In his discussion of religion in Dialogues Between ABC, the great French writer Voltaire makes a simple point about freedom of speech.
“If a country’s religion is sacred”, says Voltaire, then “a hundred thousand volumes written against it will do no more harm [than done] to rock-solid walls by a hundred thousand snowballs. How can a few black letters traced on paper destroy it?”
One must now add: or a few coloured cartoons.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre was supposed to demonstrate Islamism’s strength. It revealed the opposite: the weakness inherent in any ideology that is unable to handle criticism with anything but force.
The Islamist radicals who committed this terrorism – and those who would support it in the West and around the world – are contemptible. They war against a modernity they cannot control or change.
Why? Freedom of speech is really a misnomer for the liberty we really care about. The speech isn’t the point. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons aren’t the point. What really matters are the ideas that underpin the speech.
It is one thing to kill a speaker. But the beliefs of Charlie Hebdo’s readers are what matters. And this terrorist attack does nothing except confirm pre-existing views on the irrational sensitivity of Islamism and even a concern that Islam does not fit in a pluralistic, irreverent society.
So the debate over whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are satirical or just offensive completely misses the point. Either way, they were expressing an idea. Who cares whether that expression was done cleverly or not?
Yet apparently many do. In free speech debates there are always people who want to pontificate over the tone of the speech that has been censored or punished. We read that it was not reasonable, or civil. That it was unbalanced. That it was deliberately provocative. A Financial Times writer was quick to condemn editorial foolishness and Muslim “baiting” at Charlie Hebdo. One leaked Al Jazeera email said “insultism is not journalism”. If only they’d been more responsible, like real journalists.
Such journalistic boundary-policing does the profession no credit. Journalism isn’t special. It is just a form of expression. It deserves no more or less speech protection than any other form. Yet boundary policing always follows incidents like this. And we hear it from the same sort of people who have that quote that journalism is “printing what someone else does not want printed” on the wall of their cubicle.
In his memoirs, Salman Rushdie writes of his disdain of the earnest debate over his literary ability conducted after he was forced into protective custody for insulting Islam in The Satanic Verses. Everyone piled on. Even Prince Charles called Rushdie a “bad writer”. Putting aside that sort of critical dubiousness, so what? What relevance does quality have when protecting speech? Why criticise a victim if not to blame them?
In a liberal democracy the state is supposed to have a monopoly of force. Only the state has the lawful ability to conduct violence in the pursuit of its agenda.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre shows that not all threats to free speech come from the state. But it helps illuminate the basic contest in free speech. On the one side there are those who accept the plural society, and can tolerate the sometimes offensive cacophony that involves. On the other side there are those who would punish ideas with violence, whether that punishment is the violence of state power or murder.
This is why there is nothing more cynical than the politicians who have jumped on the Charlie Hebdo solidarity bandwagon yet impose force against speech at home.
The Egyptian foreign minister attended the Charlie Hebdo unity rally over the weekend, while Peter Greste languishes in an Egyptian jail. Almost every Western nation whose leaders announced their moral support for protecting offensive speech in the wake of the massacre also has laws against “hate speech”.
Whatever those politicians are protesting for, it is not the sanctity of freedom of expression.
Over the weekend Tony Abbott said in defence of Charlie Hebdo that “from time to time people will be upset, offended, insulted, humiliated…but it is all part of a free society.” This is a curious choice of words. Just a few months ago his government declined to remove the words “offend, insult, humiliate and intimidate” from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Nevertheless, there is politics on both sides of the conflict. In both the Rushdie affair and the 2005 Danish cartoons crisis (when the newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed, leading to a diplomatic crisis and violent protests in the Muslim world) it later became clear many Islamist radicals were using their offence to pursue personal political agendas: to bolster support in Muslim countries or in their expat communities.
As Jytte Klausen writes in her 2009 account of the Danish crisis, The Cartoons that Shook the World, “Anger and pride certainly influenced the behaviour of some of the main actors, but so did deliberate political calculation and motives other than the public ones.”
The audience for these attacks on the West are not solely in the West. But the message they broadcast, domestically and internationally, is not that radical Islamism is strong, but that it is a weak, ideological dead-end.