Thursday, 8 January 2015

Je suis Charlie: terrorism and free speech

Occasionally college lecturers get things right, and I’ve never forgotten the one who told us that the point about really good satire, is that it had to make you feel uncomfortable. You laugh as you read it, but you turn the page in apprehension, for fear you were about to find yourself targeted.

Thats Charlie Hebdo. Hilarious at times, uncomfortable at others. Plenty to stimulate thought and provoke smiles, plenty to offend and annoy. Exactly what satire is supposed to do.

It’s the impact satire can have that makes it so important. It teaches us not to take our sacred cows too seriously. If we learn that lesson, we’ll probably learn that the cows weren’t that sacred in the first place. It’s an important stance to take towards governments, always inclined to view themselves as far more important than they really are (I was in Italy for two months in 1979: when I got there, the country had been without a government for four months; when I left, it had been without a government for six months. But the restaurants were open, the shops sold goods, the buses ran… It was an object lesson to the world.)

A bunch that needs laughing at and relativising even more than government is religious fundamentalism. To join their numbers, you have to have your sense of humour surgically excised. Incapable of seeing your cows as anything but sacred, you also insist that everyone else shares your reverence for them.

Unfortunately, few organisations are as irreverent as Charlie Hebdo. It didn’t just get up Muslim noses. Before the attack of 7 January, the most serious threat the magazine had faced was in 1970, when it was called Hebdo Hara Kiri. Charles de Gaulle, former president and hero of the Second World War, died in his home village of Colombey-les–deux-Eglises, just ten days after a terrible disco fire elsewhere in France had killed 146. The weekly’s headline after the ex-President’s death was “Tragic Dance at Colombey: one dead”.

Announcing the news of de Gaulle's death
The move to suspend the publication
led to its taking the name Charlie Hebdo
The Minister of the Interior, as appreciative of humour as any fundamentalist, suspended the paper’s right to publish, which changed its name to Charlie Hebdo to get round the ban.

But the paper was most famous for its irreverence for Islam. They repeatedly printed cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, in clear breach of Muslim teaching. Humourless Islamists responded on 7 January with the only weapons they knew how to use: real ones. They made another attempt to shut the publication, by killing two policemen outside the building and ten staff inside it, including the editor and cartoonist Charb, and the cartoonists Cabu, Honoré, Tignous and Wolinski.

The shootings will, however, do their cause no good. The immediate reaction has been to rally huge numbers round the journal and speak out in favour of the absolute right of free speech. Many leading figures, in France and around the world, have leaped to defend that right, even the political heirs of those who tried to shut the publication in 1970. And, as the New Yorker’s Andy Borowitz points out, cartoons that had previously only been seen in France will now be seen around the world. Exactly the opposite of what the terrorists intended.

Steve Bell gets it exactly right in the Guardian
Nor will the action slow the determination of those fighting ISIS and Al Qaida in the Middle East. If anything, all it will do is strengthen support for operations against them. Again, precisely the opposite of what the terrorists’ cause should be seeking.

The depressing effect will be in increasing division within our own, Western societies. There were a handful of attacks on Muslim centres in France yesterday: the nation has nearly seven million Muslims; three carried out a vicious attack; there are people stupid enough to try to pin the blame of the three on the millions, and to resort to violence themselves against the violence they denounce.

As stupid was the statement made in Britain by Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right movement UKIP, who deplored the presence in this country of a fifth column “holding our passports that hate us.” He’s right to want to put an end to these corrosive forces that try to divide our people against each other and stir up bitterness between us. He can personally do something about the problem, by shutting up himself and disbanding his noxious little party.

I take comfort from the fact that journalists in France have rallied round and will help get next week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo out. The best news? It will have a print run of a million copies, against the usual 45,000. You can bet it’ll sell out. You can also bet it’ll contain a cartoon of the prophet.

A fitting response to this week’s outrage.

My favourite Muhammad cartoon is from Le Monde not Charlie Hebdo:
Plantu writing over and over again "I must not draw Muhammad"

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