BOGOTA — Skokie is a mostly Jewish district outside of Chicago, Illinois. In 1977, the far-right National Socialist Party of America decided to organize a march there, which the scandalized residents, including thousands of Holocaust survivors, naturally sought to stop, arguing it would incite hatred and lead to violence.
But the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Association, defended the Nazi group's constitutional right to free expression. The U.S. Supreme Court backed the ACLU by ruling that in spite of its violent and racist discourse, the group effectively had a right to express itself and even display the Swastika.
A decade earlier, in a case known as Brandenburg vs. Ohio, the same court ruled it was unconstitutional to penalize a Klu Klux Klan member, also represented by the ACLU, for urging reprisals against blacks and Jews. Recently, the ACLU again defended the Klan's right to publicize its offensive symbols and ideology.
The Skokie case, which in retrospect strengthened an absolute conviction in the freedom of expression, illustrates how it is not just necessary but possible to defend the right to utter an obscene, racist or xenophobic discourse without identifying yourself with the discourse you defend.
That is precisely the message behind the "Je ne suis pas Charlie" (I am not Charlie) slogan that some have taken up in answer to the massive "Je suis Charlie" (I am Charlie) movement triggered by this month's vile attack on the offices of the weekly Charlie Hebdo.
And yet for some political and media circles, not subscribing to "Je suis Charlie" has become tantamount to rejecting freedom of expression, if not to defending terrorism. This is of course worse for Muslim communities, which are routinely expected (as nobody else is) to publicly denounce acts of violence, on the basis of the questionable premise that if they do not, they back them!
Classifying the reaction to events in Paris into an obligatory "being" or "not being Charlie" impedes our understanding of the complexity of events. It also threatens to amplify the orientalist attitudes of the "clash of civilizations" theory forged by the writer Samuel Huntington.
To suggest that Salafist violence is the definitive threat against freedom of speech will distract us from the other dangers threatening this right, often from within Western societies. Think of the massive bugging by the National Security Agency, European and U.S. support for repressive regimes (some of whose leaders recently joined the march in Paris) and the discreet censorship imposed in certain, respectable democracies.
Unacceptable acts of violence like the attack on Charlie Hebdo are not just the fruit of Salafist intolerance. They also stem from certain policies of the West, which, alongside its freedom of speech and rule of law credentials, also has a legacy of slavery, colonialism and exploitation.
It is sadly logical that the racism, xenophobia and police violence that so many marginalized youngsters in Western countries experience creates a fertile terrain for radicalization. Almost a century ago, the U.S. judge Louis Brandeis observed that repression nurtures hate and hatred threatens stable governance. What can we learn from those words?