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Free speech is not just a Western value

It is always a shock when a tragic act of terrorist violence strikes the western world, because suddenly the threats of such acts happening in our midst becomes reality. The London bombings, 9/11, and now Charlie Hebdo. You would almost forget Anders Breivik, who mercilessly killed 77 people in Norway, as the popular imagination tends to leave him out because he did not kill in the name of Islam.

Neither did the Kouachi brothers, if you ask me. The Hebdo shooters had a criminal background and did not exactly fit the ‘mould’ of an Islamist extremist with their smoking and drinking habits. Yet Rupert Murdoch says all Muslims should be held accountable for what they did. Yet the world unites against terrorism in a one million people strong demo in Paris, attended by Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin (does no one sees the irony in Putin protesting in favour of freedom of speech?). Yet thousands of Dutch Muslims feel that they have to distance themselves from the attack, tweeting ‘#NotmyIslam’. Yet in several places in France mosques have been attacked in the aftermath of the Paris shooting.

Of course, freedom of speech is a vital part of democracy and this attack is absolutely horrendous. Killing people because of their expression on paper is a crude violation of basic human rights. As an activist, I have learnt that oppression is not a competition but I cannot help but notice the unbalanced reaction to the Hebdo shooting in comparison to the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern lives that have been ended by extremists.

The idea that Muslims should be held accountable for the acts of Islamist extremists disregards the deaths of so many Muslims and other Arabs who were killed by extremists. And we are too quick to jump to conclusions about terror attacks and their links with ISIS. However, is it not ironic that the world mourns France because of the act of Islamists, while almost a hundred Syrian Muslims who fled a country filled with extremists are still stuck in Calais, reluctant to claim asylum in France as they feel now that their lives would not get any better?

Why does the majority of the Western world hashtag ‘#JesuisCharlie’ while other names, such as Hussein Ghrer, Kharb al-Dabbas, Bassel Kartabil, and Salma Jamal Abd al-Razak barely ring a bell for many Western people, even free speech activists? These are the names of Syrians who are locked up and have to fear for their lives every day, like many others. Speaking up in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria and many other countries still holds too high a cost for many Muslims.

People are writing blogs and magazine articles claiming that freedom of speech is not a value Muslims share with Western people, completely ignoring vast numbers of Muslims who do share those values, stripping Muslims of other aspects that form their world view. People like Rupert Murdoch or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands ignore the fact that Muslim values are not solely based on their religion but also on things like their local background, culture, family and personal experiences. And valuing the right to free expression is not a Western value, but one held by many democracy-seekers and liberal across the world, across religions.

My thoughts are with the Charlie victims, but the back of my mind keeps pulling me towards those innocent Muslims who get disregarded when we talk about protecting freedom of speech. We need to realise that Western lives are not more valuable than others and we need to realise that Islamist terrorism is not more harmful than any other form of terrorism.

About Bauke Schram

Bauke Schram is the external news editor for the River Online. She is a political journalist with an interest in transnational organisations and international economics. She has written for the likes of City AM, Shout Out UK and Third Sector Magazine


  1. I completely agree with you, Netanyahu who was directly responsible this summer in the death of 16 journalists in Gaza, leading a march for freedom of speech after the shooting of journalists is rather ironic.
    But what I find fascinating is the levels of hypocrisy in our western liberal values when it comes to freedom of speech. With France cracking down on individuals who, for example share a satirical picture of Charlie Hebdo and sentencing a 16 year old to 3 months in prison for promoting terror for sharing it on Facebook is more than ironic.

    I think we can be proud of the freedom of speech we have and like you said we should also not ignore the millions of Muslims who are the largest victims of these terrorist attacks. But also we need to distinguish that freedom of speech has a limit and the state always draws a line and Charlie Hebdo themselves seemed to draw a line in some cases unless when it came to racism against Muslims and Islamophobia, which seem to be the most accepted form of racism in our society now.

    Firing an artist for a caricature about Sarkozy’s son converting to Judaism compared to publishing another clearly racist art showing the young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram as pregnant welfare abusers, to me that is a double standard. Hence why I say #JeNeSuisPasCharlie

    • “But what I find fascinating is the levels of hypocrisy in our western liberal values when it comes to freedom of speech.” – I very much agree with this. That is why it bothers me that the Western world reacts to this tragedy by turning the Charlie Hebdo journalists into some sort of heroic martyrs, while they specialised in attacking Muslims, who already form the most oppressed group in France.

      I do believe in fighting for freedom of speech, even when this means standing up for someone’s right to say something I fundamentally disagree with. The fact that they are allowed to say it, however, does not mean that I will stop criticising it.

      I would also just like to say that I think satire should be aimed at the powerful, not the already marginalised.

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