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  January 8, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Islamophobia and the Freedom of Expression

Author Richard Seymour says the free speech argument is being used to obscure the reality of Islamophobia in Europe
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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The attacks on Wednesday that killed 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper known for running cartoons of the prophet Muhammad wasn't a total surprise. Europe, France, and even the newspaper have been preparing for such an attack for months now. The attacks are now giving away to anti-Islam and Islamophobia sentiment throughout pockets of Europe.

Here to discuss these issues is Richard Seymour. Richard is a writer and broadcaster, activist. He writes for publications including The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and In These Times.

Thank you for joining us, Richard.


PERIES: So, Richard, let's begin by what you think are the underlying issues that gave way to this horrendous attack on Charlie Hebdo.

SEYMOUR: Well, the full story is not in yet. However, there are some leads developing in the news. And one of the things that we're discovering is that one of the attackers, at least, a bunch of jihadis, was radicalized (if you want to use that term) by the deployment of torture and by the war on terror. So the discourse that's now going to be deployed, the discourse of the war on terror, is one that's partially responsible for creating the situation in which attacks like this occur.

PERIES: Now, there are some references in the media this morning to a connection with Syria. Do you believe that has any legs?

SEYMOUR: I think it's quite possible. But to be honest, when you are going in and executing journalists and cartoonists, ostensibly for the offense of satirizing Islam, albeit in quite a racist way, I think that the connection between Syria and that situation is tenuous, to say the least.

PERIES: Now, as it was after 9/11 attacks, the Islamic community in Europe is under gaze and scrutiny at the moment, and this is giving way to anti-Islam sentiments and Islamophobia. Can you tell us about how that is getting addressed in the media in Europe at the moment?

SEYMOUR: Well, it's very telling. There are two types of response, essentially. One is the very hardline racist response coming from the likes of Nigel Farage of UKIP, the U.K. Independence Party, and also, interestingly, from Nigel Samaras, the prime minister of Greece, who's worried about losing an upcoming election to the radical left coalition SYRIZA. And that is basically to say you know this attack shows that the enemies of civilization are among us, they hate us, they hit our values, they have our passports, and we have to do something about this. So it becomes an anti-immigrant push.

There's another response, which is probably more common in the political elite, which is this sort of pseudo-tolerance. And tolerance implies that the people that you're talking about are some sort of a burden and you're just putting up with them. So we'll put up with you as long as you're moderate, as long as you assimilate. And what are you supposed to assimilate to? Something called Western values. This implies that we all have the same set of values.

One value espoused by Hollande and Merkel and Cameron is that of freedom of expression. The truth of the matter is that none of these politicians are really committed to freedom of expression. I live in a country where someone can get locked up for making /dɪˈsæprəbɪdɪŋ/ remarks about the troops on Twitter, or another person can get locked up for saying at a protest that David Cameron has blood on his hands, which he assuredly does. Just across the water in France, you can have your protest banned, as pro-Palestine protesters discovered a few months back. You can be taught that you're not allowed to wear a particular garment; if you're a Muslim woman, you're not allowed to wear the hijab. So all these forms of freedom of expression are under constant assault. And these forms of freedom of expression that are under assault have to do with the status and legitimacy of Muslims largely in European society.

PERIES: Now, do you think the way in which the media is covering this--you know, obviously, as you say, there's a contradiction. It is freedom of expression for some and not others in reality. But the defense of freedom of expression, by way of cartoons, in this case, is a value that should be upheld for very good reason. But you're sensing and you're picking up on the fact that this is also leading to Islamophobia.

SEYMOUR: I think so. I mean, first of all, the defense of freedom of expression is always conditional, not just in the examples that I just gave. Even Charlie Hebdo, which made its name for being willing to attack anyone, did have its limits. Quite rightly so. One of its contributors, Maurice Siné, was fired for producing an anti-Semitic libel, and he went off in a huff and founded his own publication. So everyone has limits in terms of what kind of speech they're prepared to give a platform to. So Charlie Hebdo was engaged in some quite racist scandalous depictions of Islam and of Muslims.

And if you look at the quality of these, sometimes it played into sexist tropes as well. So, for example, there was one cover which depicted pregnant Muslim women, and saying that these are the Boko Haram sex slaves. And they're saying, don't touch our welfare. So it's somehow connecting Islam to claims on welfare to lots of pregnant Muslim women making demands on the French state. So this is the kind of thing that we're talking about.

Now, if the argument is, you know, should these people be able to do this without being shot dead, well, no one's going to disagree with that. Nobody thinks that journalist and cartoonists should be murdered at close range for producing cartoons that are racist or anything else. But nonetheless, the argument about free speech is being used to obscure the fact that there is an Islamophobic culture, not just in France, but in general in Europe, that that is going to escalate in the coming period. And that is linked to the way in which we talk about the West, Western values, in this very sanitized, sterilized way in which we deny that there are any serious antagonisms and serious conflicts and serious forms of oppression and racism in these societies.

PERIES: Richard, as horrendous as the attacks were, the mainstream media seems to be ignoring the fact that there is a deeper and a broader issue here, which is the attacks that are going on on a regular basis in the Middle East--Syria, Iraq, and the war on ISIS--and how that might actually be feeding what's happening in France right now.

SEYMOUR: I think to some extent it has to. To say that doesn't imply that there is a direct connection between these types of killings and the slaughter that we've seen in recent wars. But there is obviously some sort of connection. To give you a recent example, we saw with the killings in Woolwich, in London, where an off-duty soldier was killed outside the barracks by a couple of men who consider themselves foot soldiers, jihadists, that they were assuredly radicalized politically by the war on terror, by the invasion of Iraq, and by the war on Afghanistan and the atrocities that unquestionably took place that context.

Of course, lots of people are radicalized by these events. Across Europe we've seen a lot of radicalization, big antiwar protests. Most people don't go then and decide to shoot up a bunch of journalists. So there's also a question of where this ideology comes from, where the politics comes from. And that's a more complicated question.

PERIES: Richard, I want to thank you for joining us, and we will be following this issue further and deepening our analysis, and I hope you join us.

SEYMOUR: Thank you.

PERIES: And I also want to say, on behalf of The Real News, our condolences go out to all of the family members and people in Europe that are mourning these attacks against Charlie Hebdo.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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