We Aren’t Charlie

If social media is any gauge of attitudes towards the brutal Charlie Hebdo attack, then most Jordanians appear to believe free speech should have its limits.

By Osama Al Sharif

Last month’s deadly attack by Islamist terrorists on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo triggered a global debate on the freedom of expression. Many in the Western world were convinced free speech was the real target of the bloody assault. While a great deal of Muslims deemed the journalists and cartoonists were gunned down for committing the unforgivable offence of lampooning the Prophet Mohammed.

The notorious Charlie Hebdo has been under threat from violent Islamists since it republished a set of anti-Islam cartoons that first appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005. The publication of the cartoons back then angered Muslims in Europe and in the Islamic world, prompting demonstrations and attacks on foreigners, churches, and diplomatic missions that caused many deaths and injuries. But the publishers of the newspapers that ran the cartoon insisted that they had the right to freely mock all religions.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, which came at a time of heightened Islamic extremist activity around the world, was widely condemned by many Muslim governments and Islamic organizations. The underlying reason was that such an attack was an assault on Islam; a religion of peace, compassion, and tolerance.

And when millions of French citizens, and other nationalities, demonstrated in solidarity with the newspaper under the banner of “Je Suis Charlie,” debate raged on social media outlets over where Muslims should stand on the matter. Jordanians took to Facebook and Twitter to express remorse, horror, anger, and glee at what happened. Some spoke of a conspiracy to defame Islam and Muslims, while others voiced their solidarity with the French victims. Many tried to distance Islam from the horrific crime that took place. Few defended the attackers and their motives.

Jordan officially condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the King and Queen attended a solidarity march in Paris as a message that the crime had nothing to do with Islam. Social media was abuzz with angry and sarcastic comments when the Israeli prime minister attended the march and elbowed his way to the front. The rally, seen as a defense of free expression and French republican ideals, raised questions about the true commitment of participants to free speech.

When Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack issue hit the stands, millions of Muslims were again offended. Its cover, which featured a cartoon of the Muslim prophet, was denounced by the Royal Court. Once more Jordanians took to social media to express their emotions. Most were horrified at the newspaper’s audacity, but a significant number pointed out what they saw as double standard in the West when it comes to the question of free speech and mocking Muslim beliefs. They were joining others from different cultures in raising questions about the limitations of free expression. Some questioned why Western governments ban anyone questioning the Holocaust, but look the other way when the convictions of more than a billion Muslims are mocked. And there were those who suggested that Europe, and even Charlie Hebdo, won’t stand for anti-Semitism while tolerating stabs at Islam, a religious minority much bigger than its Jewish counterpart in the West.

Jordanians also made comparisons about Europe’s impassioned reaction to the attack on the satirical weekly and its relative indifference to the deaths of over 2,000 Nigerians at the hands of Boko Haram that took place in the same week. Jordanian cartoonists and social media activists showed drawings and graphics of Palestinian children victimized by Israel who never received the global attention they deserved. One depicted two injured Gazan children raising a sign that read: “You can call me Charlie if that would make you care!”

Jordanians also discussed the concept of free speech, how it applies to them and how that notion differs from one culture to the other. They shared, and retweeted, hundreds of posts that disagreed with the conventional saying that Charlie Hebdo had every right to publish what it wants. They noted that many Western publications and media outlets, including the New York Times and Sky News, refused to show or reprint the offensive cartoons.

Indeed the Charlie Hebdo episode raised more questions than answers, not only in Jordan, but all over the world. Those conspiracists who believed that Israel had hired the French attackers to serve its own interests asked if the satirical newspaper could survive in Israel itself. Others were brave enough to admit that, like King Abdullah himself had said, that there is “a war within Islam” and that we should stand up against extremists who had “hijacked the Muslim religion.”

The bigger question that Jordanians debated on social media was if free speech should be allowed to encroach upon the beliefs and convictions of others. The majority, it seems, believe there should be a limit. And that although free speech remains a forsaken right in Jordan, in the end absolute freedom will certainly lead to chaos and eventually violence.