The Charlie Hebdo attacks weren’t about freedom of expression

Charlie-HebdoIn the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there was an immediate push from mainstream news outlets to frame the shooting as an attack on free speech and free expression. For journalists, the shootings seemed to hit closer to home than most other terrorist attacks, because Charlie Hebdo was newspaper-esque. I would guess that on January 7, more than a few journalists imagined what it would be like to have automatic gunfire ring out in their newsrooms. So it was easy for members of the media to feel as though they had to stand up for themselves and their work. But in making such a concerted effort to defend freedom of expression, and while ironically concerning themselves with whether or not to re-publish the “offensive” cartoons, news agencies failed to address the real issue that should be discussed after attacks like the one in Paris take place – the inequitable global distribution of wealth.

It’s easy to dismiss the actions of the gunmen, Cherif and Said Kouachi, as nothing more than the typical behaviour of radical Islamists. The attacks were carried out in Allah’s name, and it’s far from the first time Muslims have taken up arms because of some perceived offence to their overly-sensitive prophet. But what truly motivates someone to get so carried away with religion that he turns violent? What enrages someone so much that he would even turn to radical Islam in the first place? No one is born a terrorist; it takes at least some persuasion to kill others and be willing to die for an invisible, unproven entity. The question is, why is it so easy for radical Islamists to persuade so many people to do so?

To me, the answer to that question is far too many people on this planet live destitute lives. Poverty-stricken, jobless, uneducated, disenfranchised people are willing to accept any idea, no matter how bat shit crazy it may be, if it enables them to attach some value to their lives.

If a mad imam approached me and said I should massacre a group of people, then die in a barrage of police bullets, and in doing so I’d be rewarded in paradise with all the virgin pussy I could handle, I’d tell him to fuck right off. Why is it that I would tell the imam (or any other recruiter) to fuck off, but so many men agree to carry out his absurd instructions? It’s because despite my problems, I live a pretty comfortable life, and even though I know my death is inevitable, I’m not in a hurry to bring it about. I also don’t believe in paradise or heaven, but that’s a topic for another post.

I don’t think the Kouachi brothers had a vendetta against free speech. I think they felt useless, likely for a variety of reasons, and radical Islam gave them a way to feel some semblance of worth. That’s likely the case with many militant Muslims who carry out their insanity from Canada to Pakistan to Nigeria to Australia.

All this isn’t to say we should feel sorry for terrorists. They’re vile human beings and I’m glad the dead ones are dead and gone. But if we really want to cut off radical Islam’s supply line of angry, desperate, easily impressionable foot soldiers, we need to create a more equitable world. Because as long as poor, angry young men in the developing world see Westerners living comfortable lives, they’ll want to take out their frustration on someone – not because they hate free speech, but because they hate living their unhappy lives, and because they hate the fact that so many people have it so much better. We need to give struggling human beings reasons not to hate the West.

I don’t know exactly how to create that more equitable world; a world in which wealth is more evenly distributed, rather than stuffed in the pockets of a tiny percentage of elites. But I would suggest reigning in free capitalism is as good a place as any to start. We simply cannot continue to assume that the market will create jobs and wealth and prosperity for large swaths of the world’s populace. Unfettered capitalism has had decades to prove it’s the best method for running economic systems, and it’s been a colossal failure – not to mention an environmental scourge.

If left unchecked, the disparity between the world’s haves and have-nots will only expand to ever more mind-boggling levels, and those who don’t prosper will increasingly turn to extremists for guidance, who will likely guide them to Kalashnikovs and IEDs. Economic reform isn’t a panacea in itself; it’s a massive undertaking that needs to run alongside reforms to family planning, women’s rights, and religion. But like I said, it’s a start.

Free trade and free markets aren’t going to save the world, but alternatives to our current economic systems are rarely, if ever, discussed. Which brings me back to the issue of how news agencies covered the Paris shootings. They rallied up support for free expression, they eulogized their colleagues, and they made sure not to offend any more Muslims – radical, moderate, or otherwise. But they never dared to look at the source of all that rage and frustration and despair that masquerades as religious zeal. Why? Because uncovering the unjust nature of the economic systems that monetize the West at the expense of developing nations forces us to change a status quo that favours us. It forces us to consider sacrificing some of our own comfort for the betterment of others – which ultimately isn’t much of a sacrifice if it makes us safer.

Amidst the tragedy and outrage of the recent events in Paris, there is an opportunity to make our world safer, more peaceful, better. It’s no doubt a complicated and multi-generational task, but we won’t even get that project off the ground if we fail to understand what drives people to such barbarity, and if we keep ignoring the root causes of our strife. We can shout about the importance of free speech and expression until our throats are sore, but there’ll be a limitless line of extremists willing to slit our throats if we believe that’s all they care about.

Image via Tây Sơn News Wire

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About rasheedclarke

Award-winning author. Marathon runner. Exceptional dresser. I'd like to be all those things.

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