A new year has begun and I eagerly await my flying car while contemplating what new challenges this year will bring. Nobody could have anticipated that a new challenge to free speach would be issued so early in the new year. It caught plenty of people including myself, completely off guard. I have a special soft spot for France. For several years I called the suburbs of Paris my home. As it was with countless others, I was horrified to hear the news of the terrorist attack on the weekly Magazine, Charlie Hebdo on January 7.
This incident is however far from the first time that France has had to deal with a terrorist threat. Long before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 9/11, several bombs exploded in the metro and regional rail network of Paris. It was the year 1995 and it also happened to be around the time that I moved there as an 8 year old. Memories from this time are shady at best but I do remember all the public garbage cans being sealed to prevent potential evil doers from leaving bombs in the trash. The result was of course that garbage started to pile up around the garbage cans. One very vivid memory I have of that time however was the fear of going underground to the metro. I once cried and begged not to go down to the metro because I was scared that bad people where going to blow up me and my family. It’s hard to describe this fear today but thankfully have not experienced sheer terror quite like it since. When it comes to terrorist attacks, body count and number of injured always seem to grab the headlines but the psychological effect that they have on people is certainly more insidious.
It should be considered prudent to think to use horrific events such as this to reflect on the state of affairs. Why did this happen? How should the world community respond? There are plenty of things to contemplate when it comes to terrorist attacks and answers are often hard to come by. This is without a doubt the greatest challenge that freedom of expression has faced since the small Danish newspaper, Jyllands Posten published cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammed back in 2004 and the resulting fallout that they caused. Those cartoons resulted in news outlets shamefully censoring themselves out of fear of violence, Danish embassies in several countries where attacked and perhaps most shameful of all was that several Islamic majority countries pushed for an anti-blasphemy resolution at the UN. The reaction to the Danish cartoons was a big blow for freedom of expression and too many people condemned the cartoons instead of condemning extremists who where threatening an old man with violence for the rather innocent act of drawing some rather distasteful cartoons.
No matter how distasteful cartoons can be, no matter how much you can disagree with a cartoonist, there is nothing wrong with drawing an image of Muhammed in and of it self. There are plenty of historic examples of Islamic art depicting Muhammed so it is needless to say that the prohibition on depicting Muhammed amongst Muslims is a recent one. So the right response to these attacks is not to start censoring images of Muhammed or playing the racism card for sharing Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The right response is not to call for the death penalty for Islamic extremists or to attack Muslims places of worship. The right response is not to say that the attackers where not real Muslims. It has been pretty well established that they where despite their insane interpretation of the Koran and to deny that is to ignore relevant facts. I would also like to remind the Icelandic police that the right response is not to arm our police, there is no reason to suspect that Islamic extremism is a problem here. The right response is not to blame western military campaigns in Islamic countries. There is a world of difference between a military campaign and terrorist attacks on innocent civilians. The right response is not increased internet censorship Last but not least this attack does not call for the increased surveillance of Muslims.
In a recent interview, MP for the conservative Independence Party, Ásmundur Friðriksson made his contemptible ignorance known to the public. It must be noted that other MP’s and members of his party have been quick to condemn his comments. Ásmundur Friðriksson suggests that Iceland’s roughly 1500 Muslims should be investigated for cases of Islamic extremism despite the fact that Christian extremists probably outnumber all of Iceland’s Muslims. He however saw no reason to investigate Christian extremists and that people like Anders Behring Breivik have no supporters. Breivik has plenty of supporters and he apparently gets thousands of letters each month from nut-jobs all over the globe. Ásmundur’s ideas would only serve to isolate Muslims in Iceland. It should be in the interest of Icelanders to do the exact opposite and do everything in their power to make Muslims feel welcome in this country, that’s how you fight extremism.
The correct response to atrocities such as those that happened in France is to expand freedom of speech. Extremists feed on socially isolated people and immigrants tend to be isolated in societies where they do not get good opportunities to adapt to their new society. It is also worthy to mention the fact that the majority of the victims of terrorism today are Muslims and it is rather sad to see that terrorist attacks in the West are required for people to realize what a threat extremists can be. If we want to combat extremism the best thing we can do is to let them speak their mind and confront their insane beliefs. The social isolation of immigrants must also be confronted to make it more difficult for extremists to lure them into insanity.
A couple of suggestions I would put forward on how to respond to this tragedy in my own country can only be achieved by a broad consensus in our parliament, Alþingi. One would be to put an end to criminal prosecution for blasphemy. Yes you read that right, Iceland in 21. century still has a law criminalizing blasphemy. The second suggestion I have is to finish IMMI (The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative) which would make Iceland amongst the best countries in the world for freedom of expression. It would mean that we could have serious bragging rights on the international stage and lets face it, Icelanders love to brag. This is how we can show the international community how to respond correctly to terrorism and how to honor those who give their lives for freedom of expression.