Here is the leading article from the new Spectator magazine, out tomorrow, which went to press as news of the attack on Charlie Hebdo broke.
The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo lambasts, attacks and lampoons absolutely everybody. Its targets include all religions, all identity groups, minorities and majorities. In recent years it has been most prominent for its refusal to apply different treatment to Islam. It knew that carrying on with satire, in the name of free expression, carried a real danger — its office in Paris was firebombed three years ago on account of this, and it still carried on with its irreverence.
On Wednesday morning, two gunmen went into the magazine’s office wielding Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Within minutes, 12 people were reported killed. The gunmen’s identity was unknown when The Spectator went to press, but there is not much doubt about what the world has just witnessed.
When in 2005 a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, there were riots, lootings and assassination attempts in Denmark and around the world. Nearly all the western media took the lesson of intimidation and refused to run cartoons which might be seen to be critical of Islam. Charlie Hebdo stood almost alone against this. Since that date, it has published many cartoons and caricatures of Mohammed. It has appropriately and justly ridiculed Isis — indeed the last cartoons sent out on Charlie Hebdo’s Twitter feed before the attack was a cartoon of the purported ‘Caliph’ of the self-styled Islamic State, al-Baghdadi.
Whatever the identity of the attackers — whatever their religion or political affiliations — it must be stressed from the outset that however robust the magazine’s position, its journalists did not ‘bring it upon themselves’ or ‘provoke’ their attackers. All blame must be directed at the people who perpetrated this disgusting act and at those who believe that it is acceptable to explain away such intimidation, violence and thuggery.
In Britain and across the western world, the free press has been under attack from many directions in recent years. But the form of attack threatened by the perpetrators of Islamist violence poses the most virulent threat of all. What its extremists have been trying to do in recent years is to put one belief system, one religion and one historical figure in particular beyond criticism, beyond investigation and beyond free speech.
It ought to be added that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo are also an attack on Islam — and will bring revulsion from the Muslims appalled that such barbarity could be carried out in the name of their religion. After the 2011 firebombing, Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said his organisation deplored the magazine’s treatment of Islam ‘but reaffirms with force its total opposition to all acts and all forms of violence’. Today it has condemned the ‘barbarity’ of this morning’s attacks.
As Muslim leaders know, one of the jihadis’s aims is to persuade others that they speak for Islam – to promote the idea or a war between Islam and freedom. After the Danish cartoon debacle the Muslim writer Irshad Manji invoked the Quoran in defence of free speech, and of freedom in general. Writing in this magazine last year, she denounced the entire idea of censoring cartoons about Mohammed as un-Islamic:
“The Qur’an states that there should ‘no compulsion in religion’. (2:256). Nobody should be forced to treat tradition as untouchable, including traditions that result in the messed-up Muslim habit of equating our very human prophet with an inviolable idol.”
It is the duty of all free people and all free media to respond robustly to this outrage. To show that we will not treat any people of any belief or background in our societies any differently from others. To show that freedom includes the freedom to speak freely and to offend. The stake, for all our societies, could not be higher.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says in this week’s magazine, making headlines with shock tactics is how Isis has sought to persuade the world that it’s winning — but let’s remember: it’s not. Just as the Taleban’s killing of 132 schoolchildren in December in Pakistan proved counter-productive, as Pakistanis and Afghanis recoiled in horror at their brutality, so such an extreme attack on the innocent will backfire. Shocking violence is the resort of the desperate. In the end, they will lose.