Charlie Hebdo attacks: This is the terrifying price we pay for free speech in a liberal democracy

No one has a right to be protected from ideas they don’t like

Mike Harris
Wednesday 07 January 2015 17:50 GMT
Pens and pencils are placed in the form of a peace sign over the names of late French cartoonists Cabu, Tignous, Wolinski and late Charlie Hebdo editor Charb on the Place de la Republique (Republic Square) in Paris
Pens and pencils are placed in the form of a peace sign over the names of late French cartoonists Cabu, Tignous, Wolinski and late Charlie Hebdo editor Charb on the Place de la Republique (Republic Square) in Paris

Minutes after the murder of 12 people in the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a British newspaper decided to reproduce their “Life of Muhammad” front cover.

Except, rather than let the cover speak for itself, it was pixelated. It was decided that running such an image was not worth the risk. The blood wasn’t dry on the bodies of Hebdo cartoonists Cabu, Charb, Tignous, Wolinski - but it was decided to censor the work they died for. The murderers, inspired by an ideology that glorifies death, bear total responsibility. Our response to the killings will define the value we place on free speech.

David Cameron told the House of Commons that the terrorists will never win. But in small fragments they already have. I wager not a single national newspaper will reprint any Charlie Hebdo front cover featuring either the Prophet Muhammad or radical Islamists. The default mode of artists is to self-censor to avoid offending religious figures. As Stewart Lee notes (only half in jest) as he deconstructs Christianity, he’s not stupid enough to satirise Islam.

Perhaps we should stop kidding ourselves, admit we don’t care enough about free speech to defend the values of the Enlightenment. There are loud voices who urge us to do this. In the name of cultural sensitivity they call on us to abandon Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume and Paine and cave in to coordinated efforts by evangelical Christians, nationalist Buddhists and Islamists to prevent the “defamation of religion” (the UN came close to enabling this). They wish for a quiet life, they do not want magazines to court controversy, cause offence or incite hatred.

Time and time again in the coverage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, words have prefaced the description of the magazine: “controversial”, “poisonous”, “offensive”. It’s as if to say, if only their cartoonists had held their pens and their writers had held their tongues. If only they’d been a bit more cautious this may not have happened. Perhaps. Few have put their neck out and said - I defend the right to insult. We want the illusion of freedom, but many are all too willing to cast aside those who push at its boundaries.

In a globalised world, where ideas can be distributed from Paris to Fallujah in real-time, we can no longer protect people from ideas they do not like, even if we wanted to. We cannot but help insult the religious. Our way of life is an insult. Should gay couples not Instagram their wedding in case it insults those wed to religious orthodoxy? Should atheists hold their tongue to avoid insulting religious prophets? Do I have to be polite to the English Defence League or the vile Al Muhajiroun? Take a step back. There is no way way you can avoid offending those who wish to develop a global caliphate.

There can be no negotiation between liberal democracy and totalitarian theocracy. It does Europe’s beleaguered minorities no favours to suggest there is. We cannot filter out every offensive tweet, or insulting Facebook post. To suggest we can merely inflames the sense that free speech is always to the detriment of minority groups.

The far-right will feast on the aftermath of the shootings. Muslims, already demonised in France, will suffer further - regardless of the fact that the Muslim Council of France has condemned the attack along with thousands of other Muslims. Yet free speech also gives Muslims the right to practice their religion and spread the word of the Koran. I may not like it, but it gives space for Christians to campaign against gay marriage. It shows us how others think and it challenges our preconceptions. Democracy cannot function without it.

Charlie Hebdo traded in the art of insult. It was one of the few outrageously bold satirical outlets left in modern, pampered Europe. It did not hold back to protect the sensitivities of its readers - or its targets, whether the rabid Front National or jihadists.It is too early to say whether Charlie Hebdo can continue to act as an agent provocateur par excellence. It has lost its editor and many of its most influential staff. Today Europe did not just see a magazine decimated, it lost part of its voice.

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