The Paris attacks were not about freedom of expression

”Satire is dead“ by Nathi Nguabane.
”Satire is dead“ by Nathi Nguabane.

I am a writer, a journalist, even a satirist sometimes. I understand the value of freedom. And I also understand that part of our responsibility is to defend most precisely that which we do not agree with. Similarly, it is incumbent on us to call bullshit when we see it, argues AZAD ESSA.

The events of the past two days have left us startled, angry and confused.

By now, it is common knowledge that two men walked into a magazine office armed with AK47s and opened fire on a group of writers, artists and satirists in Paris.

Then, in a subsequent shootout with police officers, one attacker approached an injured cop, and casually fired a single shot into the back of his skull. No mercy. He was executed.

In total, 12 people were killed, 11 others injured.

Within an hour, the French President Francois Hollande named it a “terrorist attack”.


In the frenzied hours following the attack at the Charlie Hebdo office, the masked assailants were identified. Their mugshots lingered on news channels and websites. The search was on to find the suspects.  But no real explanations were offered as to how their identities had been determined.

Charlie Hebdo has endured a tense history with irritable Muslims since it first published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006. This week’s attack then, replete with the requisite chants of “God is great” and talk of avenging the Prophet’s honour, was easy to understand.

Naturally, the carefully orchestrated attack immediately became yet another example of an irreconcilable, vengeful Muslim, upset on behalf of the unseen and willing to kill for it.

Before long, it was depicted as an unparalleled war on the freedom of expression.

But it is worth looking back at the facts.


No group has yet to claim responsibility for the attack. The ISIL group reportedly applauded the attack, as we expect them to, but hasn’t taken responsibility for it. Neither has Al Qaeda, also known to hog the limelight, made any *claim for the crime.

Two men murdered 12 people in an attack on the magazine’s office; why then has it been labelled a terror attack and not a heinous, brutal murder by two idiots?

Is it because some Muslims have burnt flags, marched to embassies and descended to the streets en masse each time there has been a cartoon or movie or satire that has offended them? Possibly. But how does this incident naturally transform from an act of two individuals into massive war against European values and, more specifically, freedom of expression?

Moreover, how did it escalate into a larger discourse of “us” versus “them”; how did an entire religion get placed onto the stand for a public whipping, when it is ultimately just these two men who must be arrested and punished if found guilty?


To suggest that this is about irreconcilable values, an attack against the freedom of speech and expression is a farce. It is also a corpulent, untruthful summation of European values, which are liberal only when it benefits those in power.

It is a criminal offense to deny the holocaust in Western Europe. In France in particular, religious attire of a certain type is unlawful. The colour of your skin in Germany or the wrong amount of facial hair on the wrong skin colour in Belgium can undermine your opportunities for employment, earning a promotion or renting an apartment.

Non-European values are unwelcome here in the land of liberty. France and Britain continue to involve themselves in American-led wars abroad, while maintaining an ambiguous policy for migrants trying to flee their war-torn nations. For the past 14 years almost eight people have died every day trying to reach wealthy countries, particularly those in Europe.

Interestingly, in June 2014, France became the first country in the world to outlaw pro-Palestine protests. At the time, referring to the decision, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said: “I consider that the conditions are not right to guarantee security.”

So, if freedom of expression and equal access to opportunity are not givens, and universal human rights is part of political expediency, how then is this attack a bombardment upon those values that don’t even fully exist?

To be sure, framing these attacks as an attack on freedom of expression is a diversion tactic.


It seeks to find simplistic explanations in an “us” versus “them” rhetoric that has little relevance to the lives of many of the criminals who commit these crimes. What the diversion does is take away attention from the roots of discontent and yes, violence, among many Muslims today, be it in the suburbs of Paris or the streets of Gaza.

Again, we don’t want to talk about causality, because this raises uncomfortable questions about the legacies of colonialism, racism and economic exploitation that remain firmly enmeshed with the ideas purported by the very same Western liberalism that shouts “freedom of expression!”.

These populations are traumatised. And from traumatised communities emerge these acts of violence that seem senseless and barbaric.

One thing must be noted: yes, those cartoons offended many, many Muslims. But a vast majority do not see these attacks as being justified. For many, they are politically, not religiously motivated. What the cartoons symbolise and represent, in a global war on terror, which is increasingly being seen as a global war on Islam, is just another peg in a list of grievances that Muslims feel is being imposed on their identities and faith worldwide.

I must admit, these are precarious waters to tread. I am a writer, a journalist, even a satirist sometimes. I understand the value of freedom. And I also understand that part of our responsibility is to defend most precisely that which we do not agree with – to muzzle dissent is to fuel anger. This is the nature of our craft. Similarly, it is incumbent on us to call bullshit when we see it.


There is an alarming hysteria around the heinous attack. A number of mosques have been attacked in France.

Lives have been lost, as hundreds and thousands are every day in cities and towns and villages across the globe – to crime, war, disease and famine. Yet, how is it that these daily routines do not set in motion immediate meta-narratives of human incompatibility? Is it because these happen in towns with names like Bangui or Beni, where life is cheap and ideology irrelevant?

Something is certainly not right.

To attach extra significance to the wretched tactics of two men, and to suggest a greater war on freedom of expression, is to falsely sanctify an often reductionist and racist outlook to European integration. Crucially, the hysteria to “Islamise” a crime that is unlawful within Islam itself is to bring to life the very racist archetypes in the cartoons, as pointed out by their detractors – some Muslims, secular leftists, and cultural critics.

Let’s be clear, these cartoonists did not deserve to be silenced. They were certainly not the avant-garde of European enlightenment and there’s no reason to exaggerate their contribution, or turn their projects into a shrine. Their reactionary work was neither crucial nor important to the larger discussion in a rapidly-changing Europe. But it was a voice, nonetheless, and sometimes, a dark and funny one.

These killers, who had more in common with boys in the hood than your typical Islamist in Raqah, held no mandate other than their own.

If anything, the global media and analysts are only personifying their own internal bias towards Muslims, in what is otherwise known as Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, and this is the crux, nothing less than fear, hate and distrust of Muslims lies at the very heart of this knee-jerk discourse, which does nothing to enhance or forward a meaningful discussion.

Azad1-11Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera and an executive editor at The Daily Vox.

Follow, stalk and direct your abuse to him on Twitter

*Update: A source at Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular (AQAP), operating in Yemen, told The Intercept late on Friday that the suspects were working under an AQAP’s directive to conduct the operation.


  1. I agree with you that painting a whole religion with the same brush is out of order, however Islam needs to take a hard look at itself and ask the question,’What is it that causes radicalization only among Muslims and not other religions.’ Something somewhere is wrong, yes these journos who died might not have been a relevant voice in society, but what gives those two murderers the right to take the law into their own hands? For you to say, ‘They must be tried and punished IF found guilty’ is very irresponsible. More like when found guilty, they murdered 12 people in cold blood all in the name of a prophet whom they hold in higher esteem than God. I was in Nairobi when ‘Muslims’ slaughtered innocent people in a mall in the name of ‘religion’. For you to use your journalistic privilege to try and defend a religion which breeds more radicals than all other religions combined is shameful, you should be joining your brothers in faith and putting heads together to see how you can save what little is left of Islam.

  2. Wenyoros comment is an entire pile of fallacies. 1) Muslims do not hold any prophets in any more esteem than Allah, indeed we love our prophets because Allah has ordered us to respect his mercy and our role models whom he created from our brethren.

    2) There is PLENTY of radicalization in non-Muslim circles. 90+ percent of terrorist attacks (I believe number is about 93-96) have been committed by non-Muslims. There are extremist Christians ethnically cleansin entire areas of Muslims in Central Africa. There are extremist Buddhists doin same in Sri Lanka and Burma, not only versus Muslims either but also versus other faiths and even mainstream Buddhists. There are of course secular wars for freedom, apparently, which have killed at least a million people and hurt many, many more in Iraq, Syria, Afhanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia. These are not isolated incidents, they are systemic and on a vast scale, far more than a deplorable but isolated shootout versus a frankly racist publication.

    Your hatefilled comment badly posed as concern is and factually riddled with errors.

  3. @Abdul-Aziz Abdul-Qadir Muhammad

    “Ordered us”? Take some responsibility, willl you! Maybe Allah is expecting a lot more of its children than they have demonstrated over recent decades. Allah has given you a highly sophisticated brain but it often seems that many muslims (muslim leaders) haven’t used theirs since the 15th century. Muslims were once at the pinnacle of modern society (see Granada). Great explorers, doctors, physicists, astronomers, etc. And today? Sky high inferior complex. Just look at the UAE and you will see what I mean.

    I am 100% against the mess in the Maghreb and Levant – and so are many others in the West. There is no excuse for it and our governments/industrial complexes must be put on trial for these crimes the sooner the better. I also agree that there is lots of racism in Europe and lately a strong uprise of the far right. However, we are aware of these problems and we Europeans fight against them. Je suis Charlie is not just a message towards islamic extremists but also a strong message towards the far right. We won’t let them seize the opportunity to use the incident in Paris for their cause. I personally don’t want more surveillance by the government, more “security checks” and especially not more “War on Terror” (to disguise economic interests).

    Having said that – is the West the only reason for the downfall of the islamic world? I don’t think so. I think the islamic world is tragically stuck in time and urgently needs significant modernization. Modern leaders with strong values but open to change. The only beacon of hope in that regard is Oman. Praising its heritage but simultaneously allowing progress. I think it is time for all muslims to stand up united and join peace protests against violence.

    2) Facts and sources please! Yes, there are horrible crimes against muslims occuring every single days … BUT they are mostly the result of muslims killing muslims.

    For your information: I am a proud atheist – a kafir who must be killed (2:191). I don’t favor any religion.

    • “Fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. Allah does not like transgressors.” 2:190

      “And kill them wherever you overtake them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and fitnah is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al- Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.” 2:191

  4. […] Here’s an example for the latter : « (…) we don’t want to talk about causality, because this raises uncomfortable questions about the legacies of colonialism, racism and economic exploitation that remain firmly enmeshed with the ideas purported by the very same Western liberalism that shouts “freedom of expression! (…) “These populations are traumatised. And from traumatised communities emerge these acts of violence that seem senseless and barbaric. » (The Daily Vox, “The Paris attacks were not about freedom of expression”) […]

  5. It is a valuable write-up from the author which sums up the dilemma of west vis-a vis Islam. Blasphemy against Christianity is an offence in Britain and any person can be tried & punished for it but when it comes to Islam-They brand it as “freedom of expression”.It is high time that a wider debate is opened to clear the contradictions within. Should freedom of expression be an absolute right whatever the consequences- is the question we need to frame & attempt a solution?
    Having said that -it needs to be reiterated that no offended person has any right to take law into his hands & kill persons.Instead law of the land or international law, if framed for the purpose,should be used to punish the delinquent.

    • Blasphemy laws in the UK were abolished just under 10 years ago. The last person to be successfully prosecuted for it was in 70s. The last person to go to jail was in the 20s. The last person to be hanged for blasphemy in the UK was in the 1600s.

    • Blasphemy is no longer an offence in Britain, it was abolished in 2008. (Although it is technically still an offence in Northern Ireland, the Human Rights Act of 1998 makes it unlikely that anyone would be charged for blasphemy. ) In practice no-one had been convicted of blasphemy for many years, and although still on the books until 2008, it had fallen out of use.

  6. To address a few points:
    * I think it’s right that you can freely express yourself. Although others may disagree with your opinion, I think that your ability to openly talk about your views, is something many people in countries around the world (Muslim and non-Muslim) take for granted, while others do not have this right.
    * The EU isn’t perfect, but IT IS one of the most progressive group of nations when it comes to accepting asylum claims and protecting human rights. I can’t think of any other country or group of countries that legislate and (try to) enforce human rights across such a large population.
    *The resulting Islamaphobia and labelling these attacks as terrorist attacks is the result of it being motivated by the attackers choice of using the banner of Islam to justify their actions. Not only did they attack the values of freedom of speech by trying to silence the journalists, they also ‘attacked’ the millions of Muslims by tainting their faith. As western people rally to defend their values, so too should people of Muslim faith rally to protect the ideals of their faith rather than write articles about skewed perceptions and biased press. Muslims should stand united against the radicalised and not shrug the blame.

  7. What a load of baloney! Younger brother Cherif was sentenced to three years in prison for being part of a jihadist recruitment ring. ISIS radio broadcast Thursday praised the attackers, calling them “brave jihadists.” Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsular confirmed the brothers were working under their directive. What other evidence do you need to confirm these scumbags were terrorists and not isolated criminals? If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it IS a duck! Moreover there is no wide condemnation of the attacks by major Muslim organizations as usual. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that this is just another piece to a bigger puzzle. These religious whack jobs are set to destroy the West and its ideals by all means necessary. The West is not perfect and has its flaws, but unlike the Muslim world it admits its faults and is self- critical. And by all measuring sticks, the West clearly makes a concerted effort to tolerate and accommodate all people and religions. In many Muslim countries other people and religions are not tolerated at all. And women continue to be oppressed. So illustrate some introspection in your next article. The first step to recovery is admission that you (not others) have a problem!

    Like Horst I am an atheist and oppose all forms of ancient superstition used to divide, oppress, kill and maim people. We live in the 21st century and should be guided by science and reason, not religious dogma and fanaticism!

    And finally to all Muslims who live in the West but hate the West, I urge you to move back to the countries you came from. Please do not stay and complain about your host country when you have a home that supports your view of the world.

    And to the West, stay out of the Middle East, let these people solve their own problems, even if they kill each other in drones. They have to go through their own “Dark Ages” to reach the epoch of Enlightenment, just like Europe did 400 years ago.

  8. We all make assumptions all the time, we see patterns and that’s worked pretty well for us for thousands of years. Certainly we make mistakes and we all have biases and it’s always easier to see the perspective of people that we identify with. Nobody is able to be perfectly objective.

    When a young Israeli settler shoots a Palestinian, a Palestinian shoots an Israeli, an American youth shoots up his school or a group of people shoot up a newspaper known to mock religion, we make assumptions. In this case, those assumptions seem to have been proved correct – it was very unlikely that the Catholics or vegans did it.

    Similar assumptions would have been proved correct in Northern Ireland 20 years ago. There, the crazies were Christians. They’ve often been Christians. In America, there are a lot of American Christian crazies and if a mosque is ever shot up there, we’ll probably have accurate assumptions of where to look first.

    “These populations are traumatised. And from traumatised communities emerge these acts of violence that seem senseless and barbaric.”

    They ARE senseless and barbaric. Many societies have been traumatised and haven’t gone postal. Greeks aren’t happy economically but they aren’t shooting Germans, right? Those populations in France have moved there and want France to let them live as they did in the old country. I wouldn’t expect to move to Saudi Arabia and not have some requirement for a change in lifestyle. I wouldn’t shoot the place up if they didn’t like me, I’d likely just assume they’re too different and move somewhere that has more of what I want. If you move to a place you need to bend somewhat. Or don’t move there.

    “Traumatised”. Really. No, Paris is now traumatised, all of it. Jews, Christians, Muslims. This certainly hasn’t helped the conversation and all sides have some work to do.

  9. Dear author.
    If people in this world agree with the fact that a spade has to be called a spade. And everyone has the guts to call a spade a spade then we shall have proper diagnosis and can cure the cancer of extremism. ANY LOAD OF EXPLANATION CAN NEVER EVER JUSTIFY MURDER.

  10. Some facts about Qatar,where Al Jazeera is based and funded by the
    the ruling famlly: The death penalty for apostasy and professing atheism, incarceration for up to 7 years for proselytizing any religion other than Islam,, 7 years for insulting Islam ( however that is defined). Would you agree that this attests to a strong internal bias against Christianity and other religions? It is precisely these precepts,which are mainstream and accepted in much of the Islamic world , which embolden disaffected and traumatised individuals to plan and carry out terror attacks. To engage thoughtful Muslims on these issues is certainly not Islamophobic, but unfortunately it seems to have become the label of choice used to stifle debate.

  11. Hello,

    The fact that the criminals claimed their ideological attachement to ISIS and Al-Quaida, and the fact that they were clearly financed to operate these attacks, shows that they were not simple “idiots” but, to the contrary, that a political idea was behind their actions.

    I agree that the whole discourse on war is not right, that the situation is way more complex and multi-causal. Nevertheless, come on, let’s look at the fact, these attacks were ideological and terrorist even if neither ISIS nor Al-Quaida claimed responsibility.

    • Musad did claim responsibility, all facts and evidences are there.
      It seems you guys pretending to be intellectuals, the article is clear, Islam can not be hold ransom because of two stupids for been manipulated by Musad. Did you listen to one of them interview before they quick killed them intentionally, He was told what he had to say with out been asked about who did finance them.

      And when the horrific assassinations of 12 media people and the wounding of another 12 media workers resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds (indeed, former Vice President Cheney boldly asserted he would order that kind of torture again without thinking twice)?

      • Dear A. Habiballah,

        I think you misread me. Where do you see in my comment that I hold Islam ransom for anything ? I don’t even mention it. I was just saying that I think the author of this article is wrong when he says : “These killers, who had more in common with boys in the hood than your typical Islamist in Raqah, held no mandate other than their own”.

        Then, I do wonder why other outrages are not taken equally, thank you for asking (by the way, you ask the question but do not answer it, so I don’t really know what your point is…). I think it’s either because those outrages are too far away for the common french/american/… news watcher, or because the symbolic is not directly aimed at him, or because to his eyes some lives are less important than others (which of course is aweful). But to be fair, I think that citizens from Argentina or from Egypt (to take random examples) are not equally interested in everything that happens on the world as well. I think no one can take equal outrage for everything that happens.
        And as the US, the Argentinian and the Egyptian states are not all white and good – as France, as any other states in fact.

        Anyway, your remark is very far away from what I wanted to say, and I fail to see how it’s relevant. Concerning your remark on the financing, he did say in the interview who helped and financed him in Yemen. Concerning your remark on Musad, it comes out of the blue and it’s not worth commenting.

        I hope I’m clearer.

  12. Some of the defences of “Freedom of Expression” sound like defences of the right to bully and verbally abuse people. I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate to compare the killers with those at Columbine and other US schools.

  13. Islam, like everything else in this world is viewed in terms of some kind of broad scale grouping and generalization. The ANC locally is very happy to paint all white people with the racism brush, but because of the past we can’t stand up and say well that’s not true. The leadership just fob you off and leave you in the box of white beneficiaries of apartheid. Which in itself is ironic because not all white people are rich or middle class. Everybody knows this but politics doesn’t allow the connection to be made.

    So while most of Islam is peaceful and slot into the world as normal citizens, categorization is made in terms of who rocks the boat hardest. So while these are isolated incidents, Paris, Kenya, Nigeria, Peshawar, India, Egypt etc etc. cumulatively all this adds up and allows an easy deduction to be made.

    I guess the question to be asked is, what has been done to make the world think these are isolated incidents?

    Finally, Islam wants to feel welcome in the west, but outside of the few more liberal zones, westerners have to check their religion and culture at the door in order to stay out of jail or avoid major fines. Where is the equilibrium there.

    Just a thought.

  14. If a Frenchman or any other European were to see a woman with an extremely ugly-looking baby (in his opinion), would it be right to say to her, “Is that your monkey?”

    You may honestly think that the child looks worse than a monkey and you may have the right to say what you feel but I would be surprised if any respectable lady or gentleman would do that.

    It is not decent. It is callous and simply not right to throw such an insult at the subject of one’s love and affection, whatever your own opinion.

    That said, like all reasonable people all over the world (muslims and non-muslims alike), I condemn the act of violence and loss of lives in Paris. IMHO, the Divine is more than able to defend His honour on His own.

    • I think the US has to be blamed and take responsibility for each and every terrorist attacks and wars on earth!! Who created Al Qaeda and ISIS? It’s the US who created Al Qaeda to attack Russia in late 80’s. it’s US who trained and armed the IS in Jordan to remove Assad! It’s the US who trained and armed BokoHaram of Nigeria so that it can come up with the solution that suits their interest in west Africa. It’s The US who created z lab made Ebola virus and found unlimited access to diamond reach areas of west Africa. It’s z US who give weapons for both Kurds and z IS so that no one will win nor will lose. Whenever there is oil, US will give u an assignment to be solved for long long time. Remember, the only countries that are benefiting from the act of terror and war are those who manufacture weapons, I.e. wests!!!! PEACE to our world!!!!

    • Hey SR Chen,

      If a guy would say that to you, you can sue him to justice. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can insulte or diffame people, and it is condemned by the law — just like freedom of movement doesn’t mean you can fight with anyone on the street. Of course, a right for freedom is never complete, but it is counter-balanced by other rights.

  15. When you say “These populations are traumatised. And from traumatised communities emerge these acts of violence that seem senseless and barbaric.” What communities are you referring to, the poor, the boys in the hood, the Algerians living in France, or Muslim? It appears a contradictory statement to the premise of your central argument that these are the lone acts of two (three?) individuals?
    When I say “I am Charlie/Baga/Gaza” and I speak only for myself, I am saying that everyone has the right to life, that I oppose killing of any form, whether it be satirists sitting at their desks, mothers carrying water in their village, or people eking out a living in a walled off compound. America, France, Europe has much to answer for their colonialism, for their invasion of Middle Eastern countries, for their arbitrary drawing of country’s boundaries/ borders that took no account of local tribes and cultures, but killing innocents is not the way to hold those countries accountable.
    I don’t get the sense that the French who took to the streets in their millions were anti Islam, as we cannot paint Islam into a corner based on the acts of three individuals, so to the attacks against Mosques cannot paint the French as a whole into one corner.
    Every nut (and politician) with a cause will try attach their flag to this bandwagon, it can’t be avoided, what we can avoid is assuming the actions of over 3 million French people taking to the streets is singular in its action based on the actions of a few.
    I agree that we have lost sight of the underlying impact of circumstance on the “terrorists” lives, that their hood has more influence than their religion, that all religions have their extremists that use their religion as cover for their deprived acts. But you miss the significance of the response in your rush to make this about Islamaphobia…
    I am Charlie is not about all Muslims are terrorists, it’s about the sanctity of life and protesting the senseless taking thereof. But then, that is only the opinion of one…

  16. With the title of the blog I guessed who is the writer of it, and I was right. Where the world is condemning the Paris attack you are supporting the act. No wonder why all of you generalised in a same why, and then you blame the media, press, America and the whole world for the discrimination and terror image.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here