A week ago, the offices of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo were burned down.
This attack came after it advertised the founder of Islam, Muhammad, as ‘editor-in-chief’ of the new issue. The move was a light-hearted response to the very serious matter of the election of an
Islamist party (the Ennahda party) as the leading party in Tunisia (a result which, incidentally, appears not to have greatly bothered most European media).
As the staff of Charlie Hebdo contemplated the ruins of their magazine, a much grander and richer magazine, Time, ran one of those pieces which have become familiar whenever there is an Islamist
assault against free speech. As Nick Cohen has also noted, the Paris correspondent of Time
magazine –- the almost too-perfectly named Bruce Crumley –- used the burning of their offices to taunt Charlie Hebdo’s
‘Do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of ‘because we can’ was so worthwhile?’ he asked before going down a
related track by denouncing French politicians who had criticised the firebombing. Mr Crumley is apparently not a fan of free-expression, or even slight jokes, when it comes to Islam. In this
respect he is not unique. He follows in a long and ignoble line of useless idiots.
In 2004 when Theo van Gogh was murdered on a street in Amsterdam by a Islamic fundamentalist it was Index on Censorship’s turn. You would have thought that with a title like ‘Index on Censorship’,
the reader could expect such a magazine to do what it says on the masthead. Yet in what should have been a pretty straightforward test (‘for or against the murder of people who express their
opinions’) Index on Censorship managed to land it wrong.
They published a piece which claimed that it was not van Gogh’s murderer but van Gogh himself who had been a ‘fundamentalist’; not Mohammed Bouyeri (the killer), but van Gogh (the killed) who had
been on a ‘martyrdom operation’ by having the temerity to say mean things about Islam. Index on Censorship’s author went on to imply that the whole murder was some type of performance art designed
to promote van Gogh’s new film on the assassination of another critic of Islam, Pim Fortuyn.
These are some public examples. But far more happens behind the scenes. In February this year the BBC ran a piece of shamelessly misinforming propaganda about the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. It
was titled: ‘Europe’s Most Dangerous Man?’ The question mark in the title was the only attempt the programme made at balance. After watching the programme I filed a complaint to the BBC about
the warped arguments and factual inaccuracies of this piece of agit-prop. In response I received a long and further misleading response from the BBC. The apparatchik who responded on the
corporation’s behalf informed me that among the reasons one could tell that Wilders was an extremist and ‘dangerous’ was the fact that for many years now Wilders he had required round-the-clock
security protection to prevent people from killing him.
In other words, the Crumleys of this world are not few in number. In the struggle for the right to say things which are serious or silly about Islam, there are plenty of people on the wrong side.
Occasionally a Crumley breaks cover and gets relatively wide pick-up for it. But the Crumleys we never hear about present a far greater challenge than the Crumleys we do. In the same way, the
things we don’t hear about in response to the Charlie Hebdo story will prove far more important than the things that we do. It is what we will never read and will never be available to read
that will end up mattering most.
A few years back a small independent publisher in London heard that one of the big American publishing houses had withdrawn from publishing a novel it had scheduled about the life of Muhammad
called The Jewel of Medina. The fact that the novel in question was quite superbly fawning of the founder of Islam was not enough to get it off the hook. An early reader of the proofs
claimed that the book could stir Islamic ire and so the book was pulled. Cue the small independent London publisher, who realised that a point of principle was at stake, stepped in and volunteered
to publish the book. Shortly afterwards the office of that publisher in London was the scene of an attempted fire-bombing by some British-based Islamists.
Some readers will remember this incident. Most, understandably, will have forgotten all about it. The Jewel of Medina is without doubt the most sickly-sweet, sugar-coated hagiography that
I have ever waded through. But even that didn’t pass muster with the Islamists, and that sobering fact, and the lesson of it, has been learnt. In the years since then the British print-press
which had been none-too-strong on these matters since absorbing the earlier warning of the Rushdie affair, took another step backwards. Since The Jewel of Medina fire-bombing, not one
British publisher has published anything which could possibly be interpreted as anything other than 100 per cent onside when it comes to Islam or Muhammad. The result is that we live in a political
and indeed religious culture in which everything is now skewed. It is skewed in favour of a completely uncritical, Islamic view of the world and is, as a result, skewed against any and all
A couple of Christmases back Private Eye ran a cover on its Christmas edition which might have been very offensive to some Christians. Yet Private Eye’s offices remained un-firebombed. Likewise,
when the mainstream left-wing newspapers and magazines in this country have run cartoons consisting of outright blood-libels against Jews, letters have been written and points made, but nobody has
firebombed or otherwise inflicted physical damage on the premises of such publications. What is more, were there ever to be any such thing (and you can never be certain: nutters can come from
almost anywhere) the first thing that you would be able to bet on would be the absolute unanimity of press opinion. Journalists and writers would love it. It would be their ‘We shall not be moved’
moment. They would compose and send joint letters to their own papers. They would repeat and reprint the contentious cartoon or statement to prove that they could. They would do their ‘I may not
agree with what has been said [though most of them would] but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ shtick. All this would be done in the full and confident knowledge that there was no
possibility whatsoever of having to defend anything to the death.
Self-censorship is the most invidious and successful type of censorship – not just because it is self-reinforcing but because once it is people invent reasons to cover for themselves. So the
worst thing that any British journal can imagine doing today is to run a cartoon of Muhammad. Not because – as they all say in public – it is insensitive, or provocative or offensive.
These are all names and things that journalists rejoice in getting called. It is simply and solely (as they sometimes admit in private) because they know that they will be at some degree of risk if
I hope Charlie Hebdo recovers swiftly, as I’m sure it will. France’s political and secular culture repeatedly shows itself more robust than that of most other societies, including our own. But when
people wonder why it is that cultures go awry we will be able to point to moments such as this: when the foundations of your values are under assault and the walls are manned by phonies and fools.