Thursday

23rd Mar 2017

Opinion

Charlie's false friends

  • "If freedom of speech means anything, it means having the right to mock ideas that are open to mockery" (Photo: Valentina Calà)

For a fleeting moment after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, it felt like all of Europe was united in revulsion at the cold-blooded murder of cartoonists in central Paris. But it soon became clear that being Charlie means very different things to different people.

First, there are those who never considered themselves Charlie in the first place – disaffected young Muslims from French suburbs who feel insulted by the crude caricatures of their religion in the satirical weekly, hotheads from Niger to Chechnya burning French flags in anger at caricatures of their prophet, and anguished intellectuals who admit they are simply not brave enough to be Charlie.

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Call them heartless, but at least the ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ faction are honest.

Then there are the ‘I am Charlie’ hypocrites: representatives of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain who had the gall to march beside President François Hollande in Paris as their governments jailed journalists and flogged bloggers back home.

No wonder one cartoonist pictured the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists looking down from heaven at some of their new fans and saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”

Next are those, like Pope Francis, who initially condemned the killings but then appeared to say the cartoonists deserved their fate.

In extraordinary comments to journalists en route to the Philippines, he said: “If [a close friend] says a swear word against my mother, he’s going to get a punch in the nose … one cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.”

This has been the justification for the killing of millions of people in the name of religion throughout Europe’s bloody history. In many parts of the world, it still is.

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws are used as a weapon to bludgeon those of other faiths. And in Saudi Arabia, apostasy carries the death penalty and merely mocking Islam can lead to public flogging – as blogger Raif Badawi discovered this month.

Finally, there are those who condemned the killings and made passionate pleas for free speech while making it clear they have no truck for what the satirical French paper stands for.

In this group – let’s call it the ‘I am Charlie, but…’ category – can be found newspapers like the New York Times that refused to republish Charlie Hebdo cartoons out of “respect” for the sensitivities of its Muslim readers and officials like EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who said that freedom of speech must be tempered by “respect” for Islam and other religions.

This logic is both weasely and contradictory.

If freedom of speech means anything, it means having the right to mock ideas that are open to mockery – whether Christianity, Islam, fascism, communism, Euroscepticism or EU federalism. It also means having the right to offend those who offend you – whether representatives of religions that preach peace while sanctioning slaughter or those that eulogise equality while enslaving women.

“It’s impossible to know all the limits and taboos of every individual in society if you want to follow the ‘do not offend’ rule,” Flemming Rose told me earlier this week.

“It will lead to a tyranny of silence.” Rose, who first commissioned cartoons of Mohammed almost 10 years ago when an editor at Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, adds: “I think respect, like tolerance, is one of the most abused words. People turn these concepts on their heads in order to intimidate people with whom they disagree.”

It is a tactic that appears to be working.

Earlier this week, the Hergé museum in Louvain-la-Neuve announced it was cancelling an exhibition about Charlie Hebdo for security reasons. Says Rose, who is on the same al-Qaeda death-list as the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists: “If we start to behave as they want us to - to feel intimidated and threatened - they have won.”

The final category of false friends of Charlie are French government politicians who profess to believe in free speech but only if it is the right sort of free speech.

These are the ones who had no hesitation arresting offensive fools like the anti-Semitic ‘comedian’ Dieudonné while making elegant speeches about the right to ridicule.

Of course, very few favour unfettered free speech – the right to shout ‘fire’ in a cinema or to incite people to commit violence, for example – but these must remain exceptions, because dangerous thoughts do not disappear by banning their expression.

Instead, as John Milton wrote over 370 years ago, we must have the confidence in our own values to “Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

Take away the right to mock and you can wave goodbye to the type of crude humour that Charlie Hebdo revelled in and has been the bread and butter of satirists since the enlightenment.

Offer too much respect to the stupid ideas of others and you let lazy thinking triumph and mysticism reign. And remove the right to offend anyone and you roll back centuries of progress towards free thought, free speech and free societies.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company (www.cleareurope.eu) He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

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