January 9, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
Amongst the many articles I have been reading about Wednesday’s massacre of cartoonists, writers and editors at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical machine, a simple fact jumped out at me. David Aaronovitch in the Times noted that “for the first time since the defeat of fascism a group of citizens were massacred because of what they had drawn, said and published.” The magazine had published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. This “insult to Islam” is nothing of the sort, it is the job of satirical cartoonists in a world of free speech to point the finger at ideas and actions that may be seen by some as silly. There should, as Aaronovitch said, be no problem in suggesting “that the divine is in fact claybound, that the ineffable is really just another bloke in a robe.” People who kill for God, this argument continues, aren’t actually killing for anyone but themselves, and it is about them not being able to bear being thought silly.
Aaronovitch also reminds of the ridiculous situation that occurred a year ago, when a cartoon had emerged called Jesus and Mo, which did nothing more than depict a nice-looking Jesus and a nice-looking Muhammad. A Muslim politician called Maajid Nawaaz (who had once himself been an Islamist fundamentalist but had renounced that and was now standing for Hampstead and Kilburn in the next General election) tweeted this picture, to make the point that it was anodyne. There then followed a campaign against him because he had apparently “insulting the prophet”. What then followed was disturbing. BBC’s Newsnight hosted a discussion about the cartoon, but didn’t show the cartoon. Channel 4 News showed part of the cartoon but blanked out Muhammad. Not a single newspaper published the cartoon. Ludicrously, the Editor of Newsnight said that there was “no strong journalistic reason to use it“. Really, you are hosting a discussion about a cartoon and see no reason to show a picture of that cartoon? THAT’s journalism? No it isn’t. It is fear. Fear of violence.
That fear is today cascading through the media. Aaronovitch asks us to imagine any newspaper, magazine, broadcaster or publisher in the democratic world who isn’t reviewing its security today and imagining what would happen should the murderers turn up at their place? This sense of responsibility towards employees is understandable but let’s not run away from the fact that it does away with free speech. Surely the same tolerance that allows Muslims and Christians and Jews and so many other religions to practice their religion in this country should also allow that religion to be depicted, criticised or even ridiculed?
As Mehdi Hasan pointed out more than two years’ ago in the New Statesman, that seems to be the case in Muslim countries. In many majority Muslim countries, it is open season on plenty of religions. Hasan is as fed up as I am of these double standards.
Hasan, a Muslim himself who has been a political editor at the New Statesman, Huffington Post and now is Washington Editor for Al-Jazeera, is no enemy of Islam. Yet, he struggles to recognise the Islam that the kinds of people who attacked Charlie Hebdo profess. Islam, to Hasan, is based on the principles of peace, moderation and mercy, stating the Quranic verses 2:256 “There is no compulsion in religion” and 109:6 “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”. Hasan notes that Islamists have a faith “disfigured by anger, faith and paranoia”.
Hasan accepts the basis of the anger over “cartoons depicting our beloved prophet as a terrorist/murderer/paedophile/rapist/delete-as-applicable” but doesn’t accept that anger as being an excuse for extremism. He asks Islamists to ask “WWMD: What would Muhammad do?”. “Would the Prophet endorse your violent attacks on foreign embassies and schools, police stations and shops”.
Most importantly, Hasan writes that “You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.”
You don’t have to search hard in the media in Muslim countries for cartoons, articles, TV programmes and video broadcasts about Judaism, containing horrendous accusations, stereotypes and insults. Yet I am not thinking of firebombing the Saudi embassy. That’s partly because I believe in free speech, and that it applies to everyone.
Hasan points out that “In a recent Gallup survey conducted in ten Muslim-majority countries, representing more than 80% of the Global Muslim population, believers, when asked what they admired most about the west, cited, political freedoms, fair trials, and…wait for it…freedom of speech” Therefore the actions of those who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre are undermining not just Islam but the worldwide Muslim community, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.
Sure enough, as Aaronovitch reminds us in the Times, all this plays into the hands of those like the organisers of the march of thousands of Germans in Dresden and elsewhere, who marched again in vague opposition to the Muslim presence among them. For them the Charlie Hebdo massacre seems like a gigantic placard held above them reading: “See? Told you!” Marine Le Pen, Leader of the Front Nationale, will remind French people, that “this” is what you get. And even some liberals who loathe the National Front will agree, in sadness.
Ultimately, our fear of offending violent Islamists have led us to the position where too many people have legitimized their right to take violent offence at rather normal and banal satire. This means that we in the liberal West have been gently conniving to turn Charlie Hebdo and others into targets. Surely, this must stop. Now.