared a “high profile” with Chérif Kouachi by spending time in prison for assisting the escape of Islamist militant, Smain Ali Belkacem, from jail.

It seems only natural that the horror and violence that had been haunting Paris for the past three days should be tagged “terrorism” and the gunmen who killed civilians “terrorists.” In fact, media across the world were quick to follow President Francois Hollande’s statement in defining the shootings as “terrorist operations,” and the attacks “barbaric.”

President Barack Obama confirmed, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a condolence speech that “the world has seen once again what terrorists stand for.” Obama said, “They have nothing to offer but hatred and suffering. We stand for freedom and hope and the dignity of all human beings. That is what the city of Paris represents to the world and that spirit will endure forever, long after the scourge of terrorism is banished from this world.” But it is precisely in such a time of horror that one should rethink the “War on Terror,” the governmental and corporate operations that hide behind the quick tagging of “terrorism” and “terrorists.”

Violence against civilians is, undoubtedly, to be condemned. But condemnation of violence under the name of the “War on Terror” only rationalizes the elimination of enemies in the international military campaign led by the United States as the absolute enemy of humanity, and in this case the “neutralization of terrorists” in Paris. But the quest for the cause of violence should not end in “neutralization,” or the naming of it as “terrorism,” but rather, it can only end in the understanding of the conditions that prompted the acts of violence.

The slogan was first used by Present George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks to promote United States’ military intervention in Afghanistan, and continues to be used by the Obama administration. It should also be noted that France was the first ally that joined the United States in airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) in September last year.

Whether the gunmen were connected with ISIS is still uncertain. But Muslims in France and all over world already find themselves forced to apologize for actions that they have not committed or sympathized with.

Analysis by Joel Levi

Retrial of a misjudged case 19 years after the man’s execution in China

Retrial of a misjudged case 19 years after the man's execution in China
Share this

The fourth plenary session of the 14th central committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) that took place between Oct. 20-23, 2014, has paved the path for a series of retrials of former misjudged cases, including the case of Huge Jiletu. Huge was sentenced to death and immediately executed after a violent inquisition process in 1996. The sentence came only 62 days after the rape and murder incident, of which, as it turned out, Huge was falsely accused. On Dec. 15, 2014, 18 years after Huge’s execution, he was acquitted by the Supreme People’s Court of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The main theme of the fourth plenary session is the “rule of law.” President Xi Jiping’s anti-corruption campaign targeting major CPC officials has been the topic of discussion on international media, official and social media in China, and at the dinner table of ordinary Chinese people for the past two years. The newly promoted strategy and doctrine, the “socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics,” appears to be a natural step forward to a further systematized rule of the CPC dominated government. But the meanings of the official report lie deep beneath the surface of the centrality of administration by law, and demands deciphering. Among many clues, a most telling one might be that the promoted “rule of law” still falls under the leadership of CPC. The report utilizes a rhetoric that separates the communist party and the CPC leading government by stating that the leadership of CPC remains above the Law, and yet, the government should be law-abiding.

The fourth plenary session, however, has brought misjudged legal cases in the past into the daylight. Huge’s case, for instance, had the chance to surface and be given a retrial on the Supreme Court of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the province where the case was first tried. Unlike 18 years ago when the case was closed with the conviction of Huge without sufficient evidence, this time Huge was finally given his long deserved exoneration. The change of the original sentence was based on the incompatibility of the confessed means of crime and the autopsy report, the lack of exclusivity based upon the results of the blood test, and finally, the inconsistency of Huge’s confessions on different occasions.

Notably, a man named Zhao Zhihong was arrested for rape and murder in 2005, and at the time had already confessed to be the true offender in the 1998 rape case. But the demand from Huge’s parents for a retrial of their son’s case, for reasons unknown never reached the Supreme Court. It forced Huge’s parents to continue appealing to higher authorities for the unsealing of the case. The case, however, remained sealed until the fourth plenary session of the CPC, and all of a sudden, at the new sweeping campaign of the “rule of law,” fell in the spotlight of legal debates.

Eighteen years ago, Huge and his friend found a naked woman’s body in a public restroom. They reported to the local police, and the 18-year-old Huge was immediately arrested by the police as a suspect in the crime. The case was tried in a rushed manner. Within a short period of only 62 days, Huge was sentenced to death and was immediately executed. The reason for such a hasty trial had much to do with the political campaign of the Chinese government at the time—local governments were told to crack down on criminal cases. The predecessor of the campaign was initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1983, with its slogan being “quicker and stricter.” The direct outcome of such campaigns was careless and heavy sentences in the short run, and disparity between laws for the campaign and the “normal laws” in the long run.

This kind of political campaign bears similarities with the “War on Drugs” in the 1970s and 80s in the United States. What often happens is the appearance of stricter administration, plus a higher efficiency in resolving crimes, obscuring the reality of “quick,” “rigid” and often times unfair judgment. But does a society eliminate crimes with harsher, hastier punishment? Or does it create space for governance that is casual and authoritative?

Moreover, the appeasing effect of a stricter administration comes from the public’s fear of disorder in the society. In both the case of China in 1983 and 1996 and the United States in the 1970s and 80s, the rise of crimes on the street coincided with the rise of unemployment rates of certain communities and the polarity of wealth in the society. Since the 1980s China has been in a process of radical urbanization, which created a large number of migrating workers in the city. These workers from the countryside became the most easily discriminated population by law and by social welfare, and many of them turned to other means of making money when the option of selling cheap labor became unavailable. The cracking down on crime not only did not help in alleviating the actual social problems, but it aggravated the inequality between poor and rich communities by covering it up.

Huge’s case also sheds light on the question of the death penalty in China. To what extent is a government justified in the kind of violence that it itself criminalizes? It is not just a question of politics and governance, but also of the irreversibility of the act of killing: when a person is put to death, a retrial retrieves only justice, but not the life that is already lost.

Analysis by Joel Levi

For an English translation of the official report of the fourth plenary session of the 14th central committee of the CPC:

Other sources: