Just hours after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, my mother sent a weary early morning text message to my siblings and me, asking if we had read the news. Before I answered, I received another text from her: “Be careful when you leave the house, habibti.”
She must have thought, for a fleeting moment, that I still lived in Paris, but it’s been nearly five months since I left France for New York. We were both together in Paris last year when the city quickly turned into a terrifying scene as police searched for a gunman who had opened fire in the lobby of the newspaper Libération and shot a photographer. The gunman had escaped on foot in the very arrondissement we happened to be walking in, which quickly filled with militarized police as a manhunt for a French Muslim commenced.
But the Jan. 7 attack was much worse, and I imagined the city was in more confusion and pain than that day last year. My imagination, of course, was quickly superseded by reality via text messages from friends in Paris, many of whom said they were afraid that the extreme-right parties will be pushed into greater popularity and further deepen the gulf between France and its Muslim citizens and that Islamophobia, already among the central problems in Europe, was being deliberately inflamed by Islamists. Even if my instinct was to stand in solidarity with the cartoonists and editors, I knew what my mother would be thinking. I knew she would be upset but not without bringing up Iraq or Yemen or Pakistan, because to gun down 12 people in cold blood is as foreign to the Islam of my mother’s house as the Hellfire missile killing a Pakistani family is foreign to the patriotism of her Texas house.
This isn’t the Islam I know. My pious mother is peaceful and loving, and throughout my childhood she opened her Houston home to people in need — girls, no older than me at the time, with missing limbs or burned bodies, many of whom were orphaned by war in Beirut or Gaza and who had come to the U.S. to seek specialized medical care. I can still recall each of their names.
If a room in our house was ever empty, it did not stay that way for long. Our green-card-toting cousins from Amman, Jordan, a family of eight, lived with us for years before they managed to find jobs. Anything paid better in the U.S. than the working-class conditions they left behind. Uncles, grandparents and distant relatives I had never before heard of, let alone met, all stayed at my mother’s house as if it were a way station for the poor and helpless. My mother always gave, even when we barely had enough for ourselves. She was always and still is moved by humanity and the religious conviction of compassion, or al-hanaan — my mother’s name.
There was never a time during my childhood when my family felt compelled to apologize for the actions of people who use violence to “defend” their ideologies of Islam. But this is the Islam the world is watching once again today: 12 people dead in a Paris weekly paper, all at the hands of three deranged fanatics. One of those killed was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer who confronted the attackers at the scene.
That the universal value of freedom of speech is being pushed into the center of debate is something of an irony. Many of us know and can say we want nothing to do with fanatics of any religion or cult, but fanaticism is available to all. But can we say the same thing about freedom of speech? When I lived in France, Stéphane Hessel, a Resistance hero and ex-diplomat, was denied the chance to speak at the École normale supérieure because of his writings on Gaza. What happened to freedom of speech when Eyal Sivan’s film “Route 181” was censored by the French Ministry of Culture and pulled out of France’s largest documentary film festival, Le Festival du cinéma du réel, because “it provoked intense emotion.” Or across the Atlantic, what happened to freedom of speech when Steven Salaita was hired as a tenured professor at the University of Illinois, only to be fired and have his life and career destroyed for writing allegedly offensive tweets against the state of Israel. Or when Brooklyn College attempted to keep the prominent scholar Judith Butler from speaking on campus, again for alleged incitement of hateful speech?
Of course, despite what my mother would say, there is no comparison between free speech and the brutal and merciless massacre of innocents. The recourse to violence is the end of any discussion. I have never been someone to apologize for the actions of people because I “understand” where their reactionary violence is coming from. But the fact remains that fundamentalist violence, which is to be condemned and resisted at every turn, is neither a religious phenomenon peculiar to Islam nor an ahistorical event. It is the result of intransigent and long-term marginalization of an impoverished, hopeless and huge community of humans in the world, most notably, in the present instance, in France. And if there is one thing that history teaches, is that when humans — any humans, of any religion and any nationality — are deprived of hope for their future and belief in the possibility of justice, they turn to violence.
Even so, we can still talk about the Islam I know, the Islam of my mother’s generosity and love for humanity. As a Palestinian from America with family still living under war and occupation in Gaza, I know what it feels like to be hopeless and angry. Still, I will accept that we are not meant to understand everything outside our very small worlds, even if the reciprocity of provocation and violence, all in the name of some fabricated understanding of ideology, is becoming more and more confusing.
Nothing excuses the brutal murder of 12 innocent people. Nothing. Whether done by three “terrorists” or soldiers protected by military orders — nothing.
What I do understand is that freedom, including freedom of speech, is not an exclusive possession. It has to be available for all — French, Muslim, American, Palestinian. Let us be fair in our speech, not only free. For this, we don’t have to be Charlie, and we don’t have to be Ahmed. We have to be human.