Anti-racism does not conflict with the freedom of speech

By Boraan Abdulkarim, Engage Minnesota

There are more than two perspectives on the recent happenings in France. If you want to wave two flags, do so undauntedly, even if one is raised higher.

One of the latest headline and conversation-dominating topics is the recent shooting in Paris. Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published another addition to a long line of cartoons that make a joke out of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, and this prompted gunmen, who claimed to be avenging the Prophet, to kill 12 Charlie Hebdo staff members.  Both bitter racism on behalf of Charlie Hebdo  and an infringement on Freedom of Speech on behalf of the gunmen were committed. In order to take a stance on the issue, individuals must ask themselves which of these wrongs is more immediate.

That’s where things get messy.

Pullquote Photo
— Chief Visual Editor, The Rubicon, Boraan Abdulkarim

It’s slowly evolved to become a fight to mark the good guys and the bad guys, and make the bad guys pay.”

Unfortunately, and this is what many people seem to have forgotten: being sympathetic to one cause does not render the other invalid. If you think Freedom of Speech is a non negotiable right and that Charlie Hebdo acted within the boundaries protected by that Freedom, you don’t  have to automatically dismiss the fact that the cartoons were deliberately offensive. Likewise, saying that the cartoons were racist or even provocative does not mean you don’t value freedom of speech or think the journalists’ actions merited death. Condemning terrorism does not imply a need to abandon anti-racism sentiments. As CNN Political Commentator Sally Kohn so eloquently phrased it in her CNN Article, “there is no inconsistency between supporting free speech for Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists and finding the content of some of their cartoons offensive and disrespectful.”

The conversation around these events has become too polarized.  It’s slowly evolved to become a fight to mark the good guys and the bad guys, and make the bad guys pay. If somebody expresses the opinion that the cartoons were hurtful, they are shot down to the opposite end of the spectrum, categorized as anti-free speech, and trapped in that box. This is detrimental to our understanding of how to move forward because the nature of what happened does not fit the way it’s being judged. Charlie Hebdo and the gunmen crossed lines. Publishing another offensive cartoon on Charlie Hebdo’s cover that came out on Wednesday does strike a blow to the gunmens’ attempt to quiet free speech, but it’s still a painful image for the majority of the Muslim population, those who are not terrorists. It hurts just as much the second or third or fourth time as it did the first. But even making that observation has tended to put people into defense mode, questioning the morals of anyone who dares “take the other side,” when in reality that’s not what they’re doing at all. One can support the freedom of speech without encouraging what has been spoken.

One can support the freedom of speech without encouraging what has been spoken.”

— Chief Visual Editor, Boraan Abdulkarim

The biggest obstacle in this situation, then, for people who support freedom of speech but are also offended by the callous depictions of Islam, is looking past the people who want clean cut opinions. An Us and a Them. The reality is that there are more than two perspectives about the events in France, and that needs to be honored. Accept that someone can believe in free speech and be offended by how it was used by Charlie Hebdo.

When people state that they support freedom of speech in such cases even through their pain from what’s been said, it means that it’s so dear to them that they can stand together with their oppressors to support a common cause. Reach out to these people. And if you are one of them, do not let people tell you what your opinions have to be.  If you see someone doing just that, don’t make them feel like they need to choose between the two.

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