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Published: Thursday January 15, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday January 15, 2015 MYT 7:07:43 AM

The answer lies in between

While some claim freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, others claim such freedom of speech led to the violence in Paris.

JUST when we thought the year might get off to a good start, Paris happened. In three days, 20 people were killed; 12 in the original attack, five hostages in two related incidents and three of the assailants. By any measure this was a terrible tragedy, causing pain and suffering to all the families of the dead and injured.

Sadly, it will also cause lasting pain to the French Muslim community, in particular, and all Muslims elsewhere, in general, because once again, the entire community has been linked unjustly with extremism and violence.

Debates now rage about the value of freedom of speech. Some people say that in any democratic society we must have freedom of speech including the freedom to offend. Others say that it is that very freedom of speech that has led to this violence.

Like most things in life, the answer probably lies in between. Some commentators have pointed out that while satire is certainly part and parcel of a democratic society, it is usually aimed at the powerful as a way of pointing out their foibles and abuses. True satire that aims to bring justice in society never targets the weak and marginalised, voiceless people who look to others to bring their problems to society’s attention. As one tweet brilliantly put it, “I think satire should be a punch aimed up at the powerful, not a blow rained down on the weak.” I wonder sometimes what would happen if some of our rabid supremacists decided to launch a satirical magazine to draw cartoons of minorities in this country.

On the other hand, there are comments from some people that events like Charlie Hebdo “prove” that we need the Sedition Act. This is simply another way of saying that those journalists deserve to be killed because they were asking for it. If France had had a Sedition Act, they reason, then the magazine would have been stopped much earlier from drawing those cartoons, and the French Muslims would have been happy, despite being marginalised, suffering from poverty, unemployment and all the other things that generally breed disgruntlement. We seem to have a propensity to blame the victims for their troubles, much like we blame women who get raped for the way they dress or for being out at night.

I’m not sure how the Sedition Act that targets people talking and writing about local issues is going to stop Malaysians from going to join the Islamic State, arguably the most serious danger we now face.

Perhaps some people did not notice that the first policeman who was killed, brutally shot in the head as he lay wounded, was a Muslim called Ahmed Merabet. In a moving tribute to his dead brother, Malek Merabet said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims…Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

More than anything, Ahmed Merabet underscored what this was really about. That this was a killing of French people by French people, not of non-Muslims by Muslims. Just as, at one time, Northern Irish people killed other Northern Irish people. Undoubtedly one set of people felt disgruntled by treatment from the other and a small number decided that violence was to be their response. To then tar an entire community, as if every single member is a likely killer, is surely compounding the injustice.

Framing this tragedy entirely in Muslim/non-Muslim terms is of no use when life is much more complicated than that. Not only was one of the murdered policemen Muslim, so was one of the employees of the Jewish grocery where two gunmen held hostages. Lassan Bathily was hailed a hero for saving the lives of several hostages by hiding them in a freezer room. Malek Merabet made the same point: “I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites. One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither colour or religion,”

Which is a really pertinent point. Only mad people think that the way to solve problems is to gun down a bunch of cartoonists. On the other hand, it is also not reasonable to clamp down on people who are already downtrodden, or who already have no outlet to air their grouses and not expect some form of reaction. We should perhaps be thankful that in our country this reaction only comes in the form of peaceful demonstrations, articles and Facebook comments.

The real lesson to be learnt from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that inequality has consequences. But that may be lost on some people.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

Tags / Keywords: Marina Mahathir, columnist

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The answer lies in between

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While some claim freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, others claim such freedom of speech led to the violence in Paris.

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