Monday 26 September 2016

Lessons of free speech 'Charlie Hebdo' taught us have been forgotten already

Published 06/01/2016 | 02:30

Copies of the latest edition of French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the title
Copies of the latest edition of French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo with the title "One year on, The assassin still on the run" are seen at a printing house near Paris. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

As the special anniversary issue of 'Charlie Hebdo' hits the stands today, its publication marks a year of carnage which started on the morning of January 7.

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Then, to the shock and brief horror of the watching world, Islamic terrorists calmly murdered 12 people in Paris for the crime of offending their religion before moving on to a kosher deli to murder a further five people for the crime of being Jewish.

Shocking it undoubtedly was, but it wasn't entirely surprising. After all, the staff at that once obscure publication weren't the only European journalists to operate under an explicit threat of death from terrorists. But the sheer brazenness of the attack, much of it captured on camera, ensured that it was an ominous start to the new year. As we now know, it was only the first assault in a wave of attacks in the last 12 months which included the slaughter of tourists in Tunisia, a downed Russian passenger jet in Egypt, the San Bernardino mass shootings and, of course, what is now known simply as the 'Bataclan massacre', when Paris was once more targeted in an operation which left more than 130 innocent gig-goers and Friday night revellers dead.

If 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Islamic gun, it's instructive to look at how quickly the lessons we were all supposed to have learned from 'Charlie Hebdo' have been discarded.

A few days after that initial attack, more than 40 world leaders gathered in Paris to express solidarity with the magazine and, by extension, the cherished European values of mockery and impudence, the two most valuable elements of free speech and, not surprisingly, the two most problematic.

The cover of today's edition features a cartoon of God with an AK-47 with the provocative headline: "One year on, the assassin is still on the run", and, as might have been expected, that sentiment has already attracted huge criticism, with the likes of Abdallah Zakri of France's Observatory against Islamophobia denouncing the cover as: "Violent and very insulting towards religion."

Of course, it's not violent in the least, especially when placed in the context of a magazine which had most of its staff murdered. That, by any rational definition, is violence - on the other hand, a cartoon is simply a cartoon, no matter how much it may infuriate you.

Perversely, despite the initial rallying calls of 'Je suis Charlie', that commitment to freedom of expression, and the mass rejection of a group of terrorists that believe murder is an appropriate response to their hurt feelings, was fleeting and in the 12 months since those so-called world leaders gathered on the streets of Paris, it has been business as usual.

The most obvious example of that hypocrisy comes from the Saudis - who stretched the definition of irony to breaking point with their presence at that march - who executed 47 people this week. We might expect that given their past form; but even in Europe, the actions of the establishment speak far louder than any words they may have been uttered at the time.

To the delight of the French government, its neighbours in Belgium arrested the controversial comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala in November and sentenced him to two months in jail for his 'racist and anti-Semitic' material.

It is simply impossible to, on the one hand, loudly trumpet your commitment to free speech and, on the other, jail a comedian, no matter how awful he may be.

There is no 'but' in the statement 'I believe in freedom of speech...' yet that lesson has been completely lost - if it was ever learned in the first place.

Here in Ireland, we have seen the increasingly ludicrous imposition of so-called 'safe spaces' on Irish campuses where students are 'protected' from views which might make them uncomfortable.

That's always good for a cheap snigger at the weak-minded stupidity and intellectual inadequacy of some of today's Millennials, but it also resulted in Trinity College cancelling a planned lecture on 'Apostasy and the rise of Islam' by Iranian human rights activist Maryam Namazie - because some students complained that she made Trinity an 'unsafe' environment. Not because some of those whom have threatened her might turn up to kill her and hurt other people in the process, mind you - but simply because some students objected to the content of her talk.

How many of the worthies who were so quick to stick #JesuisCharlie on their social media profile also kept their mouth shut when Namazie was being hounded so disgracefully?

There is precious little any of us can do about terrorism but we have a profound and challenging obligation to tackle the erosion of free expression we are currently enduring. If that means offending the beliefs of some people? Well, some beliefs deserve to be mocked and if the believers are outraged, that's their problem.

The problem of living in a liberal democracy is that there is little appetite for aggressively defending the right to offend.

We would rather sit idly by and allow the narrative to be controlled by lunatics than be accused of the greatest secular sin imaginable - racism, or its idiot cousin, Islamophobia.

No good could ever have come from the atrocity in Paris 12 months ago, but it should be a cause of genuine despair that we have actually retreated from the values we pretended to espouse in the wake of the massacre.

And on that level alone, it proves that despite all the hot air and guff we had to listen to from Charlie's fair weather friends, the terrorists have won.

Irish Independent

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