Paris attacks: It’s not about offence

(From January 2015)

Following last week’s atrocities in Paris, there was a great and rather heartening outburst of defiance in the face of the terror that was unleashed on the French capital. The hashtag ‘Je Suis Charlie’ trended strongly on Twitter, inspired by a genuine sense of horror that these cartoonists could be so coldly gunned down for simply doing their job. It may have just been a slogan, but what was impressive about the global declaration of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo was that it recognised that this wasn’t just an attack on a single publication, but a deliberate assault on a principle that we all depend on and must defend; the freedom to think and say what we like.

Of course, this wasn’t universally true. The loons on the Chomskyite fringe churned out their predictable screeds about how this was all just the fault of western foreign policy. Meanwhile, well-meaning liberals fidgeted uncomfortably and suggested we find a middle way between robustly defending free expression while not doing anything that might offend someone’s religious beliefs. Underlying all this, as usual, was an understandable nervousness that when appalling crimes are committed in the name of Islam ordinary Muslims will be made to suffer. (This is despite the fact that in theory it shouldn’t be too hard to oppose Islamist fascists, who are as much a menace to other Muslims as they are to non-Muslims, as vigorously and unapologetically as we would white-skinned neo-Nazis). As I say, though, some encouraging progress did appear to have been made. Unless I imagined it, I think I even caught a glimpse of the new cover of Charlie Hebdo on the BBC News, and considering it features a drawing of Muhammed this is quite unprecedented. (The media in general have again failed to rise to the challenge by refusing to show the image that is at the centre of the story). 

However, as the shock factor wore off the picture became a little more depressing. The events in Paris – the assassination of the staff at a satirical French magazine, the mini-pogrom at a Jewish store, and the shooting dead of a random police officer – were increasingly taken as an opportunity to have a hand-wringing debate about “offensiveness” and the limits of free speech. Perversely, it wasn’t Islamic extremism which found itself in the court of public opinion, but the murdered artists of Charlie Hebdo.

Most publications did not include the front cover of Charlie Hebdo in their reports, which the militants claimed as their justification for the attack

This is to miss the point entirely. The three militants involved in this case did not take up arms in Paris because they were driven to violence by sincere outrage over cartoons depicting their prophet. As much as anything else, there is the question that no-one could answer for me in a debate I had this week: what did the kosher supermarket do to “provoke” the attack upon it? It emerged very quickly after the event that all of them were committed jihadists who had been in the game a long time. At least one of them had recently returned from Yemen where al Qaeda have a lethal outfit who have claimed responsibility for the murders. What’s more, even a layman can see from the the available footage that the gunmen were trained fighters carrying out a well planned operation.

On the surface the bloodshed in Paris may have been about “avenging the prophet”. Yet it’s clear that the real strategic goal is to try to terrify opponents of Islamic extremism into changing their behaviour. As Douglas Murray explained on Sunday’s The Big Questions, this was more or less the only publication in Europe that would dare take on the religious bullies by insisting on their right to free expression and drawing whatever they damn well pleased. Surely this is why it was decided an example had to be made of them. Thus though it may be true in a technical sense that Charlie Hebdo was attacked because it produced images of Mohammed, the real shame lies with those who allowed themselves to be cowed, leaving one target sticking out above all the rest.

With so many violent extremists slipping back into Europe after their exploits in Syria and Iraq, there will without question be more paramilitary actions of this kind. In our own country the head of MI5 has publicly acknowledged the obvious truth that the security services will not be able to stop every plot. At the same time, there have been “anti-Islamification” rallies in Germany, and far-right parties such as the Front National in France have grown across Europe. What we must resist now is the attempt by thugs and bigots on both sides to try and create a sectarian conflict. This is going to take a lot of hard work and honest speaking. It will not be helped in the least by imagining the whole problem could easily be avoided simply by getting one magazine to change its front cover.

It isn’t cartoons of Mohammed that attracts the ire of the fanatics, but rather the very existence of our rights and freedoms. Many agree with the Pope when he says he believes in freedom of expression, but not if it is used to offend someone’s deeply held religious views. Unfortunately for them, there can be no compromise on this point. The Islamists will not be satisfied unless a version of their blasphemy law is imposed on everyone else – including Muslims who don’t agree with their interpretation, and non-Muslims who never signed up to their religion anyway. Therefore the response to them must be a clear and unequivocal; Je Suis Charlie.


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