Charlie Klendjian has an eloquent blast of fury at all the what-abouttery and they-were-racistsism over the past five days.
Over the last five days I have listened patiently to the most extraordinarily confused and painful discussions on the rights and wrongs of murdering people who draw cartoons. What an odd response our public discourse has generated towards what is, to my mind at least, a moral issue of the most blinding clarity.
It is to me too, but it might not be. If Charlie Hebdo had been an unquestionably racist xenophobic immigrant-bashing magazine, affiliated with a far-right organization and running editorials demanding expulsions and closed borders – then the moral issue would not be so blindingly clear; not to me. I would agree that people who drew cartoons for such a magazine shouldn’t be murdered, but I would not express any kind of solidarity with them. I wouldn’t consider them colleagues or allies. I wouldn’t mourn them.
But that’s not the case. That makes all the difference.
The one free speech scenario which is the most relevant here (and it’s blasphemy, just in case you’ve already forgotten), seems to be the one everyone is now discussing the least.
I’m starting to get the impression people don’t want to talk about the problem facing us. And that, to me, is a big part of the problem.
I have heard the most exquisitely manicured theories about “marginalisation” and “stigmatisation” and I have heard dissertations about conditions in French suburbs, and also about foreign policy – even though the attackers themselves left us in no doubt about the motives for their savagery by announcing proudly that they had avenged their prophet, just before speeding away in a car for their date with death a couple of days later at the hands of French commandos.
And who else would get that sort of treatment if the Kouachi brothers had had the power? Muslims. Muslims who weren’t of exactly the right kind, Muslims who opposed IS, Muslims who didn’t want people like the Kouachi brothers in authority over them.
I have also heard endless discussions about whether the magazine Charlie Hebdo and its noble cartoonists were “racist”. This is nothing new or unsurprising. A discussion about any aspect of Islam is simply not possible without a discussion about racism. The default assumption when criticising Islam is that you are a racist, and it is up to you to prove a negative: that you are not racist. It is not up to the person making the accusation to produce any evidence of racism. For those of us who are still alive, being subject to this reverse-burden-of-proof is highly annoying, intimidating, time-consuming, exhausting and potentially career-ending – and that is its purpose. But then at least we’re still alive to defend ourselves from the smears.
Yes. That is a luxury and a privilege.
Even if we assume for a moment that the cartoonists were racist – and I have seen no evidence whatsoever that they were – this changes things not one jot. In a secular liberal democracy, holding and expressing unpleasant views is not punishable by the contents of an AK-47 anyway. If that were the case then there would be some very nervous imams, “scholars” and “community leaders” in the UK that I can think of.
Well, again, for me it does change things several jots – that is, it would if we assumed it for a moment. It would change things. Of course it wouldn’t change the fact that in secular liberal democracy, holding and expressing unpleasant views is not punishable by death, but it would change my attitude to and feelings about the people killed.
I’m not good at isolating the principle of free speech and defending it no matter what. I’m not good at being consistent in that way. I can easily defend the principle that racism should not be punished by murder, but that’s a separate issue. The issue is one of solidarity: I am in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and I would not be in solidarity with a far-right racist xenophobic counterpart.
There are problems with failing to be consistent on this, because it can equate to just carving out exceptions for one’s own pet category, and if everyone does that, so much for free speech. I’ve never found any solution to this problem.
The endless discussions about the cartoonists’ alleged “racism” have generated an elaborate sideshow and also smeared the memory of some tremendously brave and inspirational individuals. These individuals were valiantly holding the line for free speech, and therefore for freedom itself, on behalf of everyone. Their bodies are barely cold. These people have been sold out in the most spectacular fashion. What a way to honour their bravery.
No well-informed commentator is making the case for completely limitless free speech. Even in mature, secular democracies like our own free speech does of course have its limits. But the point here is that one of those limits is not and must never be “offence”, so any discussion of whether the cartoons were offensive is completely pointless anyway. Nor is one of those limits whether someone might shoot you or hurl a bomb through your office window because they don’t like what you say.
That I agree with, no quibbles.
Condemning murder is the easy part. Any fool can do that. The hard part, for far too many people, is affirming the right to free speech – specifically the right to cause offence and in this case to depict Mohammed. Hashtags and strongly-worded condemnations and marches and selfies and calls for “solidarity” are all well and good, but they are the bare minimum we should expect. If people are not also willing to unequivocally defend – and actually physically exercise – the right to depict Mohammed then it’s all a bit #hollow.
Is that an imam on the cover of a book I co-wrote? Or is it Mohammed himself? Hard to be sure – photographs of Mo are so scarce.