When the Charlie Hebdo killings happened, western liberals - writers, commentators, activists et al – were quick to proclaim themselves Je suis Charlie as an act of solidarity with the victims. I was shocked, of course, at the appalling massacre but something was holding me back from rushing to endorse the howls of protest that followed, even though many of the demonstrations were spontaneous outpourings of grief with which on a human level one could only and did empathise. In the following weeks and months, my reservations have more or less remained unchanged, but then so have the running arguments about the nature and wider implications of the crime.
The cry most commonly heard is that the murdered journalists at Charlie Hebdo were martyred in the cause of free speech – `martyrs`, ironically, of a different order! It is a question, we are told, of the right to offend, to ridicule. But that is one side of the equation; for pitted against it surely is the right not to be offended or ridiculed, though even that is in contention. By now, all the nuances of the subject have been exhaustively examined and critiqued in every kind of forum - online, print, broadcast and electronic media – and in verbal exchanges or learned discussions everywhere, with much of the discourse grounded in ideology and prejudice, selective history and current politics. Having internalised the pros and cons of it all, where do I stand?
Where to begin? Ok, let me be quite frank. I have no time for those who define themselves as Muslim first and the rest, whatever, as secondary. And the same, I hasten to add, goes for anyone who calls themselves Christian, or Hindu, or Jain, or Sikh, or Jewish, or Buddhist or whatever other religion they may profess, over and above everything else. When I say I have no time for them, I mean I cannot relate to or engage with them either intellectually or on a heart to heart basis, because I am not a religious person. But, even from my secular perspective, I would not deny them their humanity or their place in society, with all that it entails in terms of civilised coexistence.
What this means is that I recognise that to practising Muslims their religion matters so much that, putting it mildly, any irreverent depiction of their prophet or holy book would be considered offensive to their sacred beliefs. Offensive certainly, though whether tolerable or not would depend on the circumstances. That is where Charlie Hebdo crossed the line, from respect into insult. The publication of the cartoons was not surprisingly therefore interpreted as a brazen provocation that led to retaliation. After all, there had been a history of what the politicised, disaffected devout French Muslims regarded as touching the very core of their selves.
The defenders of Charlie Hebdo rest their case on the mantle of freedom of expression but, as we are often reminded, freedom of expression is not absolute. Holocaust denial for example is taboo and indeed a crime in Germany. And in France itself, in the wake of Charlie Hebdo, the police arrested their well-known comedian Dieudonné M’bala for `defending terrorism` when he wrote on his Facebook ‘I feel like Charlie Coulibaly’ – his own satirical challenge to the notion of what is acceptable, the Coulibaly reference being to the gunman who killed four Jewish hostages in a kosher restaurant in Paris in a coordinated attack. A worrying related development here in Britain is the emergence of `extremism` as an abhorrent ideology that must be quashed or suppressed. This paranoia has so gripped the power establishment that universities and even schools are being urged to weed out any signs of it among their students, so much so that according to one account, a 17 year old Muslim sixth former who expressed his political opposition to UK and US foreign policy was branded an `extremist`. The security agencies are reportedly keeping a close eye on those likely to fall into this pernicious category of what in the Soviet Union and South Africa used to be called internal exiles or banned persons not so long ago.
In most so-called democracies the doctrine of free expression has its limitations, with balancing factors ranging from the right to privacy and personal reputation, to preservation of public order and now increasingly everywhere national security, which like charity, as the saying goes, can hide a multitude of sins! Whether to deliberately publish something that is bound to provoke reprisals would have to be judged by the national mood and the dominant or prevailing moral and cultural ethos. Right now, the forces of Muslim religious sentiment and identity politics, born of a rising Islamophobia in the west, and the assertion of liberal democratic values in relation to Charlie Hebdo have compounded into a toxic mix, and the result is discord and worse.
But the slaughter of the journalists cannot be condoned in any way. Indeed, if anything, we also have to condemn the many horrors being committed in the name of Islam all over the Middle East and elsewhere. The latest such occurrences, as I write this, have involved the destruction of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Hatra in northern Iraq by Islamic State militants who described the shrines and statues they bulldozed as `false idols` – a sad echo of the pulling down of the Bamiyan Buddhist rock sculptures by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. These priceless monuments predating Islam were part of our collective human history and common heritage that are now lost for ever.
But to go back to freedom of expression, how sacrosanct is it? Is it not being constantly trampled even in western liberal societies when it comes to certain no-go areas, whether legally circumscribed or observed under a voluntary code of silence? Anti-semitism is frowned upon, and quite rightly too, but this also prevents legitimate criticism of Israel being aired for fear of being labelled as such. Indeed, the Israel lobby is powerful, not just in the US but in Europe also, and this is reflected in the media, in parliaments, in academia, in business and other public institutions. At another level, recently a leading member of the British commentariat resigned from his newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, and accused it of suppressing stories about wrongdoing at the banking giant HSBC for commercial reasons. A free press may not be exactly a mythical, self-delusional phenomenon but it is certainly not as free as is made out. We cannot be too naive to think that editorial policies and prejudices, proprietorial preferences or even state interference (whether subtle or direct), do not play a part in the coverage of countless issues and stories on a daily basis in the media generally. So there is selectivity and self-censorship in output across the whole spectrum.
That said, freedom of expression is not just about the proverbial free press or free speech in common parlance. It also embraces literature, music, painting, dance and other forms of artistic representation, such as indeed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the fundamental right to renounce or change religion. Here too issues may arise as to what is within the bounds of decency or otherwise acceptable or not, and such controversies can take violent outbursts, as in the Rushdie affair over The Satanic Verses. Without straying into that territory, suffice it to say that in judging such works of creative imagination, one has to have regard to the relative sophistication of the audience in terms of education and understanding as well as other considerations, and exceptions have to be made.
To conclude, hypocrisy and double standards are nothing new in this context. We are all prone to be holier than thou when it comes to discussing what goes on in other countries and cultures. Of course there are parallels everywhere. It is easier to preach to others than to be self-critical. But I am not Charlie, not yet, perhaps never. I believe in freedom of expression, but with a degree of circumspection. Freedom is not licence. But I also reserve the right to change my mind. Too many `buts` suggests I have not reached a firm conclusion yet.