COMMENT: Maybe Charlie Hebdo has racist content, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, responsibility for the massacre must be shared by the people who pandered to the kind of censorship preached by the killers.
So, just when I thought the attacks on freedom of speech couldn’t get any worse, they did. This time last year it was death threats against a politician who spoke out against censoring drawing of the prophet Mohammed. Then it was a hate campaign against a group of Israeli actors for coming to the fringe with the wrong nationality. Then it was threats of mass murder over a film that lampooned the leader of North Korea. And now, it’s actual mass murder, once again over some drawing of Mohammed.
Let us be in no doubt as to what happened on Tuesday. It was not just an attack on twelve innocent people. It was a fundamental attack on freedom of speech, a right we too often take for granted. On the murders themselves, there has been overwhelming condemnation across the world; that is the least that can be expected. But on the attacks on freedom of speech, I am sorry to say that’s a different matter. Collectively, we are not properly defending free speech from harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence. The blame for the murders lies first and foremost with the murderers, but after than, we have some serious questions to ask about our own responsibility in this.
First thing’s first: some people say it was pandering to censorship led to the attacks. I won’t make that claim, because we don’t know. To anyone with a shred of humanity, Al-Qaeda is a baffling ideology. They are not defenders of Muslims, unless you think that deliberately killing masses of innocent Muslims Iraqis in order to provoke sectarian violence with a death toll hundreds of thousands counts as defending Muslims, which I don’t. But they do, and with a moral justification that incomprehensible, God knows what else they were thinking. What we do know, however, is that Al Qaeda affiliates run a highly organised propaganda campaign of fear, so it’s a fair bet they’re happy to silence outspoken voices if they can. And that’s where we come in. Our message, time and time again, is that you can silence dissidents and get away with it. Our message is that when it comes to political and religious censorship, harassment works. And intimidation works. And violence works.
For a start, the media must take some of the blame, for years of pandering to the notion that you can’t show cartoons of Mohammed. At first, this was understandable. As you will remember, this business first blew up in 2005 when a Danish newspaper ran a few ill-advised cartoons. I have seen the cartoons and I don’t believe they were meant to be racist, but I can see why many Muslims thought they were. Cue outrage over the world. “It depicts us as terrorists!” cried many. “It besmirches our prophet!” added some. Papers worldwide shied away from showing these cartoons. That decision was understandable at the time – but it set a precedent that the Western media is no longer allowed to print cartoons of Mohammed in case it upsets a minority.
Nine years later, this has now gone completely out of hand. Inevitably, some people were going to protest by defying the rule that you can’t draw prophets. As well as Charlie Hebdo, we got webcomics such as Jesus and Mo. This time there was absolutely no question of racism, simply a comic strip that pokes fun at organised religion. Instead of pictures of Mohammed as a suicide bomber, there’s a picture of him saying “How ya doin’?” But when a minor spat blew up in a student union over displaying this picture, and Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted the cartoon to show how inoffensive he thought it was, he faced a nasty campaign to get him deselected. Worse, the media meekly reported an “offensive cartoon” without showing it, giving people free rein to claim it the same as the Danish ones. You can bet if the cartoon had been shown on TV and we’d have judged for ourselves, Nawaz’s enemies would have been laughed out the Daily Politics studio.
As well as the media, the Police have a lot to answer for. They have a track record of appeasing extremists by telling the victim to pipe down. In the Maajid Nawaz case, when this was discussed on TV, he was not there to defend himself – on Police advice. Sure, the Police have a duty to keep law and order, and when credible threats of violence are being made, they’ve got to stop it. But most of the time they do this through the path of least resistance, by telling person who’s had threats made against them to shut up. That is appeasement. And it’s cowardly. And what message does it give? Violence works.
And what about the censorship of Incubator Theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe? (For those of you who know this, it was a small Israeli group who were hounded out of the Edinburgh fringe during the height of last year’s Israel/Gaza violence, not for what they said, but for their nationality.) Remember, it was not an open letter from people like Liz Lochhead and David Greig that caused the show to be cancelled – it was a mob descending on Biristo Square causing threats to public order – and you can’t have threats to public order without threats of violence, either explicit or implied. Had the Festival Fringe Society and the Police stood shoulder to shoulder with the venue, they could have protected the actors and the audience until the mob gave up. But no, again they chose the path of least resistance and let the mob win. The message: violence works. (Or maybe harassment, intimidation and the threat of violence works, but that’s good as the same thing.)
In fairness to the Police and the media, they have their safety to consider. But they’re not the people most culpable for censorship. There’s another group who don’t have to worry about threats of violence, and they are the people who tacitly support censorship. People who are happy to see their hate figures gagged. People who are happy to let someone else do the dirty work. And in some cases, I suspect, people who care little whether it’s achieved with placards, lawyers, or guns.
First of all, here’s what I have to say to all the so-called moderates who say they don’t support violence but wanted the Mohammed cartoons banned. I don’t know whether the cartoons were racist. I would have to look through the magazines and judge the context before I could make a judgement. Maybe some of the content was racist, maybe it wasn’t. But it doesn’t matter. At the very worst, they magazine was offensive – and if you find something offensive, don’t read it. If you object to the opinions expressed, say why they’re wrong. Unless you can show that Charlie Hebdo crossed the boundaries of libel, blackmail, harassment or incitement to violence, you have no business telling other people what they should and shouldn’t be allowed to read. End of.
But the real problem is how apologists for censorship play straight into the hands of the killers. Charlie Hebdo has been attacked several times before. The attacks were of course condemned. But some people swiftly moved on to the opportunity to take a swipe at the magazine, call them racist, and – in one particularly shameful case in TIME magazine – even suggest they brought it on themselves. Nice one TIME: not only did you blame the victim, you also showed these nutjobs that if you want to strengthen the calls to ban a magazine you all hate, they can just firebomb their office, get it in the media spotlight, then sit back and let people like you finish the job they started. Yet again, the message is that violence works.
The hypocrisy between different causes is astounding. The Life of Brian is just as lambasting of Christian belief as any cartoon of Mohammed can ever be. When it was released, some Christians (mostly those who had hadn’t seen) it were offended. They called for it to be banned. It wasn’t. As yet whenever Mohammed cartoons are in the news, cue sanctimonious outrage over how terrible it is that we disrespect someone’s beliefs. What’s the difference? Violence works.
And even now, in the wake of twelve murders, there are people quite happy to indicate, or at least imply, they’d still be happy to see the back of Charlie Hebdo. Barely 24 hours after the murders, the usual suspects came out to deflect blame away from the murderers. It varied from group to group, but for the most contemptuous response it’s a toss-up between: Socialist Worker’s statement, who penned 12 words disapproving of the murders and the other 209 trying to blame everyone else; and Electronic Intifada, who ignored the incident of their web page, downplayed it on Twitter, but consider it an outrage when the same gets done to a Palestinian cartoonist. Thankfully this is barely being heard amongst the outrage shown by the rest of us, but if they get to dominate the debate, what does it say? Violence works.
But there’s another yet another group of people to blame, and it’s not journalists, Police, or apologists. It’s us. For years, we’ve collectively sat back and did nothing whilst other people either appeased censorship or cheered it on. Enough is enough. It’s time for everyone to speak out and call for zero tolerance from now on. We’ve got a big task ahead of us – papers are still shying away from printing this cartoons, apologists are not letting one inconvenient case of mass murder get in their way of their quest for censorship, and it’s not yet clear whether the Police are going to make any more effort to protect people under threat for their views.
“But why should I stand up for an offensive magazine?” say some people. Here’s why you should, even if you oppose everything they do: this is not just an attack on one magazine’s free speech, it’s an attack on everyone’s. Do you really think these bastards are going to stop with an objectionable cartoon? It’s a short step from trying to silence people over cartoons to trying to silence people who speak out against any fundamentalism, as is already happening to Maajid Nawaz. After that, it’s another short step to try to silence anyone with any view you don’t want to be heard – or, as Incubator Theatre found out, not even that. Incubator theatre were censored not for what they said (which did cover the war in Gaza at all), but for their race, nationality and religion. If we carry on tolerating this, it’s going to get worse.
Even if you think you think you don’t have any views that would upset Islamic extremists, you should worry. If we keep letting them get their way through violence, it won’t be long before others realise they can do the same: Christian extremists, Jewish extremists, any kind of political extremists, you name it. No-one is safe: whatever your views, there are bound people out there willing to silence them by any means – if they think they can get away with it, any the message we’re giving is that: yes, you can get away with it.
So what needs to be done to protect free speech now? The answer, surely, has to be: do whatever it takes. Zero tolerance to censorship through violence. If it means massive Police presence for a month so an Edinburgh Fringe show to protect one group from a hate mob, do it. If it means putting permanent police guard outside every newspaper and magazine facing threats from extremists, so be it. If free speech must be curbed to place limits on sexism, racism or homophobia, it must be only be tolerated through laws and peaceful protest. I don’t care how vile someone else’s view is: once you resort the mob, let alone violence, you are instantly in the wrong. And the rest of us must rise up against you.
I’ll finish by freely adapting a very famous poem for you. It begins: “First they came for Charlie Hebdo …” How this continues is up to you. Does the next line finish “… because I was not Charlie Hebdo“? If so, you know how the rest of the poem goes, and how it ends. This is why we should all be Charlie Hebdo.
[Postscript: I’ve gone on long enough, but I’m going to have to go on a little longer in order to pre-empt the predictable “What about” arguments. Firstly, yes, all the examples I’m quoted here were Islam-sympathising groups wanting something banned. I’ve picked those examples because they are the only cases I know about in Western Europe where calls for censorship have been backed up with harassment, intimidation or violence. If you have any equivalent examples the other way – say, a Palestinian theatre company facing censorship calls from a mob accusing them of whitewashing Hamas’s atrocities with art – let me know and I will quite gladly condemn that too.
And one other thing that is off the subject of censorship entirely, but I’ll include it for completeness. Yes, I am fully aware of the attacks against Muslims in France, and yes, of course it’s wrong. That goes without saying. It’s inevitable that the odd racist thug who’s waiting for a punch-up will have used the massacre as the excuse they needed, but my big worry is that France as a whole will over-react and clamp down on their entire Muslim population. Please don’t do that. Quite apart from obvious moral argument that it’s wrong to punish millions of moderate Muslims for the actions of three extremists, try to think about what the killers are trying to do. After attacking free speech, surely their next aim is to try to turn the war against religious extremists into a war against all Muslims. Do not take the bait, otherwise they’ve won.]