The shocking events at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris did not happen in a vacuum. They are not the actions of a few outcasts on the edge of society. These brutal murders, apparently in the name of religious extremism, take place amid an increasing erosion of civil liberties that we in Western Europe have taken for granted, and therefore failed to protect, for far too long.
For too long the liberal intelligentsia has thought that fundamental freedoms of religion, of expression, of the press, of assembly, and the non-discrimination against women, racial minorities, ethnic groups, and more, are so enshrined in our societies that we need not worry about them too much. But the warning signs have been here in Europe for years.
The rise of violent fundamentalism claiming the banner of Islam – but with no truer roots in that religion than the Ku Klux Klan has in Christianity – has been all-but ignored by the mainstream media and politicians who are terrified that to address these issues would feed into far-right fascism. With the latest attack on our freedoms and our values, it is about time that we Western Europeans took a long hard look at our values and asked some hard-hitting questions.
This is not the first time the Charlie Hebdo offices have been attacked. The magazine has published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, which raised the violent ire of fundamentalists who believe that the right to freedom of expression may be curtailed by religious laws that apply only to believers of a faith.
They are wrong. They were wrong in 2005-2006 when cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten in Denmark led to riots, hundreds of deaths, and the burning of embassies. They were wrong when Islamic countries sought, but ultimately failed, to enshrine a “right” to not have one’s religion defamed. The right to freedom of expression is a fundamental one that can be limited only in very exceptional circumstances for the public good. A fundamentalist’s belief is not sufficient to count as exceptional circumstances.
Don’t blame the victim
We can expect the uproar of the immediate aftermath to give way to attacks on Charlie Hebdo. It happened in 2011, when Time victim-blamed the magazine, all but calling the firebombing the fault of the editors who ran the cartoons. Instead of arguing for the right to freedom of expression – which is even more starkly enshrined in the US than it is in Western Europe – Time suggested that journalists ought to base decisions about whether to publish on the likelihood that fundamentalists might retaliate with violence.
This from commentators in a country that believes so fundamentally in freedom of expression that even hate speech is not banned.
And this issue goes far beyond freedom of expression alone. Various court cases in recent years have focused on a woman’s “right” to wear a full veil; a handful of Muslim women who skilfully articulate their desire to be fully-covered have been paraded by the liberal media and commentators who then claim that this is a freedom of religion issue.
This ignores the very many women who do not have a choice as to whether to wear a full veil – the same women whose voices are not heard, and for whom the full veil is a tool of oppression and a removal of the rights of women that are enshrined in international, European and national laws.
Honour killings and forced marriages are poorly covered in the media, unless (as in the case of Shafilea Ahmed) a victim’s friends and family hound the police into action. And then there is female genital mutilation, about which there has been a huge Western outcry – met with very little action in terms of prosecutions or the placements of at-risk girls into social services' care.
When we as a society protect the fundamentalists who are violating women’s rights, then how can we be surprised when those same fundamentalists demand that advertising hoardings are removed in Tower Hamlets because the women in the photos are not “modestly dressed”, or try to impose their own mob-rule alcohol bans in local areas?
The march of fundamentalism under the banner of Islam was helped exponentially by the Arab Spring uprisings. The overwhelming Western response was to assist in the supposed “democratisation” of the countries concerned – but that has ultimately enabled religious extremists to wreak havoc in Libya, Egypt and beyond.
The secular dictatorships that governed those countries were grave abusers of human rights, but the support for religious extremists has done nothing other than bulldoze and trample the advancement of human rights in those countries.
Yet when our media and politicians speak out in support of those groups, it provides ammunition and fuel to the fundamentalists who live within our societies. And it is those fundamentalists who then attacked synagogues in the UK over the summer, using the pretext of the invasion of Gaza by Israel as a cloak for their desire to attack British Jews. Those same fundamentalists burnt synagogues and killed Jews in France and Belgium over recent months, including shootings outside a school.
At some point, we need to stand up for the civil liberties and human rights that are fundamental to our values. Those values are not racist; they do not undermine religious freedom and tolerance, and they do not oppress ethnic minorities.
Those values are about every individual holding certain fundamental rights by virtue of them being human. Rights to life, to liberty, to freedom of movement and assembly. Rights to choose who one marries, or whether one even marries at all. Rights to not be tortured or harmed. Rights to express oneself, to determine one’s own religious belief, to freedom of thought and conscience.
Until we remember how central those values are to our society, and how dear we must hold and protect them, these horrific attacks will go on.
Dr Rosa Freedman is a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham. This article was originally published on The Conversation.