So far, I’ve not written much about the recent terrorist atrocities in France, or the various controversies that have sprung up in their wake. Given the huge amount of words that have been spent on these events and issues already, I doubt my relative silence will have been noticed or missed by anyone.
If we’re talking about the terrorist attacks themselves, I don’t think there’s that much to say: these murders should not have happened, and they cannot be justified, no-one should be murdered or imprisoned for writing or drawing something that other people find offensive or provocative, any more than they should be murdered for, say, having a job as a cleaner, or shopping in a Jewish supermarket. This is an important principle, and it’s one I’ll come back to.
If we’re talking about the consequences of the attacks, there’s more to say, but not much more: the hypocrisy of the politicians appealing to ideas of “free speech” in order to construct a community of “we are all Charlie” that includes individuals and institutions, like the architects of Spain’s gagging law, who pose a serious threat to freedom is absurd and nauseating. The wave of anti-Muslim attacks that has already lead to the loss of yet another life should be opposed. And in general it should be recognised that any kind of community that’s constructed, whether explicitly or implicitly, as excluding Muslims is helping to contribute to the sense of isolation and exclusion that Islamist radicals seek to feed off.
This is all fairly basic stuff, and none of the above observations are particularly unique or thought-provoking. What’s provoked me to bother writing this is the news that French police have arrested a 16-year-old boy for making “ironic comments”. The brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer once famously observed that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; it’s hard to know what to say in an age when people are arrested for making ironic comments that are judged to be not sufficiently respectful of satirists.
It seems likely that the arrest for “defending terrorism” was provoked by the cartoon above, which takes an old CH cover with the slogan “The Quran is shit, it doesn’t stop bullets”, and alters it to become “Charlie Hebdo is shit. It does not stop bullets.”* As with Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it’s possible to read an image in a lot of different ways. Personally, I think this image – horribly distasteful, offensive and provocative as it is – is a really quite fitting tribute to Charlie Hebdo, and to the idea that people should have the freedom to say things that other people find offensive. It strikes me that this case is a very simple way to tell the difference between people who actually believe in free speech, and those who are happy to support the right to say things that offend Muslims, but are less keen on the right to say things that offend, you know, nice people, people like us.
I’m not one of those who joined in with the chorus of Je suis Charlie, for reasons that I’ve sketched out above, but I don’t judge those who did, because I think most people who did had quite good reasons for doing so. It’s totally understandable to want to show your solidarity with the victims of a hideous crime, and it’s perfectly reasonable that people want to express their support for the idea that people should be free to say what they want, even if other people find that speech offensive. But the slogan “I am Charlie”, one that many of the world’s biggest jailers and censors are happy to join in with, is not the most effective way of making that point. If we really want to repeat a slogan that expresses total opposition to censorship, we could do a lot worse than “Charlie Hebdo is shit. It doesn’t stop bullets.”
*as an aside, the Electronic Intifada article where I learnt about this story refers to the cartoon being published on the website of Dieudonne, who they refer to as a controversial comedian. That’s one description, and an accurate one; calling him a racist scumbag would be equally accurate. I don’t think Dieudonne should be arrested or killed for the horrible, offensive things he says, but I do think the rest of us should use our freedom of speech to challenge him everytime he airs his vile opinions.