Threats to freedom of speech persist across the Middle East. In the wake of the attacks against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by two young men claiming to fight for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, thousands spontaneously gathered in demonstrations across the country defiantly holding pens and proudly displaying signs declaring “Je suis Charlie.” While solidarity demonstrations in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were an affirmation of unity and resolve to uphold the liberal democratic values deeply held in Europe and the United States, they overshadow the true threat to freedom of speech originating from the Middle East: its repressive regimes.
The Charlie Hebdo attacks sparked an intense and at times uncomfortable discussion over what constitutes free speech and where the limits of protection lie. In the United States it means that the right for hate groups and extremists of all kinds to espouse their radical beliefs is protected unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But even this has limits; support for a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, which the American Civil Liberties Union has consistently argued is protected under the first amendment, enjoyed as high as a 71% approval rating less than three decades ago and has been considered several times by Congress. The European Union passed legislation enabling member countries to punish Holocaust denial with jail sentences in the mid-2000s. Blasphemy laws exist across the world not only in Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, but also Turkey, Germany, and Ireland. It is clear that across the globe it is an agreed upon principal that governments have the legal authority to set the limits of free speech according to their societies.
However, many regimes have used these laws limiting free speech as a cover to stifle political dissident. Pakistan is an example of proscribing religious strife to maintain peace and stability. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws have long been used as a disguise to settle personal disputes and discourage political dissent. Other examples include that of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, up to 10 years in prison, and a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyals (after losing his appeal of the original sentence of 600 lashes and up to 7 years in prison no less) for “insulting Islam” on his website, The Liberal Saudi Network, which encouraged debate on religion and politics in Saudi Arabia.
In recent years Turkey, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, jailed the most journalists of any country in the world. As recently as December of last year, raids across the country detained at least 23 people for insulting public officials. The detainees included journalists and television producers linked to his political rival, the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen who has accused the administration of corruption. Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s “John Stewart” for his similar satirical television show that often targeted political leaders, was briefly arrested for “insulting the president” and “insulting Islam” under the short-lived Morsi regime and feeling similar pressure and harassment from elements connected to the al-Sissi government cancelled his show.
The repressive nature of these regimes that curtail free speech and legitimate political opposition in the guise of defending Islam or protecting against sedition set the conditions for violent extremism. Terrorist leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden all grew up under regimes where violent crackdowns on political opposition, the jailing of dissidents, and prohibition of public criticism were common practices. Is it any wonder then that when men whose political identities are forged in autocracy and repression emerge as leaders they turn to coercion, control, and violence rather than conversation and compromise, and voting?
The United States needs to boost encouragement and increase pressure on regimes that restrict freedom of expression to make the necessary reforms that prevent social and political disenfranchisement, which furthers calls for violence to bring attention to grievances. It is far less costly to promote and encourage civic development before political despair leads down the path to violent extremism requiring a military or heavy-handed law enforcement solution. Without addressing the fundamental causes of alienation, which in addition to freedom of speech include the lack of socio-economic opportunity and government corruption, the terrorism and violence that increasingly spills over borders in a globalized world will continue to wash up on the America’s shores.