Controversy At Paris Solidarity Rally

Other | Tuesday 13th January 2015 | Matt

Yesterday's march saw millions descend on Paris in a display of solidarity, in scenes reminiscent of the end of the Second World War and the liberation of occupied France.

However, the presence of a number of controversial world leaders has somewhat undermined the intended message of the marchers, given that many of the foreign dignitaries attending in apparent support of free speech are guilty of overseeing gross censorship of the press in their own countries. 

Twitter user @DanielWickham93 has helpfully published a comprehensive list of those in attendance, accompanied by an explanation of their respective countries'  and their recent crimes against free expression.

The question is then, how can we honestly rally behind a movement that is being so shamelessly highjacked for political purposes? When the representatives of such teeth-grindingly repressive countries as Russia, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, among others, can march arm in arm with our leaders without an official word of reproach, how do we reclaim the movement?

Back in 2005, we faced a similar problem and with the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks nothing has changed. Following the publication of a cartoon of Muhammad by a Dutch newspaper, Danish embassies around the world were attacked and burned. Dutch nationals were subjected to a campaign of targeted violence throughout various countries.

Back then, however, many of the countries that now condemn terror attacks on newspapers were busy condemning the cartoons and not the killings that followed them.

Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was particularly vocal in his criticism of Denmark for allowing the cartoons to be published. Egypt and the Arab League were equally critical of the Danish administration, asking the Prime Minister to censor the cartoons despite the fact that censorship of the press is illegal under Danish law.

Flash forward ten years and you will be hard pressed to find a political leader willing to take the same position, with even hard-line organisations such as Hamas rushing to condemn the attacks. Where were these people ten years ago?

Whilst some of this tonal shift is undoubtedly due to the legacy of the Arab Spring uprisings, and the generally more moderate political sentiment that has followed, the list of World leaders and political parties condemning the recent attacks whilst simultaneously endorsing or funding international terrorism is frankly staggering.

It is shameful that our government has been markedly silent in its condemnation of such figures.

Among the worst cases of those feigning sympathy with Charlie Hebdo include Syrian dictator and mass murderer President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria. When a man who imprisoned 200,000 people for opposing his regime can say he supports freedom of the press, you're staring hypocrisy in the face. 

Similarly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has condemned the attacks, although refraining from mentioning Charlie Hebdo by name. Although the Iranian leader's time in office has seen the country become seemingly more open and Republican, such statements seem little more than diversionary tactics to mask the repressive actions of the true head of the country, supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

The world watched in horror as Iran imprisoned a group of young people for posting a video of them dancing to Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ last year, and back in 2000 Khamenei was named as "one of the top ten enemies of the press and freedom of expression".

We should be careful not to take this recent statement at face value, as it comes during a particularly fraught negotiation over the country’s nuclear programme. As Iran tries to gain political support from the West, you’ll hear more statements like this in the coming months.

Of course, Theresa May might be too weak to call out any of the aforementioned countries, as any attack by Britain will recall their own attempts to restrict civil liberties and freedom of the press here in the UK.

With our leaders paralysed by international niceties, it is up to us to ensure we are well informed enough to avoid being deceived by unscrupulous politicians.

This is a complicated debate. Not everyone who says Je Suis Charlie is your friend and proper scrutiny of those who adopt this mantra is required if the ideals of free speech, free thought, and free inquiry are to hold any meaning whatsoever.