When 'freedom of speech' means just the opposite

Freedom of speech should be a right, not a weapon of repression
6 min read
11 Nov, 2020
Comment: The abject failure of European counter-terror policies is clear for all to see. Doubling down on them will only worsen the problem, writes Malia Bouattia.
'Muslims are collectively criminalised and attacked' writes Bouattia [Getty]
Too often, when the question of protecting freedom of speech is brought up by a political leader, especially one who is in power, what follows is a series of measures which will do the opposite.

Since the shocking beheading of a teacher near Paris, and the stabbing of churchgoers in Nice, Macron and his government have responded by heightening their repressive policies, which have disproportionately impacted Muslim communities.

The deadly shooting which took place soon after in Vienna, Austria by an IS supporter has added to the tension felt throughout the continent. But it has also whipped up European states into an Islamophobic frenzy under the guise of countering terrorism and, ironically, defending freedom of expression. 

Across the board, the response has been to intensify the very practices that have been discredited, criticised and most importantly, failed in tackling the problem - as demonstrated by the continued violent attacks. 

The French state has been shutting down Muslim institutions, targeting civil liberties organisations and even criticising the presence of halal meat in supermarkets. Borders have also been tightened through increased policing. And despite what he claims, the message from Macron is clear: every Muslim is not only a suspect, but also responsible for the actions of the every other Muslim, and will therefore be forced to endure collective punishment. 

In Austria, where far-right activity has also been increasing for many years, many Muslims have been living in fear of the repercussions that await their community in response to the shooting. They were soon given a reason to worry. Dozens of raids have been taking place in a mission to target "political Islam" in the words of the Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, despite official admission that the targets of the operation have no links with the attack in Vienna. Whatever the trigger for interrogating so many Muslims, the strategy remains the same. 

The response has been to intensify the very practices that have been discredited, criticised and most importantly, failed in tackling the problem

The standard practice has become to target Muslim individuals and institutions, under the cover of fighting terrorism, political Islam, or extremism, so that the masses accept the rolling back of their freedoms and civil liberties. And by closing down open, public, political debate the most dangerous and problematic thoughts are pushed underground and left unchallenged, ultimately making the threat of violence even more likely. 

It is frustrating that when the so-called War on Terror agenda shows itself for what it truly is, there isn't more opposition. Surely, after decades of failures to address the deep seated issues, or even just stop violent attacks, the demand for an alternative is long overdue? Regardless of your view of the state's counter-terrorism methods, their abject failure is clear for all to see. 

In Austria, for example, authorities had prior information about the attacker, who had in fact been arrested while attempting to join IS in Syria, and they are now acknowledging internal failings in the lead up to the attack. In a world of increased state surveillance, incidents such as this only further highlight the nonsense at the foundations of the entire counter-extremism project. The pattern is the same everywhere: While Muslims are collectively criminalised and attacked both in institutions and on the streets, and while civil liberties are undermined and rolled back, the counter-terrorism apparatus is absolutely useless to do its job.

You could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that it was always about undermining political freedoms.

This period, so marked by tragic loss and trauma, is sadly being capitalised on by states across the region. It has provided an excuse to increase authoritarian measures, and lessen accountability for those in power, even further. These institutionalised forms of censorship, however, are not up for debate. When people dare vocalise their critiques, they are often silenced and labelled as insensitive terrorist sympathisers. 

The state, it seems, is the only judge and jury of both the freedom to speak, and the content of that speech. 

The double standard in what these states choose to consider freedom of speech, and on whom they bestow the privilege to exercise it, is startling. Just recently in the Netherlands, a similar debate to that in France kicked off over the so-called "right to offend Islam". 

Muslims in the Netherlands vocalised their discontent when a teacher showed students Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet in a lesson on free speech, and mobilised via a petition signed by over 100,000 people calling for laws to be introduced against offending the Islamic faith. This petition was met by outcry from Dutch politicians and media outlets. Islamism is at the gates of the Dutch state we are told. Sharia rule is around the corner. 

It has provided an excuse to increase authoritarian measures, and lessen accountability for those in power, even further

It is a truly surreal paradox that this notion of freedom of speech endorses these cartoons, but identifies Muslims' application the same right as a threat. Surely, the point is the right to disagree, to be allowed to put forward an argument without the threat of violence led by the state or individuals? Isn't the point that Muslims in the Netherlands are acting as concerned citizens should, by mobilising the democratic avenues at their disposal? It is one rule for them and one for us. 

Governments who have signed on to the War on Terror have been so effective in dominating the narrative that the fact that Charlie Hebdo is a reactionary newspaper that publishes hate against oppressed people - women, migrants, Muslims - has long become impossible to point out. 

Western states have fuelled and strengthened a binary discourse in which the so-called enemies of freedom of speech are the left, trans activists, Muslims and feminists, whilst simultaneously relentlessly introducing policies that narrow our freedoms and normalise the presence of the far right in the streets and the ballot box.

The state, it seems, is the only judge and jury of both the freedom to speak, and the content of that speech

And now, we are witnessing calls to intensify state led censorship and the criminalisation of dissent. In the wake of the attacks, Luigi Di Maio, Italy's foreign minister is even suggesting a US-style Patriot Act that was introduced following 9/11. 

While governments gather and organise to further roll back our liberties, we too must do so in true defence of our freedom of speech. 

Interestingly, across the Muslim world, from Senegal to Bangladesh, people loudly expressed their views through protests, boycotts and rallies against what they felt was the French President's defence of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. 

We should learn from the actions of those fighting the French state across the Global South. If we don't mobilise, march, strike, and get organised, if we allow our liberties to be undermined under the cover of the War on Terror, if we look the other way under the guise of defending the right to offend, we will continue to see the political space to debate and make demands on those in power shrink away. Power concedes nothing without demand. Either we start demanding, or we concede our power.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.