The recent murder of the Charlie Hobdo cartoonists in Paris has reminded many in Europe of the fragility of freedom. The cartoonists had drawn images that lampooned the prophet Mohammed. This had angered some Muslims, for whom Mohammed, as founder of their faith is a sacred figure and who (in theory) should never be portrayed figuratively and never made a figure of fun or ridicule. For the cartoonists however, Islam and its prophet were justified targets, in the same way that the Pope and the catholic church were, as were religious Jews and fundamentalist Hindus. They targeted irrelevantly figures of authority who represented the absurdity of power and of superstition. For the cartoonists religious figures were as much, if not more so, a justified target to ridicule than politicians or celebrities. The cartoonists echoed in their mocking images the cruder ideals of the enlightenment from which modern Europe evolved. They were defending and utilising hard won freedoms for which Europeans had in previous centuries been persecuted and died. In the western world the right to offend is an essential barometer of liberty as much as the right to protest against that offence. Provided neither explicitly is violent or incites violence then the offender and the offended should be free to disagree.
The tragedy however, is that the murderers, despite the marching thousands holding “Je Suis Charlie” slogans, had already won. Their deaths were truly pointless. The chanting mobs of Islamic fanatics both at home and abroad, the death threats against anyone who they believe to have insulted their religion or their prophet, had already worked. The repeated calls by some British Muslims demanding that blasphemy laws should protect their “special” religion from being satirised or ridiculed, had already worked. No UK national newspaper or media outlet dared show in full the cartoons ridiculing Mohammed or Islamist fundamentalists before the murders and none have since. Already British politicians, journalists, comedians and commentators (mainly on the left,) are explaining why the cartoons were not, should not and will not be shown. Many of our illiberal so called liberal elite are already pointing the finger at the cartoonists, holding them responsible for their own murder by daring to anger some Muslims. Is this fear within the British establishment political correctness, that feeble excuse so often used to silence voices that may offend someone, some time, somewhere. Or has the fear of Muslim terror been a convenient excuse for western governments to claw back the freedoms our ancestors died for. Cynically I think that the appeasement of Islamists and the fear of Islamist terror has conveniently provided the excuse for the curtailing of liberty by our own governments with hardly a murmur from a fearful public.
Already in the Uk terrorist suspects can be detained without recourse to legal representation or be given the reason for their detention. Our private correspondence and cyber viewing habits are now easily available for the perusal of the intelligence services and the Prime Minister is eager to close down social media sites which refuse to grant the security forces access to the data of millions of users. Our right to free speech is already limited by nebulous laws on excitement to violence or hate, alleged crimes which are open to interpretation by the police. Effectively a wrong wording, or what once would have been considered a throw away or ill judged comment can result in a criminal conviction, fine and even a gaol sentence. Little by little our liberties are being chipped away and done so cynically in the name of protecting our freedoms. Islam is a convenient excuse to justify what some commentators talk of as being a clash of cultures, of civilisations. It is the western governments however, that are enacting laws that restrict our rights as citizens. Islam is not innocent, but neither is it the true enemy.
Islam is no different to any religion. The monotheistic faiths especially, because they are based on the written word, allow too easily for the widest interpretation of words, phrases and passages within their holy books. The truth is that Christianity shares with Islam a history of violence. Both faiths were spread as much by the sword as by persuasion. Both faiths are equally guilty of finding and persecuting scapegoats within their societies, homosexuals, women, non believers, non conformists. Both faiths struggle with the idea of liberty and individualism, of there being justification for a separation of the secular from the spiritual. It has taken centuries for the west to force a reluctant Christianity into the private sphere and accept a new role where it is satirised, investigated and open to deserved criticism. The Islamic world, however, for the most part, has not reached that crisis of faith, that realisation that the political interests of their faith is to the detriment of individual liberty and conscience.
Freedom is a fragile and innocent idea, perhaps too fragile and innocent to withstand the assault of oppressive and violent theology and the machinations of governments eager to re-exert control over its citizens. In Europe, and especially here in Britain, we are governed by an illiberal leftist elite who manipulate politics and the media to their own ends. Too many people are happy to acquiesce and agree “but I have nothing to hide,” every time our politicians take away another liberty. It is easy to wonder what hope has freedom as an idea, never mind as a reality, in a Europe where not only images, but thoughts and fantasies can be interpreted as criminal, where everyone is a criminal in the eyes of governments and politicians anxious that freedom may throw too bright a light onto their often corrupt machinations.
As a libertarian I still cling to the ideals of the enlightenment which were the framework on which our liberal, democratic, free western society was built. I fear the loss of that society in which I can be offended, but where I also have the right to offend. Charlie Hobdo was a magazine with a tiny circulation, but it in the end it stood for something very precious, something many of us took for granted and rarely thought about, freedom. The true sadness of the murder of those journalists and cartoonists, is that their deaths will be remembered as the day freedom died in Europe. The thousands who marched carrying their “Je Suis Charlie” banners, were not marching for freedom, they were marching to mourn its passing.
I fear for the future of Europe. The oppression of freedom and liberty will cause a reaction as people, increasingly disillusioned with politicians and a too compliant media, look instead to extremists of the left and the right who will manipulate their justified anger. Satire and ridicule is a necessary vehicle to release the frustration of people who feel disenfranchised. Politicians and the media in Europe will I fear regret their decision to censor ridicule.