And so 2015 begins as 2014 ended – with another murderous terrorist attack on a western city, this time targeting journalists, cartoonists and satirists at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. For too many people, bereaved family and friends of the twelve victims, this will not be a happy new year.
Having been ill since the start of the year, your blogger was late to hear of the grotesque carnival of violence that played out in Paris on the morning of 7 January. Since that terrible moment, others have already offered moving and stirring words in response, far better than I. But the purported reasons for the targeting of Charlie Hebdo make it important for this blog to take a stand against the noxious idea that the mere act of depicting anybody, religious or otherwise, should be cause for the the huge amount of offence-taking, consternation and hand-wringing that it still is in the year 2015.
The following are therefore a selection of columns and responses that are informing this blog’s thinking at present, and then some closing thoughts.
First up is George Packer in the New Yorker, making the important point that we cannot disassociate the actions of Islamic terrorists from the religion of Islam as some of us are still too ready to do:
A religion is not just a set of texts but the living beliefs and practices of its adherents. Islam today includes a substantial minority of believers who countenance, if they don’t actually carry out, a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique. Charlie Hebdo had been nondenominational in its satire, sticking its finger into the sensitivities of Jews and Christians, too—but only Muslims responded with threats and acts of terrorism. For some believers, the violence serves a will to absolute power in the name of God, which is a form of totalitarianism called Islamism—politics as religion, religion as politics. “Allahu Akbar!” the killers shouted in the street outside Charlie Hebdo. They, at any rate, know what they’re about.
And of course, he is right – just as if the FBI would waste no time pulling up its watch-list of fundamentalist Christian agitators if a bomb went off at an abortion clinic, so all eyes turn to Islam in the aftermath of events like this. Religions are nothing if the conduct of their followers is to be entirely disregarded because we are only allowed to examine the written texts on which they are based, and we need to become more comfortable with making Islam as a whole stand up to the extremists in its midst, just as we would have to do if it were Christians or Jews running amok with semi-automatic weapons in newspaper offices.
Packer goes on to warn:
The cartoonists died for an idea. The killers are soldiers in a war against freedom of thought and speech, against tolerance, pluralism, and the right to offend—against everything decent in a democratic society. So we must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day.
Historian Simon Schama also brings good insight at the FT, giving an intriguing taste of the history of satire before reiterating the importance that the fear of offending is not allowed to take too deep a root in our consciences in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
The murder of satire is no laughing matter. The horrifying carnage at Charlie Hebdo is a reminder, if ever we needed it, that irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom. I suppose it is some sort of backhanded compliment that the monsters behind the slaughter are so fearful of the lance of mirth that the only voice they have to muffle it is the sound of bullets. Magazines such as Charlie Hebdo are in the business of taking liberties, even outrageous ones, but they exist so that we never take the gift of disrespect for granted.
This also says a lot – it speaks to the gnawing hatred of most humans to be laughed at, and the way that this fear manifests itself most notably in the Islamic community at present, who even in the West tend to be less accustomed to seeing their beliefs and leaders questioned, mocked or belittled.
Writing in the Times of London, David Aaronovitch criticises what he sees as the fawning desire to placate those who would dictate what we read, write and hear:
The problem is, you may think, that even though the vast majority of Muslims would no more kill a cartoonist than a Methodist would, they still don’t quite get our commitment to freedom of speech. When they complain about insults and say they’re angry about this or that being published and want it banned, then they create the permissive fluid in which the violent zealot swims.
So we need to be clear, for everyone’s sake, and at the moment we are anything but. This is the deal for living together. The same tolerance that allows Muslims or Methodists freedom to practise and espouse their religion is the same tolerance that allows their religion or any aspect of it to be depicted, criticised or even ridiculed. Take away one part of the deal and the other part falls too. You live here, that’s what you agree to. You don’t like it, go somewhere else.
The countries of Europe need the same glacial clarity that governs free speech in America. There shall be no law (or action) that abridges the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for redress.
Amen to that last sentiment. This blog has long argued in futility for just such a binding, unalterable legal protection for free speech in Britain, as well as by extension (for they so often go together), the complete separation of church and state, however it has to be done.
Next, Juan Cole reminds us that any government or political response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre must be very well thought out indeed, in order to avoid simply playing into Al Qaeda’s hands:
The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
This is an important point – with the recent large anti-Islam demonstrations across Europe and Marine Le Pen’s National Front ready and willing to gain from the situation in France, an even stronger resurgence of the far right would be the worst possible outcome – and exactly what Al Qaeda want.
Also looking forward to what happens next, in introspective mood, is Paul Goodman at Conservative Home:
Many Muslims have fled the east for the west to enjoy the opportunities it offers. These would not exist without the freedoms that have made them possible, of which free speech under the law is one. Most know this, and will thus be horrified by the news from France. Like others, they will grasp that although in one sense there is something disproportionate about the coverage of the massacre (after all, how much space does the media give to other murders by Islamist extremists that happen each day?), in another the appalled reaction is justified. Charlie Hebdo, with all its faults, is a proxy for democracy, with all its own flaws too.
Who is winning? Part of the answer lies in what happens next. Will the magazine close? Like this site, other publications will leap on their soapboxes to praise free speech. But will they publish the offending cartoons? If they did, would they be courageous – champions of freedom – or foolhardy, risking the lives of their staff? Whatever the answer, the terrorists understood something else: that is not just freedom that menaces their hysterical worldview, but laughter – and that the second is a by-product of the first. Just as not all jokes are good, so not all laughter is benign. But in essence, laughter is a blessing – a civilising force. It cuts down to size, pricks bubbles, sheds light, puts life in proportion.
But no discussion about depicting the prophet Mohammed would be complete without a contribution from the late Christopher Hitchens’ in this 2006 essay, which was republished by Slate and also picked up on by Andrew Sullivan:
You can be sure that the relevant European newspapers have also printed their share of cartoons making fun of nuns and popes and messianic Israeli settlers, and taunting child-raping priests. There was a time when this would not have been possible. But those taboos have been broken.
Which is what taboos are for. Islam makes very large claims for itself. In its art, there is a prejudice against representing the human form at all. The prohibition on picturing the prophet—who was only another male mammal—is apparently absolute. So is the prohibition on pork or alcohol or, in some Muslim societies, music or dancing. Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent. This current uneasy coexistence is only an interlude, he seems to say. For the moment, all I can do is claim to possess absolute truth and demand absolute immunity from criticism. But in the future, you will do what I say and you will do it on pain of death.
Meanwhile, as everyone rushes to stand in virtual solidarity with Charlie Hebdo – including many of those who previously criticised that publication and others for deigning to depict the prophet Mohammed in the first place – Matt Welch is on hand to remind us that no, in fact we are not ‘all Charlie’, even if we do use the #JeSuisCharlie Twitter hashtag:
So no, we’re all not Charlie—few of us are that good, and none of us are that brave. If more of us were brave, and refused to yield to the bomber’s veto, and maybe reacted to these eternally recurring moments not by, say, deleting all your previously published Muhammad images, as the Associated Press is reportedly doing today, but rather by routinely posting newsworthy images in service both to readers and the commitment to a diverse and diffuse marketplace of speech, then just maybe Charlie Hebdo wouldn’t have stuck out so much like a sore thumb. It’s harder, and ultimately less rewarding to the fanatical mind, to hit a thousand small targets than one large one.
And it’s not just those of us in the media business who have failed to be Charlie Hebdo. Every person in the broader West, whether it be a Financial Times editor or the president of the United States, who wrongly thinks that speech should not offend, and falsely believes that artistic commentary can somehow incite murderous violence, are also contributing to an ever-worsening cultural climate of speech, and therefore freedom.
Today is an awful day for the basic project of free inquiry. Do you really wanna be Charlie Hebdo? Then get on out there, live and speak bravely. And God help you.
Somewhere within all these posts lies the seeds for the correct response, and the way forward. Yes, it is vital that we do not allow far-right elements anywhere in Europe to make political capital out of this tragedy, inadvertently playing into the hands of the extremists. But it is also important that ‘mainstream’ politicians do not fudge the issue and refrain from telling hard truths to those who need to hear – and act – on them. No, there is nothing inherent about being a modern Muslim that makes it impossible or even remotely hard to live in a western democracy, with the proviso that some values – such as the unabridged right to freedom of speech, and consequent risk of offence – must be shared by us all.
And so, in as much solidarity with Charlie Hebdo as this blog can muster, and in recognition of the fact that is only through the process of cultures and beliefs rubbing together – and at times being offended by one another – that mankind has ever progressed, this blog will show a picture of the prophet Mohammed:
This is a nice picture from the online cartoon strip “Jesus and Mo”, which was very good spirited and should have been grounds for no offence at all, though much offence was taken when a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate tweeted it to his followers after the BBC censored the image. Another image from Jesus and Mo is published at the top of this article.
Those who consider such images to be “unacceptable”, together with those who still defend their right to never be offended in this way, need to have a reckoning with themselves, and soon: is it really plausible that the Maker of the stars and sea, or any of his great prophets on earth, would be troubled or threatened by this picture for even one second, or care about any other image scribbled by the human hand in a Paris office?
And if we wish to take the risk of personal damnation in the afterlife by such a tremendously petty deity, why should anyone else care, yet alone seek to prevent us, on pain of death, from doing so in the name of satire?
Cover Image: Nous Sommes Charlie Hebdo, the cover image on the Jesus and Mo comic strip, 8 January 2015