A terrible price of freedom of speech

Staff writer, Daily Telegraph

The maxim “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” is often attributed to Voltaire, though there is no record that he coined it. But the sentiment exemplified the French writer’s philosophy and will have been on the lips of many after the atrocity in Paris, his native city.

The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo left 12 dead and several seriously injured. The editor and many of his senior staff were killed in what President François Hollande justifiably called “an attack on free speech”. It is not yet clear who was responsible, though the finger of suspicion points to an Islamist terror organisation seeking revenge on the publication and its employees for lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. The gunmen themselves claimed to be from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni offshoot and declared that “Allah has been avenged”.

Yet the modus operandi was unlike many previous al-Qaeda operations. The terrorists were clearly well trained, almost militaristic in their demeanour. Heavily armed with automatic rifles and even a grenade launcher, they sought out individuals by name and chose the time of the magazine’s editorial meeting apparently to ensure their targets were present. They also had a getaway car waiting: most al-Qaeda operations end in the suicide of the terrorists or with a shoot-out with the police, which may yet happen if they are cornered. So if, as seems likely, this is an Islamist terror attack, it is a new and sinister development in Europe. It resembled more the sort of commando-style raid seen in Mumbai in 2008 that intelligence services across Europe have feared for some time. It differs, too, from the “lone wolf” attack, since there were at least three terrorists involved, suggesting that a cell structure might be involved, ready to strike again.

While the perpetrators are still unknown, the targets were clear and deliberately chosen. Charlie Hebdo had no compunction in mocking Islam and its editors considered they had a perfect right to do so in a free and liberally-inclined country such as France. They knew they were running a risk because militants have shown before that they will not countenance their religion being ridiculed. From the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie 25 years ago for writing The Satanic Verses to the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, who made a controversial film about Islamic culture, the price of apparently belittling Islam has been high.

Charlie Hebdo had already paid such a price for exercising freedom of expression when its offices were firebombed after the magazine published a “halal” comic book on the life of the Prophet and named Mohammed as its guest editor for the week. To most people brought up in western Europe, such satire is the stuff of living in a free country. But we do not doubt that it is offensive to many Muslims, just as Christian and Jews are affronted if their religions are traduced, even if they do not react in such an extreme way.

Free speech offers latitude but not necessarily license. It does not follow that because many newspapers, such as this one, do not publish cartoons of Mohammed that somehow we have been intimidated into not speaking out. Any suggestion that a publication failing to follow Charlie Hebdo’s example is caving into terrorism is absurd: we all make editorial decisions to avoid offending people that have nothing to do with appeasing militant Islamists.

However, the reaction to what happened in Paris could be far-reaching, and not just in France. Anti-Muslim attitudes are growing across Europe and are no longer confined to the far-Right extremes. In Germany, weekly marches have been staged in a number of cities by an organisation called Pegida that campaigns against what it sees as the “Islamisation” of Europe. Nearly 20,000 turned out to a rally in Dresden; and while the marches have been denounced as racist by political parties and religious leaders across Germany, Pegida’s supporters do not appear to be drawn from the usual neo-Nazi quarters.

In Holland, the PVV party led by Geert Wilders continues to attract substantial support even though its leader has been accused of incitement to racial hatred. But it is in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, where the tensions are greatest. Partly this is a legacy of its colonial past but it is also the result of its failure to integrate, and the aggressive secularism of the French state. Paris was the first city to experience the wave of Islamist attacks of the modern era when the Metro was bombed in 1995. Two years ago, the lone wolf terrorist Mohamed Merah killed two soldiers, a rabbi and three small children in a shooting spree in Toulouse.

Burgeoning anti-Islam attitudes are grist to the mill for the Front National, now the most popular party in France. A new book by the French author Michel Houellebecq, which provided the front cover for this week’s Charlie Hebdo, envisages an election in which France’s mainstream parties join forces to back a Muslim candidate to stop Marine Le Pen becoming president. In the event, the new head of state introduces Sharia law to France. Such paranoia can easily be stoked by the murders in Paris. It needs to be resisted, otherwise the terrorists really will have won. 

Daily Telegraph, 08/01/2015