The French liberal-left and George W Bush are not natural bedfellows, but today the former are sounding just a little bit like the latter. The ‘Je suis Charlie’ banners they are carrying in reaction to yesterday’s murders at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo are effectively saying, to borrow the former US president’s slogan: you are either with us or you are with the terrorists.
The terror attack, of course, deserves universal condemnation. It is an act of cold-blooded murder. That it was carried out against a targeted group makes it neither better nor worse than 9/11 or the London tube bombings which were conducted against random victims.
But imagine you are an ordinary French Muslim, neither given to murderous acts nor extremism of any kind, but who were nonetheless offended by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. You might even, as many self-professed liberals are very fast to do when people draw cartoons or otherwise poke fun at gay people, think that the magazine had overstepped the limits of decency and that it should in some way be stopped, either by law or social pressure.
There does not appear to be much room for you in France today. You are being invited to stand at one with Charlie Hebdo, fully endorsing the right of satirists to lampoon your religion and to do it week-in, week-out relentlessly, or be treated as being on the side of the terrorists.
I come down on the side of free speech, so long as it falls short of preaching hate. I defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish its cartoons. I am also against trying to prosecute Katie Hopkins for insulting the Scots by calling them ‘sweaty jocks’, the right to march down Oxford Street with a banner opposing gay marriage and even to deny the Holocaust. It isn’t the business of the state to lay down one official version of history; leave alone, and the facts can stand up for themselves. Not all supporters of Charlie Hebdo, I sense, would extend the right of free speech to these issues.
But as for Muslims who are less committed to free speech, who are offended by people poking fun at their religion, and who want to demonstrate peacefully, they do not deserve to be treated as if they are condoning terrorism. To do so is no way to defeat extremism, only to stoke it.