Six Lessons from the Charlie Hebdo massacre

One month on, the post-massacre love for free speech is withering.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Free Speech

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On Sunday, assorted Muslim organisations gathered in London to demonstrate against the publication of ‘insulting’ cartoons of Muhammad. Their demonstration confirmed that the passions aroused by the Charlie Hebdo affair remain undiminished.

This is not a surprise. One month on, the Charlie Hebdo massacre continues to have a profound effect on the public imagination – not just in Europe, but throughout the world. The massacre, which was quickly followed by the killing of Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket, was widely interpreted as a clear sign that every Western society is at risk of terrorist attack. The carnage in Paris provoked an unprecedented display of public solidarity with the victims. Mass demonstrations in France and many other parts of the world proclaimed the importance of free speech, tolerance and liberty. Some hoped that this display of solidarity would lead to a greater affirmation of democratic values. Others believed that the callous act of terror would at least prompt jihadist supporters to re-examine their allegiances and adopt a more tolerant approach to public life.

A month later, it is now possible to start assessing the legacy of the Paris killings. The reactions to the Charlie Hebdo massacre brought to the surface some very uncomfortable lessons.

1) Je Suis Charlie, but only some of the time…

The immediate displays of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and the celebration of freedom of speech, were truly inspirational. Millions of people were clearly affected by what happened, and they expressed a genuine concern over the threat posed to democratic values. It seemed that at long last a significant section of the public had realised how important it was to defend free speech and expression.

However, it soon became clear that for many who were proclaiming their allegiance to Charlie Hebdo, free speech came with qualifications and ‘buts’. Within days of the massacre, many commentators were more or less suggesting that the inflammatory cartoons, and therefore the cartoonists, were at least indirectly responsible for the slaughter. Tony Barber, the European editor of the Financial Times, condemned Charlie Hebdo for ‘mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims’. The American conservative Pat Buchanan argued that ‘there is no doubt’ that the cartoonists brought it on themselves. Numerous Muslim leaders in Europe and America echoed Buchanan – it was the cartoonists’ own fault.

Globally, it appears that many agree with Buchanan’s assessment. In Russia, one survey showed that the public had very little sympathy for the murdered journalists. In Turkey and other Muslim countries, a significant section of the media blamed the cartoonists for their own deaths.

But one doesn’t have to travel to Turkey or Pakistan to find people who feel that Charlie Hebdo deserved what it got. It soon became clear that even in France, the republican consensus celebrated by the French media was more apparent than real. In many of Paris’s banlieues, there was little mourning. In French schools, young Muslim pupils refused to believe the official version of events and expressed hostility towards Charlie Hebdo. What this reaction to the massacre shows is that alongside the media display of solidarity with the victims there lurks unreserved hatred for both Charlie Hebdo and the cultural attitudes that permit its publication.

2) Sympathy for the victims of the massacre does not extend to solidarity for Charlie Hebdo

Sympathy for the dead journalists was a spontaneous human reaction to a tragic loss of life. Many of those who mourned the dead – especially in France – also interpreted the terrorist attacks as a direct threat to themselves.

Unfortunately, sympathy for the victims of the massacre sometimes gave way to embarrassment about what Charlie Hebdo stood for. This shows that it was one thing to mourn the murdered victims, but quite another to uphold the principle of free expression that allows a provocative publication like Charlie Hebdo to exist. In Ireland, a debate broke out about whether the sale of the post-massacre issue of Charlie Hebdo was illegal under Ireland’s blasphemy laws. One school in Limerick did not wait to find out – it swiftly apologised to a Muslim pupil who took offence when a copy of Charlie Hebdo was produced in the classroom. Apology and embarrassment were prevalent across the globe. A Japanese newspaper, the Tokyo Shimbun, apologised to Muslims for reprinting cartoons that mocked Muhammad. So, too, did the Star in Kenya, and the Citizen in South Africa. The European press also joined in the apologies. In the UK, the Guardian’s readers’ editor offered a cringing apology to those offended by the papers’ use of ‘that image’.

Of course, newspapers are under no obligation to reprint cartoons produced by another publication. There are other ways of demonstrating support for press freedom. But what this hesitant, confused and defensive display showed was not just a fear of causing offence, but a retreat from the ideal of publish and be damned.

3) Republicans and liberals are at a loss as to how to deal with their enemies

After the massive demonstration of solidarity with, and support for, Charlie Hebdo, it is disturbing to note that France’s republican values are on the defensive. In the days following the massacre, it became clear that many children of Muslim heritage were vociferous in their rejection of laïcité – the concept of state secularism. The ideal of state secularism, which has served as the defining principle of the French Republic, has little support among France’s five million Muslim citizens. That is why teachers in some French schools find it difficult to exercise authority over children who reject either liberal secular values or the standpoint of universalism. Sadly, the French government reacted to the travails of state secularism by issuing an edict to strengthen the teaching of laïcité in public schools. From September, students and parents must sign a charter to ‘demonstrate their willingness to respect [laïcité]’.

It is likely that the campaign to promote secular republican values in schools is a reaction to the news that many Muslim children refused to respect the national minute of silence for the dead. The shocked realisation that many French citizens are hostile to the French way of life has sparked panic – hence the decision to force pupils to embrace an outlook they despise. The confused response of French officialdom parallels the UK government’s reaction to the realisation that some schools in England have come under the influence of radical Islamist ideas. But, like the attempt to force allegiance to laïcité, the attempt to teach British values to youngsters brought up to be hostile to them is most likely futile.

The polarised reaction to Charlie Hebdo, with one side mourning the death of the cartoonists and the other side refusing to, exposes the cultural antagonism that lies at the heart of many European societies. One of the few positive outcomes of the massacre is that since it has brought these divisions to the surface, the scale of the problem can no longer be ignored. However, the French government, like its British counterpart, lacks clarity about the challenge it faces. Outwardly, this challenge takes the form of radical Islam, but, in terms of content, it differs little from the politics of identity that now dominates Western public life. The politicisation of identity, which has led to competitive claims-making between different lifestyles, ethnicities and groups, has provided the intellectual and moral resources through which proponents of an Islamist sub-culture express their views. Since secularism represents an offence to their identity, Islamists experience liberalism as their own negation.

The refrain of ‘I am offended’ suggests that ‘how I feel’ is far more important than any wider norms and values. Since Western European culture has become hospitable to the pathologisation of causing offence, it finds it difficult wholeheartedly and consistently to promote the ideals of liberty and tolerance. The French state’s response to this fundamental challenge to its moral authority only exposes its insecurity. The French police’s detention of an eight-year-old child who proclaimed his support for one of the Charlie Hebdo killers is testimony to the state’s stupidity.

4) There are free-speech double standards on both sides

One reason why there was such a powerful wave of sympathy for the victims of the massacre was because of the prominence the media gave to it. Experience shows that the media always takes a special interest in events that threaten it. Tragedies that befall journalists are always likely to attract greater media interest than, say, the massacre of 20 boys in Nigeria by Boko Haram. The ‘limited-edition badge’, sporting the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’, produced by the Guardian ‘to enable readers to show their solidarity and support for journalistic freedom’, symbolises the understandable response of the media to attacks on itself.

Unfortunately, the principled call for supporting journalistic freedom does not always extend to an unreserved advocacy of free speech. A review of the media over the past month indicates that many commentators spend far more energy limiting rather than encouraging free speech. An article entitled ‘I’m fed up with the hypocrisy of the free-speech fundamentalists’, published in the New Statesman, is paradigmatic in this respect. The main merit of this article was to offer an unapologetic denunciation of so-called free-speech fundamentalism, a term of abuse applied to those who are consistent in their support of free speech. Unfortunately, the writer’s observation that ‘none of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech’ was essentially right. Many who work in the media exercise self-censorship and are devotees of ‘trammelling’ speech.

Of course, the opposite of an ‘untrammelled right’ is that of a ‘restricted’ or ‘limited’ or ‘selective’ right – which is, essentially, no longer a right that people are free to exercise.

If journalists are so willing to embrace the principle of regulated speech, is it any surprise that officialdom is so brazen in policing the free speech of its opponents. The French authorities demonstrated that they only uphold the right to free speech when they approve of what is being said when they charged the demagogic comedian Dieudonné with ‘condoning terrorism’. His crime was to declare his identification with the killer of the Jewish hostages in the kosher supermarket. No doubt his remarks offended many, but to deny him his right to express his views is to embrace the intolerant perspective of those responsible for the Paris massacres. The state’s double standard on free speech diminishes the moral authority of republican values and allows the likes of Dieudonné to expose the hypocrisy of French officialdom.

5) The performance of terrorism overwhelms Western societies

Unfortunately, the Paris massacre has created a climate that is hospitable to the flourishing of insecurity and fear. Instead of being resilient, defiant and refusing to be terrorised, European governments, alongside the media, have dwelt on society’s vulnerabilities. The promotion of the idea that ‘Jews are no longer safe in Europe’ is one of the more counterproductive and alarmist responses to the massacre. As I have argued elsewhere, the very manner in which the threat posed by jihadist terrorists is posed constitutes an invitation to be terrorised (1).

The reaction to the events in Paris is totally disproportionate to the scale of the threat posed to citizens in European societies. Unfortunately, this reaction is not confined to France; it extends to the UK, too. When London schools cancel trips to synagogues for safety reasons, it is clear that the terrorists responsible for the Paris massacre have scored a major triumph. Such acts of pusillanimity do not help to make our communities safer. Rather, they encourage prospective terrorists.

6) Giving in to expressions of being offended is a dangerous trap

Experience demonstrates that once the giving of offence is limited by law or custom, the freedoms of an open society become compromised. The call not to offend an individual or a group often makes open dialogue impossible. The very remark ‘that’s offensive’ serves as a call for self-censorship. The rhetoric of ‘I am offended’ simply closes down discussion. Yet there has never been a new idea that has not offended someone. Secular values are as offensive to many religious people as religious dogma is to secular liberals. It is precisely this reluctance to offend that has led European societies to avoid having a genuine debate about the values and responsibilities to which all citizens should be expected to adhere.

Once the right not to be offended gains moral authority, it leads to the elaboration of new laws on what can and cannot be said in public. It also encourages the construction of formal and informal speech codes in institutions as well as prompting the censorship of the press. Every claim to being offended serves as a prelude to the next claim to being offended. The condemnation of one offensive word incites a search for more phrases that need to be censored out of existence. The widely used phrase ‘you can’t say that’ symbolises the way that the policing of language has become normalised.

Regrettably, the supine advocacy of avoiding offence has transformed this cause into a standalone, autonomous virtue. Regardless of the intent of the alleged offender, the mere statement ‘I am offended’ represents a demand for an apology. With offensiveness acquiring such a free-floating quality, it is not surprising that it inspires those who are fed up with it to make a virtue of being offensive. The infantile prophet-bashing cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo serve as the mirror image of the new drive to abolish offence. After 7 January, it is evident that the struggle to uphold the right to offend should not be confined to the works of brave cartoonists.

Following the terrible events in Paris, what is required to fight the enemies of freedom is not a new series of caricatures but a serious, unqualified and genuine commitment to robust and open public debate.

Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

(1) See Invitation To Terror, by Frank Furedi, Continuum Press, 2007

Picture by: PA

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Topics Free Speech


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