As we pass the one year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris – the terrorist atrocity which prompted us to declare Je Suis Charlie in support of free speech – are we still Charlie, one year on? Were we ever?
This past week saw the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, a sickening assault on journalism and free speech, and the worst thing to happen to France until the Paris attacks of 13 November ensured that 2015 would end much as it started for Europe: in the shadow of Islamist terrorism.
At the time of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, many of us rallied to the cause of the small, satirical newspaper which found itself in the crosshairs of a primitive, totalitarian ideology, and we declared “Je Suis Charlie”.
It was a nice gesture, even if it wasn’t strictly true. Though David Cameron was eager to be seen marching arm-in-arm with other world leaders through the streets of Paris in support of free speech, those of us back in London knew that any British newspaper attempting to publish some of the satirical cartoons that Charlie Hebdo published would have been vilified, sued and shut down, and its editor would likely languishing in a British prison cell.
Things didn’t get much better as 2015 progressed, as Glenn Greenwald notes in his latest column for The Intercept:
It’s been almost one year since millions of people — led by the world’s most repressive tyrants — marched in Paris ostensibly in favor of free speech. Since then, the French government — which led the way trumpeting the vital importance of free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings — has repeatedly prosecuted people for the political views they expressed, and otherwise exploited terrorism fears to crush civil liberties generally. It has done so with barely a peep of protest from most of those throughout the West who waved free speech flags in support of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.
That’s because, as I argued at the time, many of these newfound free speech crusaders exploiting the Hebdo killings were not authentic, consistent believers in free speech. Instead, they invoke that principle only in the easiest and most self-serving instances: namely, defense of the ideas they support. But when people are punished for expressing ideas they hate, they are silent or supportive of that suppression: the very opposite of genuine free speech advocacy.
[..] In the weeks after the Free Speech march, dozens of people in France “were arrested for hate speech or other acts insulting religious faiths, or for cheering the men who carried out the attacks.” The government “ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and glorifying terrorism.” There were no marches in defense of their free speech rights.
Glenn Greenwald goes on to express his contempt for the fair-weather free speech advocates who are all to eager to shout their support for speech which offends people they happen to dislike, while simultaneously demanding that the authorities clamp down on speech which offends them or people with whom they sympathise.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the newly re-elected Conservative government was getting ready to “defend” free speech by expressing impatience with the fact that they did not have more freedom to harass citizens acting in accordance with the law.
When David Cameron announced draconian new security measures, impatiently proclaiming “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'”, this blog retorted:
These measures have the look and feel of a side which feels unable to win the argument in favour of British and western values through open debate, and so seeks to impose them by force of law instead.
A truly free and liberal society would not need to take such draconian steps as requiring “extremists” (never defined, and certainly not necessarily convicted) to submit advance copies of public remarks to the police for review and censoring, an astonishing proposal. But our society is becoming less and less free by the day, opting instead for security and a quiet life.
And at its depressing heart, this is what it comes down to – a desire for cloistered security above all else. On the economy, on foreign affairs and now on terrorism, our politicians have decided that we are too frightened and worn down by the dangers and threats of this world to face our challenges as a strong, independent nation.
But government has not been solely to blame. The desire to trade liberty for a chimerical sense of security has been coming from the bottom-up, with an increasing number of citizens – particularly those on the Left who ostentatiously proclaim their concern for issues of “social justice” – insisting that core liberties such as the right to free speech should be curtailed when they negatively infringe on the feelings of another person.
This corrosive new development has its roots in academia and the university environment, where a generation of liberal professors espousing political correctness as their religion are finally beginning to reap what they sowed – a new generation of coddled adult baby students who require trigger warnings, safe spaces and dawn-to-dusk parenting by their colleges just to make it through the day.
These New Age Censors and their petty authoritarianism are toxic to free speech, and their growing influence has already resulted in calls to outlaw clapping and booing, tearful temper tantrums about dress codes, stifling ideas by labelling them ‘problematic’, the insistence on safe spaces and mandatory sexual consent workshops.
As I recently explained, deep down this has nothing to do with “social justice”, but instead is all about gaining power by wrestling control over the language and laying verbal land mines with the intention of destroying opponents who – regardless of how they actually behave – happen simply to say the “wrong” thing:
That’s where the New Age Censors, the Stepford Students, the resurgent activist Left step in, always watching over your shoulder and always quick and eager to tell you when you have crossed one of the many invisible lines that they are busy drawing across our political and social discourse. Only the telling always seems to take the form of a social media lynching rather than a friendly pointer.
When the rules over precisely what can be said and how it must be phrased become so fiendishly complex that we are all liable to fall over them at some point, it grants enormous power to the gatekeepers, those swivel-eyed young activists at the forefront of modern identity politics. Not only do they get to write the rules, they and they alone get to sit in judgement as to whether those rules have been violated.
[..] Who knew that the petty tyrants of today would be cherubic-faced, smiley student activists, chanting mantras about keeping us safe as they imprison us in their closed-minded, ideological dystopia?
As far as 2015 Year In Reviews go, all of this makes for depressing reading. Indeed there are many reasons to be concerned for the future of free speech and civil liberties in general, particularly when many of our fellow citizens seem intent on destroying our freedoms from within.
And yet there have been some good news stories too, providing small glimmers of hope. One such case has been the exoneration of a Northern Irish pastor, James McConnell, who found himself on trial for sending “grossly offensive” communications following a sermon in which he described Islam as “a doctrine spawned in hell”.
This was a spiteful sting by the prosecution. McConnell’s sermon – in which the 78-year-old pastor said some highly unpleasant and inflammatory things about Islam – had been recorded and then later posted on the internet, allowing the authorities to accuse him of “causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network”.
Too often, such show trials have resulted in conviction and a prison sentence, which in this instance could have been six months. But in this case, Judge Liam McNally, threw the case out, saying “the courts need to be very careful not to criticise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive”. If only this legal interpretation was more widely shared and disseminated throughout the English and Scottish legal systems, from the UK Supreme Court on downwards.
But the truly pleasing aspect of this case is the fact that one of the people who spoke outside the court in support of James McConnell was a Muslim academic, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute named Muhammad al-Hussaini.
Taking a brave stance in support of speech which he himself must have found very distasteful, al-Hussaini nonetheless defended Pastor James McConnell’s right to say hateful things about the religion of Islam.
The Guardian reported at the time:
Speaking outside Belfast magistrates court to hundreds of McConnell’s supporters, Muhammad al-Hussaini, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute, said he was in the city to back McConnell’s right to free speech.
Hussaini said: “This is possibly one of the most important things at our juncture in history; it could be the make or break for the continued survival of our planet actually.
“Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is therefore a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs – restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.
“Moreover, in a free and democratic society we enter into severe peril when we start to confuse what we perhaps ought or ought not to say, with what in law we are allowed to, or not allowed to say.”
At a time when freedom of speech is just as much under attack from safe space zealots and our own government as it is from radical Islamic terrorism, it is especially important that we stand in solidarity with those who defend free speech, and particularly those who have the moral courage to defend the speech that they personally hate.
In this regard, civil libertarians owe a debt of gratitude to Muhammad al-Hussaini and others like him. For in his defence of the rights of pastors – or anybody else – to say what they please, so long as they do not actively incite violence against another, this Muslim scholar is doing far more to defend the ancient British and enlightenment values of freedom and liberty than
In fact, one could quite easily say that al-Hussaini is more authentically British (in terms of extolling and living by the values which we supposedly hold dear) than our own government, the grunting anti-Muslim far-right and most of the academic safe space crowd put together.
This is the unusual situation in which we now find ourselves, with a British population and government cowed simultaneously by Islamic terrorism and by Islamophobia seriously discussing banning “hate preachers” like Donald Trump (of all people) from entering Britain, while it falls to a Muslim academic to stand up in defence of the free speech which the West supposedly holds so dear.
This landscape is not encouraging; few of us passed the Charlie Hebdo Test when those terrible shots rang out on 7 January 2015, and fewer still would do so now, based on their words and actions since that heinous attack.
But when a nation begins to forget its own values and once dearly-held principles, it is of some consolation on this first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo shootings to see the flame of liberty being kept alive in some unexpected places, and by unexpected – but very welcome – custodians.
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