When Freedom Ain’t Free: Muslim Protest and the Language of the Unheard

Excerpt from Counterpunch


Why did one straw break the camels backs? Here’s the secret, there’s a million other straws underneath it.”
– Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), “Mathematics”

The controversies around “free speech” and Muslims that were provoked by the film trailer The Innocence of Muslims, the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the left leaning Charlie Hebdo newspaper in France, and more recently the racist pro-Zionist subway ads in New York City have quite predictably provoked a ground swell of anger, frustration, and confusion when it comes to dissent by those who happen to be Muslims.

While some protests abroad turned violent, and protests against the cartoons were banned in “democratic” France, President Obama himself weighed in on the topic at the United Nations recently, extolling the virtues of the U.S. and its support of “free speech” to the global community. But in making this an issue simply of “free speech,” the media pundits, talking heads, “experts,” and many Muslims themselves quite predictably relied on clichéd tropes that not only further cement deeply held racist ideas about Muslims, but also undermine and ignore the complex issues that these protests and dissent are rooted in.

Because “free speech” is held as the cornerstone of Western liberal democracy, interpreting these protests through this lens frames Muslims as being against free expression, and even freedom itself. More subtly and significantly, it suggests that Muslims are medieval and rooted in tradition, outside the fold of democracy and modernity. This has been a well-worn, tried and true way of talking about Muslims – part of a racist colonial past inherited by the imperial present in which “they” are savage, primitive, and irrational, while “we” are civilized, modern, and rational.

What made this racist framework abundantly clear were the recent pro-Zionist subway ads that appeared in New York last week and also in the Bay Area several weeks before that said, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” By invoking the language of “civilized” and “the savage,” these ads not only laid bare and made clear the deeply racist and white supremacist logic that drives the policies of the U.S. and its allies throughout the world, but they have also made abundantly clear to all of us who are really listening and watching that despite the wishes of those hawks who want to bring it back to “restore order,” or the guilty liberal consciences who believe it to be a thing of the past, the logic of colonialism is still very much alive and well, determining the fate and life chances of the vast majority of the worlds people outside of Europe and the United States.

That white supremacy and racism continue to define the “West” should not surprise anyone – though it probably does for some, if not many others. Remember Mitt Romney’s claim on his visit to London this past summer that Obama “does not share our Anglo-Saxon heritage”? A dog whistle comment if there ever was one, as Romney’s wink to the British and to the rest of Western Europe revealed something far more sinister. For we have to remember that “the West” is less a geographical marker and more of an ideological one, a catch-all phrase that stands in for a set of ideals, values and beliefs that are used to distinguish “the West” from “the Rest”: free speech, democracy, the “rule of law,” liberalism, and all things civilized, modern, and progressive…

Originally published on 10.16.2012 in Counterpunch.