The front page of today’s Guardian says it all: ‘Assault on Democracy.’ The slaying of 12 people in Paris, including four cartoonists and two police officers, is an attack on free expression – one of the basic tenets of democracy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Watching yesterday’s events unfold I was struck by the identity of the victims: cartoonists/journalists and police officers. In their own, often flawed way, both media and police operate as guardians of democracy. Citizens may complain about their treatment from both – and sometimes with good reason – but the governing principles behind both free media and police forces in open, democratic societies is the protection of those freedoms that came under attack yesterday. If a journalist writes an article today on what happened in their country’s parliament yesterday that journalist is serving society. If a police officer brings the perpetrator of a crime to court that police officer is serving society. So, an attack on the media and an attack on police is an attack on us all. And if justice and the law, in particular, are not serving us then it is our responsibility, our obligation, to change that situation peaceably, not with guns.
There will be those tempted to say that the Paris murderers and their accomplices are alienated from French and Western society or are enraged because of disrespect for their religion. Writing for The New Yorker, George Packer rightly labels such excuses as a kop out. Packer is correct when he states that the attacks are the product of a mindset that seeks to “achieve power through terror.” The cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were offensive and deliberately so – satire tends to be. And France has a rich history of using satire as a tool in the fight for democratic values, and in criticizing organised religion. It happens – get over it. I’m sometimes offended by things I see in the media. Am I tempted to carry out a violent attack on the individual(s) concerned? No. Would I even take to social media to issue threats against them, as has happened – to people publishing some rather inoffensive material ? No. Because it is those people’s right to offend me, within broad parameters. If somebody believes that any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is unacceptable, for example, they are entitled to believe that. Freedom of religion is another democratic principle and rightfully so. They are entitled to condemn such a depicition and they are entitled to hold a peaceful protest against it. They are most certainly entitled to forums to explain why they find the depiction offensive. They are not entitled – in a functional democracy – to forbid it. Legislation to protect religious sensibilties from satire or criticism is tyranny. End of. No buts.
As of now, the chief suspects in yesterday’s attacks are being spoken of as individuals who came under the influence of radical preachers or similar individuals/groups – a pattern that appears to have been repeated with so-called Jihadists across the world. What is striking about these radicalizations is how isolated they seem from each other – the coherence and global spread that Al Qaeda and similar groups were originally thought to have is anything but. Individual terrorists and terrorist cells may give the impression that they are engaged in some sort of global battle in the name of the Prophet but in reality they are deluded men (almost exclusively men) enacting a fantasy dreamt up in their bedrooms, based on hate and paranoia and seeking to draw legitimacy from causes that may very well offer justification for peaceful protest – the invasion of Iraq, for instance – but most certainly offer no justification for violence. They may travel to train and fight in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq and they may speak of enacting revenge for violence against their fellow Muslims, but they have little interest in justice for their fellow Muslims. The policeman shot dead on the street yesterday while pleading for his life was Muslim. There are reports today also of attacks against Mosques in France – again for revenge, I suppose. What do these attacks gain? Nothing. But some small-minded bigot has decided that the “other” needs to be attacked rather than realizing that it is their neighbour, their fellow citizen that they target: different side, same coin. There is no “other” – we are, all, the human race. The usual suspects, committed to representing the fears of the “ordinary man in the street” or whatever populist bandwagon has stuttered along have been quick to use the attacks to drive their own agenda. UKIP leader Nigel Farage broke off from having yet another pint in a quaint, all-English pub from some idyllic time in the heavenly 1950s, I imagine, to attribute the attacks to that ghastly spectre of multiculturalism.
In September 2012, British journalist Mehdi Hasan, wrote an open letter in The New Statesman to those engaged in violent protest over the kind of depictions of Muhammad that appeared in Charlie Hebdo. Hasan didn’t hide his condemnation of depictions of Muhammad or generalizations being made about his religion, but he didn’t have to – he lives in a democracy and he’s entitled to his beliefs. Railing against those who would seek to appropriate Islam for their own means and railing against the justification it gives those who would seek to condemn Islam in general, Hasan told protestors who turn to violence “Your actions undermine not just the great religion of Islam but a worldwide Muslim community, or umma, whose members want to live in peace and freedom despite the provocations from the bigots, phobes and haters.”
And that is the crux of the matter – the vast majority of us, from all religions and none, want to get on with our lives, in peace, going to work, looking after family and meeting with friends. Mundane, I know – a lot of everyday life is. But getting up in the morning to do a day’s work and ensuring you’re home in time to bath the kids and put them to bed is a damn sight more courageous than attacking unarmed people with a Kalashnikov.
(This article has been amended to take account of information that the chief suspects were not necessarily radicalized by a preacher but did come under the influence of some individual or grouping).