They’re Not Charlie: Facebook Submits to Turkish Demands, Blocks Mohammed Images

AP Photo
AP Photo

After releasing a great deal of hot air about his commitment to free expression and his #JeSuisCharlie defiance of oppression, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bowed to sharia law and agreed to block Facebook pages judged insulting to Islam by a Turkish court. (Yes, that includes images from the best-selling post-massacre issue of Charlie Hebdo, including the cover, which doesn’t actually specify that the figure depicted in the cartoon is Mohammed.) It turns out his commitment to free speech was considerably lower in his list of priorities than Zuckerberg let on, during the heady outpouring of grief and anger following the Charlie Hebdo shootings.

Here’s what Zuckerberg was saying back then, in a January 8 statement:

A few years ago, an extremist in Pakistan fought to have me sentenced to death because Facebook refused to ban content about Mohammed that offended him.

We stood up for this because different voices — even if they’re sometimes offensive — can make the world a better and more interesting place.

Facebook has always been a place where people across the world share their views and ideas. We follow the laws in each country, but we never let one country or group of people dictate what people can share across the world.

Yet as I reflect on yesterday’s attack and my own experience with extremism, this is what we all need to reject — a group of extremists trying to silence the voices and opinions of everyone else around the world.

I won’t let that happen on Facebook. I’m committed to building a service where you can speak freely without fear of violence.

My thoughts are with the victims, their families, the people of France and the people all over the world who choose to share their views and ideas, even when that takes courage. ‪#‎JeSuisCharlie‬

But then a Turkish court threatened to shut off access to Facebook in that nation entirely if Zuckerberg didn’t knock off all that “I Am Charlie” stuff and make with the censorship, as part of what Reuters describes as “the latest move to crack down on material seen as offending religious sensibilities in the largely Muslim nation, where the government of President Tayyip Erdogan is widely seen as pursuing an Islamist-leaning agenda.” So defiance gave way to submission.  

Presumably if Zuckerberg feels the need to square Facebook’s bow to censorship with his earlier statement, he’ll say something about how he’s not going to let courts in Turkey censor the entire world’s access to material that offends the religious sensibilities of the one religion on Earth whose sensibilities matter to Western elites. (Well, okay, two, if you count the Church of Global Warming, but the elites all belong to that faith tradition.) He’s only letting Turkish courts deprive Turks of free speech, so he can be Charlie in most other countries… for the time being.

“It’s an illustration, perhaps, of how extremely complicated and nuanced issues of online speech really are,” judges Caitlin Dewey at the Washington Post.  “It’s also conclusive proof of what many tech critics said of Zuckerberg’s free-speech declaration at the time: Sweeping promises are all well and good, but Facebook’s record doesn’t entirely back it up.”  

She goes on to list a number of the black marks on that record, including Facebook compliance with authoritarian censorship demands from Russian, Syria, China, and India, which is actually the Number One source of censorship requests. I think it would be fair to make a distinction between censorship requests and “do this or else” demands, which leads me to wonder how many requests Facebook complies with that it could have gotten away with refusing. If that number is not zero, you most certainly are not Charlie, Mr. Zuckerberg.

Apologists will say that Facebook has little choice but to comply when a foreign government threatens to cut them off entirely, as Turkey did. They’ll say it’s better to have regulated Facebook delivering a little taste of global free expression to the masses than no Facebook at all. (Is there any real evidence that’s working, by the way? Are there any authoritarian regimes around the world that have significantly cracked because Western web pages are made available to their populace under heavy government censorship?)

That increasingly sounds like the false invocation of principle to cover greed and cowardice. There’s nothing “nuanced” or “extremely complicated” about this at all. It’s simple, pure thuggery, and it works. It works because the price of free expression can be increased until speakers agree to silence. Violence is but one of several tools useful for such operations. Even when other tools are employed, it is helpful for the oppressor to have the credible menace of violence hanging in the background, to make those other instruments look nice and sharp.

As radical Islam has risen to cast its long shadow across the Western world over the last few decades, it has grown increasingly clear that Western values of free speech and religious tolerance are negotiable. We don’t even drive an especially hard bargain, because the ideology of our Ruling Class makes it difficult for them to discuss defiance in frank terms. They will not call the shadow by its proper name, so they bring only feeble intellectual illumination to the battle against it.

Back when Zuckerberg was pounding out his #JeSuisCharlie decoration, and cartoon-decorated coffins were being carried through the streets of Paris, and Barack Obama decided to stay home and watch football instead of attending the rally – as clear a signal of Western leadership’s refusal to stand up for its values as the Islamist world has ever been sent! – our betters snootily informed us that Islam doesn’t even have restrictions against depicting Mohammed. It was all supposed to be a silly misunderstanding on the part of imams who didn’t read Islamic texts as carefully as secular liberal politicians and op-ed writers. The court system of Islamist Turkey would appear to disagree. Are they “not true Muslims,” as our elites insist about everyone else who tries to impose sharia law by force? Are they on the “wrong side of history?’ Does the court ruling that burned images of Mohammed off Turkish Facebook pages have “nothing to do with Islam?”

Does mighty Facebook truly lack the leverage to resist that Turkish court and stand tall against censorship? If the Turkish government shut down this popular social-media service – and every other service that refused to comply – it might produce a backlash among the population. It would send a signal that partnership with the West requires respect for core Western values, including the first two values listed in the American Bill of Rights. But that’s not the signal our leaders want to send, is it? They’re more interested in working out submission deals, in everything from the embarrassing Administration fawning over the late King Abdullah of repressive Saudi Arabia to Facebook’s crumble in Turkey. Free speech is on the table, and we have no serious demands that Islamist-dominated countries show tolerance toward other religions within their borders.