While the ideal of unfettered free speech is held as sacrosanct in most of “the west,” there are certain utterances that should not be communicated publically. In general there are no laws prohibiting such speech, although sometimes hate crime law or European post-WWII anti-fascist restrictions come into play. But under certain circumstances language becomes weaponized. When this weaponized language is deployed consonant with existing power imbalances, then it becomes a tool of structural oppression whose value as free speech is eclipsed by the reality of its abuse.
There are no laws against white people calling Blacks “niggers” as a term of abuse. Blacks call themselves nigga all of the time. But when whites do so in anger in the US, then such conduct carries with it the sum total of the history of structural racism and slavery that combined with Native genocide and expropriation is the original sin of the United States. Most Americans who support the first amendment would blanche at governmental prior restraint of this diction but would just as likely shun or physically assault such a verbal assailant.
Similarly, there are no laws against using vile misogynist language by men against women. Nobody is going to jail over calling a woman a “cunt.” But using that word reinforces the history of sexist oppression by men of women in Judeo-Christian culture. Judeo-Christianity has been rendered banal to the extent that parochial proscriptions of male supremacy are largely ignored and often ridiculed. But the misogynist hangover from religion is still with us. Misogynist language is not tolerated in remotely polite company far beyond the bounds of the usual politically correct circles.
Given the sensitivity to so many on the left of center for any language that oppresses them or “the most vulnerable,” there is a glaring omission of denying similar consideration to the most other of “the other,” especially when they are the “official enemy” and subject to regular “Two Minute Hate.”
In the case of Charlie Hebdo ridiculing the Islamic prophet, such language communicated visually connotes in the region the same power abuse as racist or misogynist language does in the US because simultaneous to the cartoon send ups, The West writ large is engaging in a decades long campaign of brutal assault on the predominantly Muslim Southwest Asian oil patch. In recent years, this has taken on a tone of the clash of cultures, sharpening the point of Judeo-Christianity warring with Islam. And the angry and vengeful Abrahamic God of desert scarcity takes no prisoners.
Politicized fundamentalist Isalm in the nation-state context did not exist prior to the United States and United Kingdom’s 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh government in Iran. This, along with the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala the next year and its six figure predominantly Maya body count, was the first test of the CIA as covert regime changer to protect those living over raw materials from their own electoral choices.
The resulting imposition of the Pahlavi dictatorship with its brutal SAVAK secret police exterminated any secular political opposition. The only forum for contesting the Pahlavi dictatorship was Islam, which politicized, polarized by the Christian patrons of Pahlavi. That approach was quite successful as the Iranian system is arguably more democratic in reflecting the will of the people at this point in time than is the US.
The nation-states in the region are artifacts of the France/UK 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement that crafted spheres of influence to benefit the imperial interests of the European powers and which had no legitimacy based on cultural affinities on the ground. These spheres of influence, which led to nation-state borders fixed in the stability of stone, divided the peoples to benefit the colonialists during the decolonization and post- colonial eras.
From the overthrow of the secular regimes in the region, Afghanistan in 1980, Iraq in 2003, Syria and Libya since 2011, the United States has played a key role in the rise of politicized fundamentalist Islam. This was intentional, as with the demise of the Soviet Union, the military industrial complex needed a new set of enemies in which to aim its perpetual war machine.
And of course there is the Israeli colonial settler crime against humanity and war crime spree in occupying and parceling out Palestine.
The body count is severe: a million or more dead in Iraq from sanctions, war and occupation, countless injured. Thousands of dead civilians are the product of the drone war operated by GI quacks pretending to operate surgically. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed, harassed, stripped of their lands and assaulted with white phosphorus.
Against this backdrop, “western” deployment of religious insults against Muslims take on the same character of power abuse as race and gender assaults outlined above. The words themselves are not so bad as the power abuse context in which they are issued.
In taking responsibility for the Paris attacks, Nasr al-Ansi, leader of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula said: “We tell you once again: Stop your insults on our prophet and sanctities. Stop spilling our blood. Leave our lands. Quit plundering our resources.”
The final three demands are legitimate grievances and underpin the power abuses that are being perpetrated by western governments with the resources of and in the name of western civilians. Had those crimes been perpetrated against the US and salt poured on the wounds with insults of Christianity, you’d better believe that American Christians would celebrate retaliation similar to what happened in Paris as a sacrament.
The solution is for “the west” to stop spilling their blood, leave their lands and quit plundering their resources. I’d add that “the west” needs to shell out considerable resources for reparations to undo the damning legacy of criminal damage that we’ve visited on the region.
And it is high time for the rest of the world to finance and facilitate the empowerment of the peoples of the region to come together redraw the boundaries of the nation-states or their successor forms in ways that reflect cultural realities on the ground.
After we clean up our mess and make people in the region whole, then and only then can we get on with the completing the project of relegating the Abrahamic religions to the dustbin of history and, as the late Charlie Hebdo publisher Stéphane Charbonnier claimed, to ‘mock Islam until it was “as banal as Catholicism.”‘
Marc Salomon is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and activist.