Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo.
On Wednesday, in a sense of dubious solidarity with the victims, I added my voice to one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags of all time – #JeSuisCharlie:
It is an easy tweet to spit out, and standard fare for journalists who care about protecting their professional freedom. But it means nothing, unless we are prepared to assume the responsibilities of upholding such freedoms.
Who will publish one of Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammadan cartoons? Pas moi. Not me. Much of the British media have steered clear too.
- Frankly I’m too scared to publish such material.
- I’m concerned it would expose my family to a small risk of my demise.
- And I’d rather not cause unnecessary worry to my wife.
The principle of freedom of expression is important, but frankly it seems like a petty principle when measured against my responsibilities as a husband and a father.
Despite initial reluctance, the BBC has shown them. First a magazine cover was held up on Wednesday’s Ten O’Clock News, then some cartoons were shown in slightly more detail on Newsnight. To me, in context, in moderation, and perhaps with a warning, it seems this is editorially justified as a way of explaining the issues.
Outside of this context, publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad is something of a fringe interest, generally best avoided except to make a point about the pushing of boundaries. Now we’ve seen the horrific consequences of those boundaries being pushed.
Only a day before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I was defending – on Facebook – Katie Hopkins’ right to troll society. This was after it emerged Police Scotland was investigating her for saying something rude about ‘sweaty jocks’ and ebola. Hopkins’ every utterance seems to be characterised by nastiness and ignorance. I’d like her to stay silent; I’d certainly rather we didn’t give her a platform to promote her particular brand of obnoxiousness. But she should not be silenced by the state, or under threat of police action. Her punishment for saying stupid things should be – simply – we get to think less of her.
I am not in favour of total freedom of expression. Perhaps this falls short of Voltaire’s ideal, I don’t know. I believe there is a case, for example, for rape or murder threats to be met with a custodial sentence, whether uttered on Twitter or face-to-face.
Freedom of expression should not be absolute, and it isn’t. But we should be free to offend. This is particularly important, because offence is something which is taken rather than given. I can say whatever I like to you, but it is you, not me, who gets to decide whether you are offended.
Some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are pretty edgy. It is their raison d’être. They will have certainly offended many Muslims, not just the few terrorists who reacted so murderously. Any portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad may be seen as beyond the Pale. But Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunities offender. It will needle Christians, Jews and pretty much anyone else who might take offence. It may not be my kinda paper. But they’ve every right to be out there needling who they like, and we should defend that, particularly when the threat is so severe.
Today, in Saudi Arabia, a blogger was sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison for his impertinent writings. ‘Insulting Islam’ is his crime. He received his first 50 lashes today, with more to follow every Friday until the corporal part of his sentence is complete.
In The West, we must maintain our moral authority to speak out against such totalitarianism elsewhere in the world. The long arm of the law should be seeking to protect freedom of expression, not curb it.
Thank God – or Allah – for the brave Muslim policeman, Ahmed Merabet, who died trying to protect those who would insult his religion.
Having said all of this, the Charlie Hebdo attack was not primarily a battle against freedom of expression. This freedom is merely collateral damage in a wider assault on our freedoms more generally. And that assault is merely a proxy for a potential clash of civilisations that the militant Islamists would wish upon us. They hope to sow deeper divisions between infidels and Muslims.
We must guard against this.
At such a time as this, we must seek peace and resolution, or the terrorists win.