Twelve dead, both men and women, including policemen. Four injured, and a crowd, all holding pens, is growing in number in the Place de la République. Indeed, all over France, people are spontaneously gathering, as the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo seep into people’s consciousness and which might well be a 9/11 moment for the French, striking as it does at the sacred heart of what François Hollande described as ‘la liberté’. Tomorrow is a national day of mourning. All the French magazines from both right and left are producing parody Charlie Hebdo black covers. The Islamists have seriously miscalculated the political reach of the satirists, who are hugely popular in France. It is a deep irony that one of the murdered cartoonists was Georges Wolinski, a Tunisian Jew, half Sephardi and half Ashkenazi.
They didn’t kill randomly; Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch had planned this for months, taking revenge for perceived slights on the Prophet. Like everyone else, the images of people bursting in to the office waving AK47’s and screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ in front of a few old guys sitting round a table having a meeting is repellent. These killers, however, were calm and deliberate. They knew who they were coming for. Because some people think it’s not OK to publish satire and especially not OK to be provocative about the Prophet of Islam. We have news for you. Satire – the poking fun at authoritarian figures – which in free societies, people do – is a healthy form of freedom of expression. Nobody gets killed, nothing more sinister happens than a few ruffled feathers, but the point and the protest has been made. I rather wonder what the world would think if the Swiss Guard besieged the offices of Charlie Hebdo because it had been rude about the Pope.
Ironically, Michel Houllebecq’s new novel “Submission” was published in France today. It is a fiction (let’s be clear) about a futuristic France under Muslim control and he is now under police protection since the cover of his book appears, not unsurprisingly, in the most recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. The book has sparked fierce controversy. Laurent Joffrin, editor-in-chief of left-leaning French newspaper Libération, argued that the novel “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.
“This is a book that ennobles the ideas of the Front National,” he added. Alain Jakubovitch, president of the anti-racism group LICRA, added: “This is the best Christmas present Marine Le Pen could wish for.” Whether the Far Right ideology has mass appeal or not, the Charlie Hebdo outrage will do little to weaken it. Not since ‘The Satanic Verses’ has there been such a resurgence of interest. Salman Rushdie, its author, released the following today: “Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason when combined with modern weaponry, becomes a real threat to our freedoms.” He is quite right if he describes religion as being deaf to entreaty, debate and dialogue, which militant Islam does quite well.
He continues: “This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.”
I hope he does not only defend the ‘art of satire’, worthy as such a defence is. Satire gives us a virtual platform, a soap-box on which we can stand like an actor on stage. People can throw virtual cabbages at us as much as they like. However, defence of those whose freedom of speech is either trampled upon or physically threatened is a prime directive in a free society. First Amendment freedom without responsibility, however, is damaging and counterproductive. Some universities are so morally compromised by the relativism that they have preached for so long that they are becoming incapable of hearing a view they do not agree with without riot and protest in the meetings. Jewish students, in particular have been shouted down and not given the courtesy of a hearing.
Rushdie goes on to say “‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
And, he is right. Furthermore, if a God needs murderers to stand up for him, he’s not worthy of people’s worship.