“Martyrs for Liberty”
The terrorist attacks in Paris today are a watershed moment. This is not the largest terrorist attack of recent times – Paris has been spared until now the major incidents faced by New York, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Bali or Nairobi for example – but today’s attack will be remembered for the clear message it delivers in relation to international values because it is such an obvious one. I am not one to usually talk about things such as “French values”, given that human rights are now universal and internationally recognized, but there is something specific in historic terms about freedom of expression and democracy in a city such as Paris. It is debated as to whether Voltaire ever actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” in 1758 (it might be a summation by Tallentyre much later) but it was clearly Voltaire’s sentiment.
Since 1948 freedom of expression has been an internationally recognised human right and is an essential aspect of life for activists, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, writers, comedians and politicians across every continent. The fact that this freedom is not an absolute and is denied to the populations of too many countries does not diminish its universality or its essential role in the modern world.
I am not a freedom of expression fundamentalist. I have often argued with colleagues often about why papers in Copenhagen or Paris should go out of their way to be offensive, particularly to minorities who already face considerable racism and marginalisation across Europe. The cartoons did not just offend extremists but many moderate Muslims, in the way Christians, Hindus and Jews have been offended by other publications, works of art, music for decades. For example, the offence of “blasphemy” was only removed from English law in 2008 and this had only protected Christian sentiment.
I would not ban Wagner’s powerful music even though he was clearly anti-semitic, nor any of the movies depicting the death of Jesus Christ or even stop the bookshop at Amman airport from selling copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic and English which I believe it still does (a book still banned in some European countries). So whilst I have never read any copy of Charlie Hebdo and did not agree with the sentiments of some of their cartoons, there is a fundamental value at stake which is much more important.
Democracies cannot function without freedom of expression, freedom and liberty. More than this, as Aung San Suu Kyi wrote under house arrest in 1991, it is also fear that corrupts and fear of terrorism will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression even without specific threats. This of course is the basis of such terrorism. The murdered journalists and editor were very aware of this and undoubtedly pushed the envelope for this very reason – offending many religions and establishment figures over the years in order to push back the boundaries of fear that chill freedom of expression itself. The most invisible type of censorship is self-censorship and newspaper editors must remain brave. Many of us tweeted #jesuischarlie today even if many of us will never read Charlie Hebdo regardless of how good our French might be (or not).
And then there is the other even greater threat to European values, from the bowels of the continent itself and its extreme right. Racists also kill people, from the thousands of racially motivated attacks every year to the specialists such as Anders Breivik who killed 77 fellow Norwegians in 2011 for being young social democrats. But beyond this, like the beating drums of Mordor, looms the ugly face of xenophobia and intolerance which has recently taken the form of the “Pegida” marches in Dresden and other parts of Germany. Pegida or Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (in English: “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”) would claim to be the counterpoint to Islamic extremism, but actually it has much in common. It is clear that both hate liberalism, both hate journalists and both wish to divide European society based on ideology. The danger now is that the Pegida marches will grow and we will see similar in France led by Marine Le Pen who must fancy her chances to run for the next French Presidency. A fascist in the Elysee Palace, the first since 1945, would warm the hearts of all those wishing harm to the democracies of Europe and our essential values. Those in the UK and other countries debating whether we still need a European Convention on Human Rights or would like to further restrict the sanctuary offered to refugees from the Middle East should reflect carefully as to which side of history they might stand.
I end by re-quoting the Paris-based Imam (via US Secretary of State John Kerry) who today honoured the murdered journalists as “martyrs for liberty”.