When freedom of speech becomes a tool to silence Palestinians

When freedom of speech becomes a tool to silence Palestinians
Attempts to silence Palestinian voices at Adelaide Writers Week reveal the selectivity of free speech and how it can be used to censor those that speak out against state-sanctioned violence, writes Amal Naser.
6 min read
07 Mar, 2023
Supporters rally in support of the Palestinian people in the wake of the recent violence in the Gaza Strip, in Times Square, New York City on 18 May 2018 . [Getty]

Organisers at Adelaide Writers Week (AWW) have been under immense pressure to withdraw two Palestinian speakers, poet Mohammed El-Kurd and and author Susan Abulhawa, for their views on Zionism and Israel as well as Abulhawa’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war. Zionist outrage had been mobilised, sponsors have withdrawn, and politicians have called for a boycott of the festival.

In the aftermath of calls to boycott, and a major Australian law firm withdrawing sponsorship, many have argued that the efforts to cancel these speakers are a violation of freedom of speech and antithetical to the values of a liberal democracy.

However, whilst these responses are well meaning, the reality is that the liberal rights-based regime itself and more specifically it’s construction of freedom of speech demands the silencing of Palestinians.

Palestinians are not being cancelled, because they’ve never had a secure platform to begin with. They are facing settler colonial capitalist violence in the form of censorship, one that Palestinians encounter on the daily.

"Palestinians are not being cancelled, because they’ve never had a secure platform to begin with"

On freedom of speech

In a liberal society, “freedom of speech” is full of contradictions. On one hand, it supposes that no one should be censored. Of course, this is not true; it is difficult to say that everyone has the freedom to speak, especially racists, homophobes, misogynist and bigots.

Yet, somehow the ruling class still grants people with these views the freedom to be heard when it suits their agenda, despite their views being antithetical to the values of a supposedly liberal and tolerant society.

However, there are two fundamental issues embedded in the concept of freedom of speech: first, liberalism individualises rights and fails to see how such rights are largely inaccessible by the oppressed. Second, it is largely unclear where the line should be drawn between political speech and offensive speech, and this line is usually drawn by those in power.

In the case of Mohammed El-Kurd, the censorship of his speech prevents him from speaking out against his own ethnic-cleansing and the Israeli state-sponsored violence against his people. For Susan Abulhawa, she is prevented from critiquing the actions of Ukraine and the US in the Russia-Ukraine war.

In both cases, a state and ideology has been criticised. In both cases, liberalism presents conflicting views on what is free to be spoken and what is offensive.

The liberal conception of freedom of speech struggles to inalienably protect those who speak against state-sponsored mechanisms of violence. To understand why, we need to re-evaluate what the liberal rights regime ought to protect.

Protecting the interests of liberal democratic states

An accepted understanding of the liberal democracy is that it is a secure state premised on upholding rights. But the reality is that not everyone has equal accessibility or protection of those rights.

In Australia and many other Western liberal democracies, freedom of speech has become a mechanism of power for the dominant and ruling classes to subjugate the oppressed. It is no coincidence that Zachary Wolfe, a police officer accused of murder, is provided a television interview after his acquittal, despite a plethora of evidence of racism, but when Senator Lidia Thorpe blocks a police car at a Mardi Gras parade she is censored and shamed by members of the Labor government.

It is no surprise that Mohammed El-Kurd, a survivor of ethnic cleansing and state-sponsored settler violence is censored for his emotional reactions to his oppression, but Nakba deniers and apartheid supporters such as the Zionist Federation are platformed and applauded.

It is certainly no surprise that supporters of NATO, an instrument of US imperialism that aided the illegal invasion of Iraq, are platformed endlessly, but criticisms of NATO by Susan Abulhawa are painted as pro-Putin, despite Abulhawa being critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Freedom of speech thus becomes a powerful tool of liberal democracy: the liberal democratic state must protect the interests of colonialism, capitalism and imperialism to maintain its dominance.

Political speech which runs counter to this is censored in the name of tolerance or anti-radicalism, while speech which upholds the values of liberal democracy is protected by the dominant class under the guise of freedom of speech.

"Our history and truth has been systematically silences, questioned and denied because we disrupt the status quo of the state"

Why is it that when Mohammed El-Kurd describes the reality of his ethnic cleansing, of the colonisation of his land and people, of the violent occupation he lives under, he is both censored and criticised for not being polite enough, but those same people are not offended by the ethnic cleansing and occupation itself?

It is because the state has ensured the individualistic aspects of liberalism, of rights, of free speech are taken by dominant classes to force the focus onto the language of the oppressed, as opposed to the violent and murderous actions of the state. It is the occupied who must be cautious not to offend, not the occupiers.

Let’s be clear: the language of freedom of speech is not our friend. The assumption that we, as Palestinians, are on equal playing fields with our Israeli occupier, is flawed. While supporters of the state of Israel get talk time in the media, support from our politicians and spaces in our textbooks, Palestinians are denied the same right to speak.

It is important to note that this doesn’t mean we have never been able to speak, but rather that our history and truth has been systematically silences, questioned and denied because we disrupt the status quo of the state.

So, when Peter Wertheim writes that AWW should have also platformed Israelis to uphold freedom of speech, we ask ourselves if this is fair. Why should our truths be platformed next to supporters of our oppression?

If you want to stand against racism, settler colonialism, imperialism and capitalism – against all the forms of oppression that these systems and structures were designed to create – we must not platform those whose ideologies uphold the dominant class. Rather, we must platform the truth of the subjugated - those who are willing to speak out against state violence.

In defence of Mohammed El-Kurd and Susan Abulhawa, it is urgent that we do not uphold the liberal rights frameworks and language of dominant class but rather use these moments to bring light to the violence that these frameworks seek to uphold.

Amal Naser is a Palestinian organiser and third-generation refugee. She lives on unceded Bidjigal land.

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of their employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.