Every life begins the same way. A tiny, helpless, human being is hurdled into an unpredictable and unforgiving world through the birth canal. Almost immediately the infant finds breath, takes in air, and makes a sound. It’s an unmistakably familiar noise. The child cries out. Without any words, without any formalized language, the infant’s first natural instinct is to express herself. The baby screams to signal her needs. She is cold. She is hungry. She wants to be held. It could be argued that amongst our most precious unalienable rights, the right to freedom of expression is the first right that each of us will exercise in our lives. The continued necessity to respect, protect, and fight for the right to speak freely has been brought to the spotlight in the most heinous way, looking back on the events of the past week in Paris.
Before last week, most Americans had never heard of Charlie Hebdo. The French magazine is primarily known for its scathing; some would even say bigoted, portrayals of politicians, religious figures, and other high profile figures. The satirical media outlet gained infamy for its highly offensive cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Whether one believes the caricatures to be an unreasonably provocative overreach or a fearless stand against religious fanaticism, the fact remains that violence, especially to the extent shown in the Charlie Hebdo murders, is inhumane, unwarranted and unjust. So in the days ahead, millions of people all over the world will show solidarity with the slain artists and writers. Some will march. Some will gather in mass demonstrations. Others will post their heartfelt sentiments of support on social media. But we would do a great disservice to the concept of free speech and the freedom of expression if we limit the conversation to the liberties of the journalists who lost their lives.
It would be an understatement to describe the relationship between the French government and the minority Muslim population of France as contentious. Muslims in France have long bore the brunt systemic discrimination and institutionalized prejudice. French Muslims make up roughly ten percent of the French population, but they account for nearly sixty percent of the French prison population. What’s more is the fact that the often bitterly embattled minority group has been subject to a number of controversial laws limiting their rights to religious expression. The terrorists who carried out the attacks were from the French Muslim community. And while their deplorable actions can never be excused or even fully explained, it should not go overlooked that their road to radicalization quite possibly began with the pain of feeling like a second-class citizen with limited liberties. It is indeed ironic. Individuals who understand full well the frustration of having their voices thwarted somehow find some twisted sense of justice by silencing the voice of others.
As the French people and government grapple with the aftermath of the terror attacks, the world will literally be watching. France is at a critical crossroad. They have a choice to move forward governing by fear or governing by freedom. Humans have a confounding habit of claiming to be free while draping themselves in fear-based legislation. Remember the Patriot Act? Hopefully, they will choose the road less taken and choose not to bow down to their fears. How amazing would it be if France took a stand and decided that freedom is a higher virtue than a false sense of security? Last week the Eiffel Tower went dark in a show of mourning for the lives lost. May the absence of those spectacular lights be a reminder of what the world might be if not for those bold enough to embrace their God-given freedoms, even in the face of their greatest fears.
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