The people of France have borne the brunt of Islamist violence in recent weeks. Cars have been driven into crowds of people, three police officers have been stabbed. But the murder of 10 staff at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and of two police officers marks a breathtaking escalation.
The cowardly perpetrators were professional killers, they evidently have experience of firearms, and are well trained judging by the tight grouping of bullet holes left in a car windscreen. The attack was far from random. The magazine was having it’s weekly editorial conference. The perpetrators talked someone into letting them into the building. They called out the names of their targets, and coolly fired in bursts of one or two shots at a time. They murdered two policemen, one (a Muslim) as he lay injured on the ground. They then calmly walked back to their car and drove slowly away.
Chillingly, having committed these unspeakable atrocities in broad daylight, the murderers just melted away. We are perhaps getting used to these events culminating with the men taking their own lives or being killed by police. It appears these men had no intention of being caught or of sacrificing themselves. At the time of writing they have not been apprehended, but the net appears to be tightening with police seeking two brothers from Paris and a third man from Riems
The “justification” for this outrage is that Charlie Hebdo published cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed. Charlie Hebdo is by no means anti-Islamic (amusingly the Head of French at Glasgow University told Sky News that the readership of Charlie Hebdo is left wing, and so therefore cannot be racist). It is a satirical magazine, and nobody is safe from its satire. Catholics, Jews, white people, black people, nobody is immune. Even us Brits have not escaped their attention:
Peter Whittle, UKIP’s Culture Spokesman, gave a considered response in the immediate aftermath:
“The horrific attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the murder of its writers and cartoonists, is a direct, barbaric assault on freedom of speech and expression. This freedom is the very bedrock of Western democracy. It is non-negotiable.
Such a brazen attack suggests that those who oppose our values believe we lack the resolve to defend them.
This must end. We must make it clear to those who hate our freedoms – our right to satirise, to criticise, to debate and indeed to offend – that they will never, ever win.”
It is wrong to tarnish many peaceful Muslims with violent extremism. It is equally wrong to claim that these violent extremists have nothing to do with Islam. The gunmen targeted Charlie Hebdo specifically because of their satirical lampooning of Mohammed, they were heard to shout “Allahu Akbar” and that they had “avenged the prophet”. Their religion was clearly a motivating factor, to say the least. If we do not accept the openly stated cause of these cowardly terrorists, how can we hope to understand their motivation and more importantly combat their hate?
The issue is not the percentage of Muslims that are terrorists, the issue is the percentage of terrorists that are Muslim. Even after the horrific barbarity in Paris, much of the media persist with a worrying blind spot for Islamic extremism. The Telegraph reports on a “rising tide of Islamaphobia” in the wake of the shootings. Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News anchor, felt compelled to take to Twitter with this:
“We avenge the Paris horror with more tanks at our peril:The abuse of indigenous muslims in the Iraq and Afghan wars have done us no favours”.
Leaving aside the question of what exactly is an “indigenous Muslim” (Islam is a religion not a race), seeking to deflect the blame onto Western foreign policy is not just crass but downright dangerous. Islamist terrorists must look on our hand-wringing, liberal media with bemusement. They can only be encouraged by our attempts to blame ourselves rather than tackle Islamism head on. Charlie Hebdo stood out as a target for those who want to bury free speech partly because the massed ranks of the mainstream media had taken a step back.
It took many years to break the taboo around discussing uncontrolled immigration. There is a similar taboo on discussing Islamism. Where those worried about uncontrolled immigration were silenced with accusations of racism, so those with concerns about Islamism are denounced as Islamophobes (and also, bizarrely, as racists. Again, it’s a religion, not a race). Those that stifled debate about uncontrolled immigration portray opposition to violent, supremacist, political Islamism as being anti Islam itself.
We must have free speech. We must be able to question, criticise and, yes, satirise any religion, belief or idea. Many practices that are associated with Islam jar with our liberal western culture. Polygamy, female genital mutilation, forced marriages, ‘honor’ killings, treatment of women as second class citizens, all of this is highly illiberal, reactionary and objectionable to the majority of people across Europe. We must be able to freely discuss Islam, and all must be equal before the law. Those that seek to protect Islam from fair scrutiny merely sow the seeds of discord.
This tragedy has shown us the value of freedom of expression. It has shown that this freedom is as fragile and endangered as it is precious. We do a great disservice to the victims of this heinous crime if we do not learn the lesson that Charlie Hebdo’s staff died for; that freedom of speech must be defended robustly, that we must have the courage of our convictions, and that fear must never stop us from doing what is right. Our freedoms only exist while we have the will and the power to defend them.
We should leave the last word to Stephane Charbonnier, the late editor of Charlie Hebdo:
“Je préfère mourir debout que vivre à genoux.”
“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
Amen to that. RIP.