Brussels, Ottawa, Paris, Sydney, ‘Terrorist’ attacks in these western cities in the last one year have claimed 29 lives. Add to this the beheadings of western citizens by the Islamic State. The horror evoked by these has led to an outcry against Islam and fierce debates about the necessity of reform in Islam. In France, 3.7 million people marched in solidarity — in the largest public rally since the Second World War — with the victims of Charlie Hebdo to show that western civilisation cannot be defeated by Islamic fanatics.

We are back to the days of 9/11 and other terror events in the West, and the debate assumes familiar directions: freedom of speech versus violent threats to it and the enlightened West versus barbaric Islam. We are presented this black and white world even by non-Muslim and non-western nations who have joined the project of moderating and domesticating Islam. Of course, there have been nuanced positions which have affirmed the right to free speech while at the same time calling out Charlie Hebdo for its racist portrayals of Islam. But the issue is larger than this.

To fundamentally put this black and white picture into question, the whole notion of freedom of speech needs to be untangled. Of course, freedom of speech is an absolute imperative in a democracy. But what is being missed is that freedom of speech in the West is built on a vast array of unfreedom and violence, both elsewhere and within its own society. Islamic terror is not only an occasion for shocking us into ruminating about the need for reform in Islam — as seems to be the dominant opinion — but should also be about the entire basis of the liberal democratic western civilisation, the various kinds of violence unleashed by it and the silence concerning this.

This questioning should lead to the other crucial aspect: the need to account for material and economic factors which are completely missing in the discourse surrounding fanatical Islam. Instead, the clash of Islam with the West, or reform within Islam, is seen to be merely a spiritual or ideological enterprise having nothing to do with material factors.

The greatest tragedy of modernity is that state-sponsored violence sanctioned under the guise of democracy is not classified as terror. So any amount of violence to maintain liberal democracy in the West evokes no horror or calls for reform of state practices. From 2003 to 2011, during the US-led invasion of Iraq, nearly 500,000 Iraqis died because the American state decided that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. When the entire western firmament is seething after the Paris attacks, where are truth, atonement and justice when it comes to a gargantuan scale of death and destruction caused by unpardonable errors in western state policy?

As of November 2014, America has conducted 500 targeted killings through drones of suspected terrorists, which have led to the death of 3,674 people. It is estimated that repeated attempts to kill 41 high-profile suspects have killed around 1,147 people, including children and women. These are the accuracy levels of the supposedly most precise combat technique invented which has a huge acceptance among the American population. State-sanctioned violence of western imperialism is not terror, only collateral damage — something that is necessary in the overall scheme of maintaining liberty, equality and fraternity.

There are no solidarity marches and editorials condemning these dastardly acts, for the celebrated freedom of speech masquerades as silence here. Modernity makes us believe that beheadings of innocent individuals that are televised are gory and barbaric, while the aerial bombings of women and children away from television cameras are the inevitable costs of protecting ‘our’ democratic freedoms. And anybody who dares to break the silence to expose the phoniness of freedom of speech and the act of speaking the truth is crushed under the boots of the democratic state just like Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, now serving 35 years in prison.

So let us not have any illusions about the freedom of speech that is currently being defended. What does freedom of speech mean when we are taught to think like a herd through various techniques of manufacturing consent by the elite, the capitalist market and the surveillance state? When we see the shameful irony of world leaders, who have committed terrible infractions against free speech marching together in Paris for Charlie Hebdo, one is reminded of the words of the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman: ‘When Cheney, Blair and Berlusconi go to celebrate the memory of the Holocaust, it acts in such a way that it allows them to say: “Whatever we do is against evil” ‘.

The threats to freedom of speech in the West are, as the scholar Talal Asad argued before, less from the fanatic fringe of Islamists who violently eliminate individuals and more from the overwhelming consensus among western citizens that violence and terror or limits to speech are not generated by their own societies. This invisible face of their own role in some of the greatest acts of violence and destruction since the beginning of western colonialism and continuing racism and neo-colonialism, is one of the main reasons for the conceit of modernity and the current morass that we are in.

This conceit gets even more intriguing when the West calls for the reform of Islam. For it completely ignores its material interests in oil and the role it has played in shoring up and strengthening the most conservative and fundamentalist trends within Islam, like Wahhabism, which have grown exponentially with the help of petrodollars.

In the quest for oil, the West has aided not only in the destruction of plural and syncretic traditions within Islam, but also actively scotched secular democratic experiments right from the founding years of a postcolonial Middle East. When Syria in the present becomes the hotbed of Islamist terror, we forget that the first democratically elected government of Syria was overthrown by a military coup strongly believed to have been abetted by America. This, along with others like the western-orchestrated scuttling of democracy in Iran (1953) for oil, has laid the seeds of present monstrosities.

The problems of today cannot resolve themselves unless there is a simultaneous radical restructuring of both sides. Addressing, say, egregious gender oppression by Islamic fundamentalism would have to go along with a critique of western support to reactionary religio-patriarchies of states like Saudi Arabia (witness the astonishing outpouring of grief and praise by the western leaders on the death of King Abdullah). Problems will also not be solved by the kind of response that the recent tragedy has engendered. In the age of Twitter and Facebook solidarities, the responses are viral, but at the same time vacuous. If it was ‘I will ride with you’ for Sydney, it is ‘I am Charlie’ for Paris. Without questioning the sincerity of some of these emotions, one can question the lack of supporting institutions and material conditions to put them into practice.

Until invisible violence and its material basis are acknowledged, we will continue to skate through inane responses which produce more crises. In the same week as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Boko Haram killed 2,000 people. But this was hardly news in the western media. Peshawar did not occasion solidarity marches either. Will there be a time when a single drone attack such as the one in Pakistan that killed 69 children will cause as much revulsion as Charlie Hebdo? Will there be a time when silences end and solidarities become real? To ask these questions is not to question the importance of limited freedoms or the West’s contribution to them, but to point out their contradictions and ironies; to show how in their so-called triumph, they hide many faces of terror. Without unmasking them, there will be no liberty for all.

 

By Vikramaditya Sangwan