Interviewer: Jillian York

Lynn Hamadallah is a Syrian-Palestinian-French Psychologist based in London. An outspoken voice for the Palestinian cause, Lynn is interested in the ways in which narratives, spoken and unspoken, shape identity. Having lived in five countries and spent a lot of time traveling, she takes a global perspective on freedom of expression. Her current research project investigates how second-generation British-Arabs negotiate their cultural identity. Lynn works in a community mental health service supporting some of London's most disadvantaged residents, many of whom are migrants who have suffered extensive psychological trauma.

York: What does free speech or free expression mean to you? 

Being Arab and coming from a place where there is much more speech policing in the traditional sense, I suppose there is a bit of an idealization of Western values of free speech and democracy. There is this sense of freedom we grow up associating with the West. Yet recently, we’ve come to realize that the way it works in practice is quite different to the way it is described, and this has led to a lot of disappointment and disillusionment in the West and its ideals amongst Arabs. There’s been a lot of censorship for example on social media, which I’ve experienced myself when posting content in support of Palestine. At a national level, we have witnessed the dehumanization going on around protesters in the UK, which undermines the idea of free speech. For example, the pro-Palestine protests where we saw the then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman referring to protesters as “hate marchers.” So we’ve come to realize there’s this kind of veneer of free speech in the West which does not really match up to the more idealistic view of freedom we were taught about.

With the increased awareness we have gained as a result of the latest aggression going on in Palestine, actually what we’re learning is that free speech is just another arm of the West to support political and racist agendas. It’s one of those things that the West has come up with which only applies to one group of people and oppresses another. It’s the same as with human rights you know - human rights for who? Where are Palestinian’s human rights? 

We’ve seen free speech being weaponized to spread hate and desecrate Islam, for example, in the case of Charlie Hebdo and the Quran burning in Denmark and in Sweden. The argument put forward was that those cases represented instances of free speech rather than hate speech. But actually to millions of Muslims around the world those incidents were very, very hateful. They were acts of violence not just against their religious beliefs but right down to their sense of self. It’s humiliating to have a part of your identity targeted in that way with full support from the West, politicians and citizens alike. 

And then, when we— we meaning Palestinians and Palestine allies—want to leverage this idea of free speech to speak up against the oppression happening by the state of Israel, we see time and time again accusations flying around: hate speech, anti-semitism, and censorship. Heavy, heavy censorship everywhere. So that’s what I mean when I say that free speech in the West is a racist concept, actually. And I don’t know that true free speech exists anywhere in the world really. In the Middle East we don’t have democracies but at least there’s no veneer of democracy— the messaging and understanding is clear. Here, we have a supposed democracy, but in practice it looks very different. And that’s why, for me, I don’t really believe that free speech exists. I’ve never seen a real example of it. I think as long as people are power hungry there’s going to be violence, and as long as there’s violence, people are going to want to hide their crimes. And as long as people are trying to hide their crimes there’s not going to be free speech. Sorry for the pessimistic view!

York: It’s okay, I understand where you’re coming from. And I think that a lot of those things are absolutely true. Yet, from my perspective, I still think it’s a worthy goal even though governments—and organizationally we’ve seen this as well—a lot of times governments do try to abuse this concept. So I guess then I would just as a follow-up, do you feel that despite these issues that some form of universalized free expression is still a worthy ideal? 

Of course, I think it’s a worthy ideal. You know, even with social media – there is censorship. I’ve experienced it and it’s not just my word and an isolated incident. It’s been documented by Human Rights Watch—even Meta themselves! They did an internal investigation in 2021—Meta had a nonprofit called Business for Social Responsibility do an investigation and produce a report—and they’ve shown there was systemic censorship of Palestine-related content. And they’re doing it again now. That being said, I do think social media is making free speech more accessible, despite the censorship. 

And I think—to your question—free speech is absolutely worth pursuing. Because we see that despite these attempts at censorship, the truth is starting to come out. Palestine support is stronger than it’s ever been. To the point where we’ve now had South Africa take Israel to trial at the International Court of Justice for genocide, using evidence from social media videos that went viral. So what I’m saying is, free speech has the power to democratize demanding accountability from countries and creating social change, so yes, absolutely something we should try to pursue. 

York: You just mentioned two issues close to my heart. One is the issues around speech on social media platforms, and I’ve of course followed and worked on the Palestinian campaigns quite closely and I’m very aware of the BSR report. But also, video content, specifically, that’s found on social media being used in tribunals. So let me shift this question a bit. You have such a varied background around the world. I’m curious about your perspective over the past decade or decade and a half since social media has become so popular—how do you feel social media has shaped people’s views or their ability to advocate for themselves globally? 

So when we think about stories and narratives, something I’m personally interested in, we have to think about which stories get told and which stories remain untold. These stories and their telling is very much controlled by the mass media— BBC, CNN, and the like. They control the narrative. And I guess what social media is doing is it’s giving a voice to those who are often voiceless. In the past, the issue was that there was such a monopoly over mouthpieces. Mass  media were so trusted, to the point where no one would have paid attention to these alternative viewpoints. But what social media has done… I think it’s made people become more aware or more critical of mass media and how it shapes public opinion. There’s been a lot of exposure of their failure for example, like that video that went viral of Egyptian podcaster and activist Rahma Zain confronting CNN’s Clarissa Ward at the Rafah border about their biased reporting of the genocide in Palestine. I think that confrontation spoke to a lot of people. She was shouting “ You own the narrative, this is our problem. You own the narrative, you own the United Nations, you own Hollywood, you own all these mouthpieces— where are our voices?! Our voices need to be heard!” It was SO powerful and that video really spoke to the sentiment of many Arabs who have felt angry, betrayed and abandoned by the West’s ideals and their media reporting.

Social media is providing  a voice to more diverse people, elevating them and giving the public more control around narratives. Another example we’ve seen recently is around what’s currently happening in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These horrific events and stories would never have had much of a voice or exposure before at the global stage. And now people all over the world are paying more attention and advocating for Sudanese and Congolese rights, thanks to social media. 

I personally was raised with quite a critical view of mass media, I think in my family there was a general distrust of the West, their policies and their media, so I never really relied personally on the media as this beacon of truth, but I do think that’s an exception. I think the majority of people rely on mass media as their source of truth. So social media plays an important role in keeping them accountable and diversifying narratives.

York: What are some of the biggest challenges you see right now anywhere in the world in terms of the climate for free expression for Palestinian and other activism? 

I think there’s two strands to it. There’s the social media strand. And there’s the governmental policies and actions. So I think on social media, again, it’s very documented, but it’s this kind of constant censorship. People want to be able to share content that matters to them, to make people more aware of global issues and we see time and time again viewership going down, content being deleted or reports from Meta of alleged hate speech or antisemitism. And that’s really hard. There’ve been random strategies that have popped up to increase social media engagement, like posting random content unrelated to Palestine or creating Instagram polls for example. I used to do that, I interspersed Palestine content with random polls like, “What’s your favorite color?” just to kind of break up the Palestine content and boost my engagement. And it was honestly so exhausting. It was like… I’m watching a genocide in real time, this is an attack on my people and now I’m having to come up with silly polls? Eventually I just gave up and accepted my viewership as it was, which was significantly lower.

At a government level, which is the other part of it, there’s this challenge of constant intimidation that we’re witnessing. I just saw recently there was a 17-year-old boy who was interviewed by the counterterrorism police at an airport because he was wearing a Palestinian flag. He was interrogated about his involvement in a Palestinian protest. When has protesting become a crime and what does that say about democratic rights and free speech here in the UK? And this is one example, but there are so many examples of policing, there was even talk of banning protests all together at one point. 

The last strand I’d include, actually, that I already touched on, is the mass media. Just recently we’ve seen the BBC reporting on the ICJ hearing, they showed the Israeli defense part, but they didn’t even show the South African side. So this censorship is literally in plain sight and poses a real challenge to the climate of free expression for Palestine activism.

York: Who is your free speech hero? 

Off the top of my head I’d probably say Mohammed El-Kurd. I think he’s just been so unapologetic in his stance. Not only that but I think he’s also made us think critically about this idea of narrative and what stories get told. I think it was really powerful when he was arguing the need to stop giving the West and mass media this power, and that we need to disempower them by ceasing to rely on them as beacons of truth, rather than working on changing them. Because, as he argues, oppressors who have monopolized and institutionalized violence will never ever tell the truth or hold themselves to account. Instead, we need to turn to Palestinians, and to brave cultural workers, knowledge producers, academics, journalists, activists, and social media commentators who understand the meaning of oppression and view them as the passionate, angry and, most importantly, reliable narrators that they are.