attack on French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo was a tragedy.
There is no debating that people should not have to live in fear of expressing what they wish. Free speech is important and human life is to be respected and those who attacked Charlie Hebdo clearly broke both of these principles.
However, in the wake of this tragedy, there is a chance, as there is in the case of most tragedies, for conversation as well as a desire for understanding.
The current, popular narrative has had the French and the international community coming together to support free speech against the forces of terrorism and radicalism. If not explicitly then implicitly, the conflict is framed as the rational Western world, a world of ideals and freedoms and expression, being unwilling to give ground to non-Western, extremist, close-minded, backwards-thinking users of violence.
The specific events concerning the shooting may have such a clear-cut line, but I think the wider situation is more complex than the initial narrative would have us believe.
The politicians and governments who marched in Paris, such as the representatives from Hamas/Palestine, Israel and the French themselves, who have supported jihadist fighters in Syria, have all in recent years been involved in questionable activities, to put it mildly, in the Middle-East with varying amounts of Western outcry.
The French have a history of colonization and oppression of minorities, especially Muslims. The small, but growing, Muslim minority in France has led to hijabs being banned in schools and public fear of Muslims taking over the country. In the wake of the Charlie attack, there were, of course, attacks and threats made against the Muslim community. Grenades were reportedly thrown into a mosque.
However, based on the media coverage I have seen, the majority of French people marching in defense of free speech would not think of themselves as oppressors who have indirectly been responsible for killings in the non-Western world and have allowed an underlying discrimination against those different than them.
As an American I am in no position to pass judgment. My country has done just as much damage abroad, regardless of the reasons, and the past year has shown that racism and discrimination are still major issues across the United States.
The problem is when we ignore our issues and cloak ourselves with idealism that does not call for any real change on our part. Supporting free speech is a wonderful thing, but it is something we all likely supported before and can now be congratulatory about.
We ignore the reality of us being upset because someone dared to put us in danger and how often we fight back against that which makes us uncomfortable. Rallying for free speech against extremists provides an outlet to express the negative feelings we have towards the non-Western world and those different than us in a manner that rationalizes those feelings and keeps them from being part of the conversation.
The Charlie attack is huge news, not because it was an attack on someone’s rights (people suffer attacks on their rights all across the world everyday, even in Western countries with minorities), but because it happened in a Western country to Westerners. The attack happened to us and we are riled up because it happened to us.
I think we need to not let idealism overwhelm our thoughts and our views of the situation. Our ideals are not who we are. They are who we want to be. If we want live up to liberty, justice and freedom of speech then we need to make sure we are doing more than standing up against non-Western extremists.
We need to make sure we are allowing everyone to have a voice. We need to make sure that those who speak out in the name of religions different than ours, or who criticize our government or are against our current culture can do so without fear, no matter their place in society. What voices are we trying to keep from speaking out?
Our ideals do not call the foreign extremists to be better. They call us to be better. And the reality of the situation is that we still have a long way to go.