Monday, January 16, 2017

Is Tolerance a One-Way Street?

The 7th of this month marked two years to the day since two gunmen walked into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and murdered twelve people. This period also therefore marks the second anniversary of the period of about an hour during which much of the free world proclaimed itself to be "Charlie" and attempted, by walking through the street, standing for moments of silence or re-tweeting the hashtag "Je Suis Charlie" to show the whole world that freedom cannot be suppressed and that the pen is mightier than the Kalashnikov.
So two years on is a good time to take stock of the situation. How did that go? Did all those "Je Suis" statements amount to anything more than a blip on the Twitter-sphere? Anyone trying to answer such a question might start by looking at the condition of the journal everyone was so concerned about. How has it fared in the two years since most of its senior editorial staff were gunned down by the blasphemy police?
Not well if a test of the magazine's wellbeing is whether it would be willing to repeat the "crime" for which it was attacked. Six months after the slaughter, in July 2015 the new editor of the publication, Laurent Sourisseau, announced that Charlie Hebdo would no longer publish depictions of the Prophet of Islam. Charlie Hebdo had, he said, "done its job" and "defended the right to caricature'. It had published more Muhammad cartoons in the issue immediately after the mass murder at their offices and since. But, he said, they did not need to keep on doing so. Few people could have berated him and his colleagues for such a decision. When just about every other magazine in the free world fails to uphold the values of free speech and the right to caricature and offend, who could expect a group of cartoonists and writers who have already paid such a high price to keep holding the line of such freedoms single-handed?
Now, at the second anniversary of the atrocity, one of the magazine's most prominent figures, Zineb El Rhazoui, has announced that she is leaving the magazine. El Rhazoui, who has been described as "the most protected woman in France" because of the security detail she receives from the French state, has announced that Charlie Hebdo has gone "soft" on Islamic radicalism. She told Agence France-Presse that "Charlie Hebdo died on [7 January 2015]." The magazine had previously had a "capacity to carry the torch of irreverence and absolute liberty" she said. "Freedom at any cost is what I loved about Charlie Hebdo, where I worked through great adversity.'
Of course El Rhazoui is an unusual person. And a scarce one in twenty-first century Europe. Which is why she needs the security detail. Most of the people who said they cared about the right to say what they wanted when they wanted, about everything and anything – including one particularly stern and unamused religion – were willing to walk the walk: that is they were willing to walk through Paris with a pencil in the air. Or they were willing to talk the talk, proclaiming "Je Suis Charlie'. But almost no one really meant it. If they had then – as Mark Steyn pointed out – those crowds in Paris would not have been parading through the streets holding pencils, but holding cartoons of Mohammed. "You're going to have to get us all" would have been the message. And ditto the leaders. If President Francois Holland and Chancellor Merkel had really believed in standing up for free expression then instead of walking arm in arm through Paris together with such an inappropriate figure as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, they would have held up covers of Charlie Hebdo and said "This is what a free society looks like and this is what we back: everyone, political leaders, gods, prophets, the lot can be satirised, and if you do not like it then you should hop off to whatever unenlightened hell-hole you dream of. But Europe is not the continent for you.'
Alternatively, in the two years since those gestures, European society went quiet. Of course there have been regular opportunities to display the modern idea of virtue, often using Charlie Hebdo as the punching bag. Since being alerted to the existence of the magazine by the gunmen, the censorious types who now fill our societies (and who probably do not even buy or read magazines) nevertheless regularly send out social media messages objecting to things to which they have been alerted within the magazine. So it is that a rude and satirical magazine has found itself repeatedly judged by the humourless morality police of our day and often deemed to be insufficiently reverential about various world events. A Charlie Hebdo cartoon about the Cologne New Year's Eve sexual assaults was deemed in poor taste. Elsewhere, the publication's response to an earthquake in Italy failed to hit the single acceptable note in the eyes of some non-readers. Likewise the crash of a Russian jet and other stories that were considered to lack appropriate piety.
Meantime, we are in a situation, as the British author Kenan Malik said of the period after the Satanic Verses affair, of having "internalised" the atrocity. The entire world press – perhaps especially, in free countries – has internalised what happened at Charlie Hebdo, and instead of standing united has decided, quietly and in the privacy of their own offices, never to risk something like that ever happening to them again. This new submission to Islamist terrorist demands is possibly why, in 2016, when an athlete with no involvement in politics, religion or satire was caught doing something that might have been seen as less than fully respectful of Islam there was no one around to defend him.[] Even the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, asked in the House of Commons to stand up for the right of an athlete not to have his career destroyed because of one fleeting, drunken joke, equivocated:
"This is a balance that we need to find. We value freedom of expression and freedom of speech in this country - that is absolutely essential in underpinning our democracy.
"But we also value tolerance to others. We also value tolerance in relation to religions. This is one of the issues that we have looked at in the counter-extremism strategy that the Government has produced.
"I think we need to ensure that yes it is right that people can have that freedom of expression, but in doing so that right has a responsibility too - and that is a responsibility to recognise the importance of tolerance to others." []
For the last two years we have learned for certain that any such tolerance is a one-way street. Our societies had been walking up it. But from the other direction came the Kalashnikov brigade who only had to fire once; in the face of it, the whole civilised world chose to u-turn and run back the other way. Allah's blasphemy police would be foolish not to push the advantage that such capitulation gives their cause over the months and years ahead.

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