Holdgruen: Free speech protests amplify Islamophobia in France

The newest social justice hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” reveals how easily social and political issues are skewed by media to benefit a white majority at the expense of the oppressed. The “#JeSuisCharlie” protest movement is in response to the murder of 12 people at the offices of Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo in early January.

Five of the victims were cartoonists famous for creating “satirical” comics that were often insensitive or blatantly racist. Many of the cartoons were anti-Semitic, sexist and depicted Islamophobic images of the prophet Muhammad. Islam forbids creating or viewing physical images of the prophet.

The attackers, who were eventually killed by police, were Muslim men previously involved in an Islamist jihad network. It is believed they targeted the magazine because of its history of publishing the Islamophobic cartoons.

The “#JeSuisCharlie” movement aims to emphasize freedom of speech. The phrase, meaning “I Am Charlie” in French, stands to support the magazine’s right to publish any desired content, including offensive cartoons. What millions of protesters and Internet supporters fail to realize, however, is that by supporting Charlie Hebdo, they are supporting dangerously racist speech.

With France’s ongoing history of Islamophobia, it seems the protesters might not even notice. In a 2014 poll, 27 percent of 1,003 French participants claimed they held an unfavorable opinion of French Muslims. Three-quarters of participants also believed Islam to be an “intolerant” religion.

France’s 2011 public ban on the niqab, burka and other full face coverings is criticized for being religiously intolerant and discriminatory toward Muslim women among the country’s strictly secular culture. Muslim women are attacked in the streets of France simply because of their style of dress and religious expression. Although head coverings such as the hijab are not included in the ban, some Muslim women feel social pressures to refrain from displaying their religion at all for fear of violence.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, America endured a surge of increased Islamophobia due to fear and ignorance; now it is no different in France. According to Tell MAMA, an organization that studies anti-Muslim violence, there were at least 15 attacks against Muslims recorded in only a few days after the shooting. In less than a week, multiple mosques were shot at with guns, attacked with amateur bombs and vandalized. While millions of people show support for Charlie Hebdo’s obvious right to freedom of speech, millions of innocent Muslims in France face ongoing discrimination and Islamophobic violence.

What makes “#JeSuisCharlie” so easy to spread and share around the world is the belief that the average person can make a difference. People sitting at their computers feel a sense of accomplishment by sending a positive, supportive tweet about a movement that seems popular, righteous and easy enough to understand.

The movement, however, is whitewashed and protects a freedom that goes hand in hand with white privilege. A secular magazine can publish anti-Muslim content, but any Muslim heard criticizing anything is seen as a terrorist and a threat. Mainstream media makes the movement seem inspirational and supportive of freedom, but true social justice fights for those who are social constructed to not have a voice.

The victims at Charlie Hebdo absolutely did not deserve to die, especially in such a terrifying tragedy. They were innocent, hardworking people cherished by friends and families. But they should not be praised and held to high esteem for their problematic and dishonest journalism. The movement created from this tragedy should acknowledge and respect the lives of millions of innocent Muslims that it alienates.