Freedom of speech on both sides of the Mediterranean

On 7th January, two terrorists claiming to be part of an Islamist group (allegedly al-Qaeda) attacked the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, leaving 12 people dead. The reasons underpinning the attack reportedly lay in the offensive cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo regarding the Prophet, which supposedly have lampooned Islam. Charlie Hebdo is a weekly satirical newspaper (“Hebdo” is the abbreviation of hebdomadaire in French), which was founded in 1970 and which has always been characterised by a provocative and radical stance, often making use of scurrility as an instrument for lampooning religions and political actors whatsoever.

Without delving into the facts that happened that day, what can seem much more interesting is the reaction of the “West” (I will use the commas only when talking about whatever you think is at the origin of our world): the majority of us stood in the name of freedom of speech, while a few accused the newspaper of being too blasphemous. The “Western world” thus divided into two main groups “Je suis Charlie” and “Je ne suis pas Charlie”: the first group condemning the terrorist attack and willing to fight Islam and its extremist forms, the second condemning the attacks too, but claiming part of the responsibilities to the French newspaper for the dramatic consequences its publications led to. On the wake of these events, a huge debate on freedom of speech has broken out: has the attacks violated the right of freedom of speech? Is freedom of speech a right that is universally accepted? Or is not it just a “Western” product? Is freedom of speech always limitless? Or does it have limits and boundaries? Do we have to blame the French newspaper for the consequences its satirical cartoons led to?

Providing adequate and satisfying answers to these questions, which have given rise to heated debates since time immemorial, is far from my aim. What I will try to do in these few lines is providing a framework that could trigger a better understanding of the state of freedom on both sides of the Mediterranean, a sea that is actually dividing more than bridging. Thus, I will try to address a few episodes that occurred in the area before the Charlie Hebdo attack, hoping they will shed light on the actual state of freedom in this part of the world.

First, in 1992 Farag Fouda was assassinated by members of al-Jama’at al-Islamiyya, an Egyptian Islamist group that made recourse to violence, especially during the years 1992-1998. An Egyptian thinker and philosopher, Farag Fouda strongly condemned Islamist movements and their attempt at using democracy just as a mean and not as a télos. He wrote many books and articles attacking these groups and their supporters, using just irony and his pen as weapons. His extreme ability to historicise and frame each event into a more general flow of facts, to lampoon Islamist reasoning and course of action, and to pull Islamist supporters’ leg, brought about his dead.

I am living in Egypt at the moment I am writing this article. There is a story I have been told about the assassination of Farag Fouda. Whether true or not, it is worth mentioning: during the trial, when asked about the reasons that led to Farag Fouda’s assassination, one of the killers answered that they lay in the content of his books. When further asked about which specific book was at the origin of the terrorist attack, or which specific words, the indicted admitted he could not read. I am firmly convinced that this short story, whether corroborated by proofs or not, sums up perfectly well the way terrorist movements act on the minds of individuals that are easy to manipulate. And I am not only talking about Islamist organisations, but terrorism of any kind, faith and political orientation from any region of the world.

A second important assassination that is worth citing here happened in 1987 in London (that same year, the First Intifada uprisings began in Palestine): thus, we move to the Northern part of the Mediterranean. The victim was Naji al-Ali, perhaps the most popular cartoonist in the Arab world. Naji al-Ali was a Palestinian refugee who lived in the Ein al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon. His cartoons lampooned all kinds of despotism and repressions, standing always on the part of the poor. The always-present symbol in Naji al-Ali’s cartoons is Handala, a barefoot child showing his back to the audience with his hands crossed behind. His sorrowful attitude is there to symbolise a rejection of present’s misdeeds.

Naji al-Ali used, as weapons, just his hands and the pencil they grabbed. As is for Handala, his hands were the only instruments he owned to denounce the injustice perpetrated by both Arab countries and Israel government on Palestinian people. He died, as did Farag Fouda, as did Charlie Hebdo’s journalists, because of his irony and his (uncomfortable) satirical stance.

A third example has to be made and it concerns Raif Badawi, who has been sentenced to 1000 lashes by the Saudi Arabian government because of the critic and reactionary posts on the blog he created (just as a reminder, Saudi Arabia is one of the favourite allies of the U.S. government). Once again, someone, whose only fault was that of expressing his point of view, using either a pen or the keyboard of his/her laptop, has been forcefully silenced. Amnesty International declared him a “prisoner of conscience”, that means, as first explained in Peter Benenson article on “The Observer” in 1961, titled The Forgotten Prisoners: « […] Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence. We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own […] ».

While thinking about these episodes, a sudden logical connection is made in my mind to the words and thoughts of Italian thinker and political activist, Antonio Gramsci. Hegemony, as he taught us, is primarily reached through the imposition of a certain narration. That is all, and that is true. This simple thought can help us understand why so many regimes are devoted to silence those who tell, literally, another story, a story different from the one that justifies (religiously or not) the existence of a certain hierarchy of power and of a determined status quo.

Now, the question is: are we sure that also “our” evolved and democratic societies are completely immune from acts of censorships and silencing of people willing to put forth a different narration? I am not sure the answer can be a firm “Yes”. I will tell you a story to make the point.

Bulgarian Edict (2002) stated by the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The Bulgarian Edict was simply a statement, made by Berlusconi, during a meeting with the Bulgarian Prime Minister (that is the reason of the name), in which he accused few Italian journalists of exploiting public television (it was more than clear that their opinions were considered dangerous and contrary to Berlusconi’s point of view). Consequently, the three cited journalists, Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro and Daniele Luttazzi, were removed from the screens.

Someone may be very angry at this point of the article due to this (hazardous) comparison, but I can not help seeing some similarities between the above-mentioned examples. One among others: the innermost necessity, of those in power or of those who want to gain power, of imposing their narration of events, history and ideas. Different ideas, different versions of the same story may put the status quo at risk. That is why the struggle is always on what is said, and why so many people all over the world are oppressed and harassed just for what they claim, write, draw.

Going back to the beginning of this article, from where this flow of words took origin, the Charlie Hebdo episode can be framed into a wider spectrum of episodes that had at their core centre not the issue of freedom of speech itself, but rather the issue of power and narration. Having power means having the power of speech. One more historical example may be useful. In “Robinson Crusoe”, by Daniel Defoe, there is a clear example of what was at the centre of colonialism: the power to name. The relationship between Friday and Robinson symbolises perfectly well the relationship between masters and slaves.

Charlie Hebdo cartoons were troublesome, because they offended what is central to Islamist appeal, that is a certain radical version of what they call “religion”. As were troublesome Farag Fouda, Naji al-Ali, Raif Badawi and Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro and Daniele Luttazzi.

There is still much work to do, on both sides of the Mediterranean, as far as freedom of speech is concerned. According to the World Press Freedom Index 2014, Italy occupies the 49th position, after countries such as Niger and Botswana. The International Declaration on Human Rights, ex article 21, defends freedom of speech as one of the inalienable rights human beings possess for the mere fact of being human beings. Defending it is useful, but it is also important not to use a double standard when judging episodes. I have the impression that the Charlie Hebdo episode is being exploited for the sake of another narration of power, which is the same one that is willing to build walls rather than bridges on the Mediterranean.


Master’s degree in Languages and Cultures for International Communication and Cooperation (University of Milan)

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