Almost a month ago, the French Club at the University of Chicago invited Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui to discuss "the context surrounding Charlie Hebdo, the French culture of satire and secularism, and freedom of expression in our contemporary society." An event on freedom of expression, however, quickly turned to a kickboxing match with a single kickboxer and Islam as her punching bag. With every xenophobic punch and kick to the faith and its followers, the captivated audience applauded and nodded their heads, hypnotized by the hate being espoused.
As a student who fully understands the value of open dialogue, discourse and the exchange of ideas and opinions, I fully respect the invitation and El Rhazoui exercising her right to freedom of expression. What I cannot revere, however, as a human being who values human life, dignity and respect, the degree of intolerance with which El Rhazoui expressed her views on Islam. I say this not to stifle freedom of expression as many have accused me of doing; rather, I say this to highlight the very real consequences that result from an individual's inability to voice her opinion in a matter that does not pose a danger to groups with dissenting perspectives -- in particular, groups that are consistently and systematically ridiculed, harassed and demeaned.
In a recent troubling article published on the New York Times, contributor Judith Shulevitz attacked students for creating safe spaces for survivors of sexual assault and violence, attempting to support her claim that "students [are] so eager to self-infantalize." Shulevitz falsely maintains that the creation of safe spaces somehow undermines freedom of expression in a way that is "bad for them and for everyone else." Upon graduating and being thrown into the real world, these self-infantalized children will "be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them."
There are many problems with this line of thinking, not least important of which is that it is embedded in an inherent double standard. When students stand up and ask for things such as shared spaces, we are criticized as being unable to maturely deal with criticism, offense and hurt feelings. For example, Shulevitz references my own question which I posed to El Rhazoui during the event. Shulevitz falsely frames my question as my being "so overcome by [my] own fragility" that I could not accept Charlie Hebdo's "disrespect" of Muslims and Islam.
This is not at all what I called into question. Rather, my objections arose out of the assertion El Rhazoui implicitly made, an assertion that I was not deserving of the same right to freedom of expression that she herself was exercising. In a portion of the conversation that has unfortunately been cut (notice the jump to closing remarks at 1:30:24) from the recording posted on YouTube, El Rhazoui responds to my rejection of the phrase "JeSuisCharlie" and by my decision to cover my body in highly disturbing ways. For example, at one point El Rhazoui goes so far as to suggest that Muslims leave their religion at home and not bring it to public places.
The double standard is apparent. Shulevitz essentially applauds El Rhazoui's expression while simultaneously depicting me as fragile, failing to realize that I too was trying to exercise my own freedom of expression. She is not alone in these depictions. Often, I and my Muslim brothers and sisters are labeled as crazy, radical Muslims trying to force a backwards religion on the West. Men are labeled as terrorists and women as oppressed and incapable of breaking the chains of a "humiliating" religion, as El Rhazoui suggests. We have seen a rise in Muslims being depicted as subhuman, backwards and not worthy of rights, when we are painted as "other" with brush strokes of hate and intolerance.
This rhetoric is used often within social circles, media and political platforms. The danger this rhetoric poses to Muslims and society at large is real and manifests itself daily with vandalized property, pulled scarves and pulled guns, with death and spilt blood. How many more Deah Barakats, Yusor Abu-Salha's and Razan Abu-Salha's does our society need to lose before we reach a realization that the espousal of hate comes at a price?
I can appreciate satire and rhetoric that propels individuals to challenge their respective beliefs and social norms because that leads to growth on both an individual and societal level. However, when this is absent, when opinions are voiced for no other reason than to hurt, to harm and to degrade, then I can no longer celebrate this freedom of expression. What the French Club's event achieved, for example, is a failure to create productive dialogue while simultaneously endangering an already vulnerable population by communicating to the audience false reasons to hate an entire group of over one-and-a-half billion in an attempt to depict them all as radical and anti-democratic. When this point is reached, it is no longer dialogue; it is merely hate.
I did not leave the event with hurt feelings. What I did leave with was fear that I had become a walking target. I feared, and I still do, that those who would like to harm me may do so without punishment or consequence. What Shulevitz's assertions do is undermine the legitimate concerns that individuals have in regards to certain types of expressions that threaten a group's livelihood and right to life. Admittedly, this is not always the case and thus there must be a distinction made between hurt feelings and a legitimate fear for one's livelihood in order to protect freedom of expression. In addition to this, however, we must be wary of when such freedom of expression reinforces structures that deepen a group's continued subjection to systematic oppression.
Shulevitz condemns the current generation of students but fails to realize that it is these very same students standing at the forefront, guiding our society to much needed change. As a current fourth-year college student, I join my peers in asking our society to consider whether there is a place for morality in our modern conception of freedom of expression. As an aspiring leader of the free world, I argue that freedom of expression without morality is no freedom at all. I hope to live in a society that values freedom of expression while also understanding apologetically the responsibility that comes with wielding such power.
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