As the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were happening, we were on a layover in Amsterdam. We had just gone into the city center, checked out the prostitutes and marveled at Amsterdam’s open communication about drug possession, and were back in the airport when I started reading the news.
Where were you?
Like many of you, I followed the news breathlessly, checking my news apps day and night. Probably like many of you, I had many discussions about extremists, the Islam religion, the Christian Crusades, and freedom of speech. Like a few of you, I drew angry comparisons between the media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and the lack of interest on the Boko Haram massacres in northern Nigeria. Read The Guardian’s article “Why Did the World Ignore Boko Haram’s Baga Attacks” here.
Following all the arguments, opinions, publications and blogs online, I want to say that as a writer, of course I believe in freedom of speech; but especially as a writer, I believe that it is a unique muscle which must be exercised with caution.
As a circus-fitness instructor, I can give you a million warm-up-your-muscles-carefully metaphors, the point of which being: I am happy that the muscle of freedom of speech has (so far) been exercised with such caution and such lack of prejudice in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
I don’t like the idea of Charlie Hebdo making fun of the Prophet Muhammed and I understand Muslim outrage at this. Of course it should never lead to murder. There is a fine line between freedom of speech and inciting anger. Could Fascist caricaturists say they were using their right of freedom of expression when they depicted Jews in anti-Semetic ways?
(My boyfriend has great arguments against mine. As a law student, he has had so many vivacious discussions with me with opposing opinions, which are really helping us sharpen our arguments & beliefs. For this, I am endlessly grateful to him.)
I believe there is a fine line between FREEDOM OF SPEECH and RESPECT. I would not poke fun at the Prophet simply because I respect the Islam belief that he should not be depicted nor made fun of. That’s okay by me. Yet this line is so fine and so fragile, I am sure we will have many more discussions about it.
In the aftermath of the massacres and the great holding up of pens, I tweeted:
I understand that many people hearing about the massacres in
#Nigeria don’t feel affected because they don’t know anyone. Well: you know me.
This message highlights a belief that I think about often and don’t yet have a suggestion of solving for.
Most of us will read the news with empathy, but admittedly with distance. After our layover in Amsterdam, we were greeted at Aberdeen Dyce Airport by a bulletin that read: “COMING FROM WEST AFRICA? There is a new epidemic called ebola…” and the information continued. We sarcastically remarked: “Oh, new, is it?” Ebola has been around for years, but now that it is reaching Europe, it is suddenly a topic of conversation.
But this cannot be critised. At the end of the day, most people won’t be concerned by the massacres in Nigeria or the Ebola in Liberia, because there is an international opinion of Africa as a poor, devastated continent on its knees, where terrible things such as AIDS and Ebola simply happen.
I want to confess: When the war in Syria was at its peak and the death tolls were raging through the news, I didn’t read it for very long.
Because Syria does not affect me. And why?
Because I don’t know any Syrians.
If I hadn’t grown up in Nigeria, my perception of the country would most likely be a wild place where terrible things like this happen – and nothing more. The following is from the excellent film Hotel Rwanda, a drama based on a true story during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Joaquin Phoenix is a camera man filming the genocide for the news.
A few months ago, a young man called Peter Kassig (or, after his conversion to Islam, Abdul-Rahman Kassig) was captured during his humanitarian work in Syria and beheaded by ISIS. When I opened Facebook the morning after, it was filled with a good friend’s outrage, pain, anger and sorrow. She had known Peter. They had met in her home town Beirut, he had stayed at her house and she had even met his father. She posted pictures of him chilling on her sofa, mid-laugh, enjoying a cigarette. She raged about ISIS, about the state of the world, about how gentle and kind he had been. I read all her posts and I cried with her.
This really brought the ISIS beheadings home to me. I spent hours on the internet researching Peter’s humanitarian work, ISIS and the ISIS victims.
How do we connect this world? How do we raise a generation that doesn’t watch the news with complete apathy? – Or, god forbid, doesn’t watch the news at all.
It is the people we know.
I read the news the way I do because I have friends in the U.S Army & Air Force; in Lebanon and Israel; in Germany (thinking of PEDIGA rallies in Dresden & Leipzig); in Vienna; in Nigeria; in Peru, etc etc etc. When an earthquake happens, a massacre, a riot – I have people I contact on Facebook to see if they are alright.
That affects how I read the news.
My only idea so far is to urge everyone reading this to adopt a godchild; one living in Egypt, Liberia, Nigeria, Syria, Lebanon, Peru, Belgium, New Caledonia – perhaps in the country that affects & interests you the least – and then we’ll see how people read the news.
We CANNOT afford to separate ourselves from the terrible or joyful events happening in the world. We cannot afford ignorance or separation. I am happy we live in this internet-era of great digital connectivity. People argue that it is making us lose touch with one another – and yes, I’ve sat in cafés where no one speaks because everyone is on their phone – but the internet is connecting us, and the more we travel, the more we care about countries, people and fates.
I would urge everyone to travel to countries that don’t interest them, to make a connection and then see how their interest in the news changes.
Before we became a couple, my boyfriend knew very little of Peru and nothing of Nigeria. Now he is becoming an expert on indigenous civil rights and Ken Saro-Wiwa… and I am reading Václav Havel and Jiří Weil.
Travel, make friends, fall in love outside of your culture, adopt a godchild. Don’t read the news with apathy.