François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire. For those of you wondering. Incidentally seeing as it’s been quoted ad nauseam these past few days might I also take the opportunity to point out that the “…defend to the death your right to say it” aphorism wasn’t actually one of his utterances.
Anyhow, don’t you just hate it when a good friend manages to take the wind out of your sails? Like when you’re just about to crack that witty joke that’s sure to win you the attention of a mademoiselle but he gets in there first leaving you feeling deflated and ever so slightly resentful? Well imagine my annoyance upon receiving a message from my good friend, Len du Toit that he’d also written a blog piece on l’affaire de Charlie Hebdo and one that, very ably, made a point I was keen to address in this follow up piece! Although it’s scant consolation, I did pick up a new word from it (‘querulous’) therefore I shan’t complain too much. Please do take the time to read Len’s post even if it does cover much of the same ground as my previous submission: http://sturdysarissa.com/2015/01/11/charlie-hebdo-cest-de-la-merde/
Previously I focussed on the question of freedom of speech hypocrisy within a British context by way of a few examples from recent years. In France there are numerous similar examples of this invidious application of the right to free speech and expression (which supposedly also encompasses a “right to offend”) and Len cites the case of an advert that was banned due to it impinging upon Christian sensitivities. Perhaps the most apposite one I can adduce right now is the case of the rapper, Richard Makela, who faced prosecution for producing a video featuring imagery and lyrics deemed insulting to the French state. Ultimately the case was dismissed but the fact that he was arrested and prosecuted – with some two hundred French parliamentarians calling for special legislation to outlaw the type of flagrant disrespect towards the symbols and icons of the state that he’d displayed – is in itself rather telling.
I decided to put some of the concerns I’ve raised to a particular non-Muslim acquaintance of mine hoping to elicit his views on this perceived hypocrisy. I cited the specific case of the French rapper and as he’d recently written a piece (published on the website of one of the world’s leading news outlets) explaining his decision to tweet one of the offending images of Muhammad (saw) as some manner of defensive thrust for the principle of free speech, I invited him to perhaps tweet a similarly insulting image of some symbol or icon of la république so as to buttress further the point. It seems, however, that when it comes to insult and mockery it’s very much a one way street for some [italics, bold and asterisks all mine]:
“Every political system defends its own dignity. In a Caliphate, what would the penalty be for a rapper who described Muhammad [saw] as a b***h?”
I replied by asking him to restrict himself to the system under discussion, the one that he vaunts and cherishes – the one that supposedly champions the absolute right to insult and offend.
“Laicite has its own dogmas & taboos, just like any ideology. Those who live under it have to respect it. Its [sic] certainly not as punitive towards dissent as your caliphate would be.”
At this point I made it clear that this was in effect an admission of rank hypocrisy and highlighted ‘what a total load of bullshit “freedom of speech” is’. To which I received the response:
“As I’ve said ‘freedom of speech’ is a shibboleth…But in France, it’s the ruling one. If you live in France, respect it. If you don’t want to respect it, go and live somewhere else. It’s that easy.”
He then went on to reciprocate my charge of hypocrisy for “opposing the right of a country to defend its ideology while campaigning for a form of government that would execute those who oppose it.”
All in all a frank exchange but one long overdue.
Let me start by dealing with the “at least we don’t kill dissenters” line that another critic of my earlier piece also levelled at me. The “freedom” in “freedom of speech” means the absolute freedom from any form of state sanction or legal reproach. It doesn’t mean “freedom from being shot but perhaps you may face arrest, fine, jail or all three”. The second you acquiesce to the imposition of any form of punitive measures you disbar yourself from being a proponent of free speech and any such claims you proffer are mere deceit. The gentleman concerned (along with countless others) has previously advanced the argument that if a particular belief system is so weak that it needs legal sanctions to protect it then it is not worth believing in. Surely then, in light of his comments above, this must apply to laïcité (secularism)?
The truth is that every society, every culture and every ideology has its totemic beliefs, traditions and icons which are deemed sacrosanct and unimpugnable and which it will defend, ultimately by force. I realise that there are a minority who genuinely do espouse an “anything goes” approach to free speech but such an attitude is not shared by the majority nor will it likely ever be. My prevenient example of the poppy burner, inter alia, still stands. Either freedom of speech applies equally to all or you should admit that it only applies to some and not others and I ask that its Western secular votaries come clean on this point – in short I ask that you drop the taqiyyah (dissimulation) and admit that not all beliefs are accorded equal protection in reality. Also please spare us the sanctimonious hashtags and accompanying taradiddle.
But what of the talk of free speech being a shibboleth and the ruling one at that? The message to me couldn’t be clearer: You must accept that while we proclaim free speech for all this is simply not veridical. It is, in actuality, reserved for those who accept that Western secular liberalism is superior to Islam. It is only for those Muslims willing to divest themselves of the accoutrements of Islamic orthodoxy; those who are willing to be laicised. If you obdurately insist upon adherence to an antiquated, inferior belief system then so be it but don’t then expect equality and certainly don’t make so bold as to question ours. Or else. In short you must accept to be secularism’s dhimmis. Incidentally I presume his “put up or shut up” paradigm is similarly applicable in Saudi Arabia and would constitute his best advice to the likes of Raif Badawi?
Charlie Hebdo once produced a cartoon depicting an Egyptian protestor utilising an outstretched copy of the Qur’an as a shield in a vain attempt to protect himself from a hail of bullets. Emblazoned across the image was the text, “The Qur’an is cr*p. It doesn’t stop bullets.” [Asterisk added and translated from the original French]. This was their tribute to the some 1000 protestors murdered in cold blood by the Egyptian security forces in a massacre that drew worldwide condemnation. My challenge to the gentleman I had the conversation with, to the likes of Douglas Murray, Nick Cohen and those of similar dispositions is that if you are sincere in your advocacy of free speech, even should it be of the grotesquely offensive and provocative nature such as the one I have just described, then prove it. Via Google you will find a near identical image which merely transposes the Egyptian protestor with a caricature of a Charlie Hebdo staff member with the text substituting “Charlie Hebdo” for “the Qur’an”. If you have it within you to disseminate such a pasquinade then I (and millions of other Muslims) will accord you the respect due to those who are sincere in their beliefs – even if I vehemently disagree with them – rather than the contempt reserved for those who are hypocrites. It’s an easy matter to tweet offensive imagery when it concords with the majority opinion and sentiment, it’s not so easy when going against it – as many Muslims have discovered to their cost.
I have been asked about my opinion on the actions carried out by the three Muslim individuals in Paris last week and with respect I will decline to pass comment or judgement on them. Perhaps, however, the opinion of longstanding “war on terror” advocate, Tony Blair ought to be sought on the morality of killing journalists (if that’s what you could reasonably call the staff of Charlie Hebdo). After all he had no compunctions or regrets regarding NATO’s deliberate targeting of Serbian TV headquarters in 1998 resulting in the deaths of 16 unarmed civilian employees.
Much has been made of radicalisation in recent years; its causes, its indicators, its purveyors and its cures. As someone who has been intimately acquainted with “radical Islam” for over two decades I can confidently assert that Western hypocrisy in both its internal and external policies lies central to this issue. On the specific question of free speech then I doubt any Muslim realistically expects Western journalists to obtain an Al Azhar imprimatur before publishing but what we can reasonably expect is that laws that are used to curtail grossly offensive speech/behaviour from “Islamic radicals” are used in an equitable manner to curtail similar abusiveness towards our most cherished icons.
And so full circle back to Voltaire. One of his favourite uses for free speech was to expose hypocrisy. His celebrated novella, Candide is a satirical testament to the hypocrisy that surrounded around him. In his Dictionnaire Philosophique he proclaimed, “To be a hypocrite, what baseness [of character]”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon our master Muhammad. Ameen.