Charlie Hebdo and the French Free Press

Nothing warrants or excuses the atrocity in Paris but I have some misgivings about the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s satirical campaign. France – La France – is a secular country in principle and its culture of Free Speech is central to its historical self-esteem although, in practice, speech and print are both governed by highly conventional rules excepting for the outre magazine (Canard enchainé and Charlie Hebdo).

Charlie Hebdo Killings (7 Jan. 2015)

Charlie Hebdo Killings (7 Jan. 2015)

Because it is secular on principle, it does not indulge religions or religious groups – as the sartorial rules for school children amply show. By contrast, Britain has laws forbidding anything that is deemed to incite racial hatred aimed at any religious or ethnic group and the satires of Charlie Hebdo might well qualify for censure under such laws. The Dutch, like the French, take the view that Theo van Gogh’s publications were admissible under the ‘free press’ rule. There is, however, another principle which applies in all such cases, and this is common decency and common sense.

It may well be that only a minority of Muslim-descent French people today are earnest about their religion – as recent surveys show – but all Muslims are aware of the generally insulting character of anti-Muslim satire and its associations with crude racism against Arabs in modern France. To draw a line between ‘extremists’ and ‘civic’ Muslims is very difficult in the blunt medium of cartoon. Consequently the chances of offending all Muslims or at least causing them embarrassment and pain is never small. It would be best therefore to use free speech to present cogent arguments rather than racist “chuckles” in cartoon form.

The papers are now saying that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is part of an Al Qaeda attempt to galvanise French Muslims into a militant support of Islamic extremism both in France and the Middle East – or even more specifically to increase recruitment to the ISIS war in Syria and Iraq. This may be so but it is the French public attitude towards free speech and a fundamental misdirection in the uses of satire during the present crisis – and no one will deny that the world has been in crisis since the Gulf war – which has occasioned and, in a sense, licensed this.

Charlie Hebdo - Cover Story

Charlie Hebdo – Cover Story

I do not wish to detract from the courage and sacrifice of the dead journalists and artists but I do wonder what it takes to teach the French public that the current conditions are not radically distinct from those which prevailed during the Crusades. From the stand point of Islamic radicals – and many in the West as well – we are now in the midst of an implacable struggle between east and west but with the difference that the societies concerned have become significantly interlocked as regards migration and investment and all the other mechanism of the post-imperial epoch.

This calls for new rules and Liberty, Equality and Fraternity is not really making the cut as widely understood. Perhaps a fourth term should be added – Decency. I do not think that Decency would have given the Paris killers a pretext for their actions. There is much to say that this is what is missing in the West and what makes our society so vulnerable to charges of decadence and even corruption by the hot-heads of the East.

It is worth remembering that “mockery” may be a core value of satirical journalists and a typical expression of Western attitudes towards religious fundamentalism of all kinds, but it is also the term that is repeatedly used in the Bible to denote the most opprobrious form of dissent, and the one which merits the sternest punishment. Hosea, Proverbs and the 3rd Epistle of St. Peter are the commonest citations. In fact the phrase, ‘they who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind’ is usually associated with the denigrators of Christian revelation and especially the promise of the Last Coming and Redemption. It was famously recycled by Norman Tebbit in 1985 in defence of ‘family values’.

World-wide solidarity with Charlie Hebdo cartoonists (Jan. 2015)

World-wide solidarity with Charlie Hebdo cartoonists (Jan. 2015)

Needless to say I discount this as an expression of conservative ideologies, religious and political, but it is equally worth remembering that blasphemy has only very recently come off the Statute Book in Britain. I don’t know how it stands in Southern Ireland today but to castigate the Church – by now a popular pursuit – was a risky business twenty years ago. Much as I hate these murders, I do not think that satire and risk can long be strangers.

Just some thoughts.

PS I notice that the Wikipedia page on Charlie Hebdo has just been edited to include the “shooting massacre in 2015”. Instantaneous history.

10 August, 2014

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