Published by The Telegraph on 07/01/17
It’s been two years since the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo, but it feels more like two hundred.
After two Muslim brothers stormed its offices at 10 Rue Nicolas-Appert in the centre of Paris and massacred 12 people, “Je suis Charlie” became the rallying cry of those who condemned the attack. Over the following days, 40 world leaders travelled to Paris to stand in solidarity with the French government. Across France, more than three million demonstrators took to the streets in a show of unity against those who sought to reap terror. Charlie Hebdo’s following issue sold almost eight million copies.
While the brute violence of the Charlie Hebdo massacre was abhorrent in its own right, the decision of the Kouachi brothers to target a satirical magazine carried a particular disturbing message. It signalled an attack on the progressive values of freedom of expression and tolerance. In the aftermath, there was recognition that, although the magazine had dared to satirise Muhammad, freedom of speech – including its mischievous extension, the freedom to ridicule – were more important than the right not to be offended.
But two years later, “Je suis Charlie” has been substituted for “Je suis offensé”, and our brief flirtation with the value of freedom of speech has been replaced by a willingness to ban and condemn.
So when Charlie Hebdo mocked the death of Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi in 2015 and again in January 2016, and the victims of the Amatrice earthquake last September, many jumped at the opportunity to chastise the magazine.
And while mere condemnation is no threat to free speech – principally because it is itself an expression of free speech – many have forgotten that criticising something does not entail that it should be banned. In conflating their discomfort at an image with the need for censorship, today’s cultural embrace of “You can’t say that!” now extends to the role of the lunatic Islamic fundamentalists who attempted to shut down Charlie Hebdo.
Last year, a man who chose to wear a T-shirt that made a cheap crack at the Hillsborough tragedy was arrested because it “was likely to cause distress”. Only a few months ago, Olympic gymnast Louis Smith was banned for two months and sent a number of death threats after a video of him drunkenly mocking the Muslim call to prayer was released.
And this failure to hold on to the spirit of “Je Suis Charlie” isn’t just a UK phenomenon. While the world rallied behind Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons following the attack, it paid little attention to the travails of Australian cartoonist Bill Leak, who was investigated by the Human Rights Commission for his depiction of an Aboriginal father and son.
Comedians are being made to pay for their controversial material: in Canada last year, Mike Ward was fined $42,000 by Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal for poking fun at a disabled boy.
Even at that one place where no idea should be beyond criticism – the university – “Je suis Charlie” has failed to resonate. While 28 UK universities have banned The Sun and/or The Daily Star because they don’t conform to their union’s values, the University of Bristol and University of Manchester have also forbidden Charlie Hebdo from being sold on campus. According to Bristol’s union, Charlie Hebdo fails to conform to the university’s “Safe Space” policy, which disallows any opinions that students might find offensive.
The cry of “Je Suis Charlie” realised that to refute terrorism means not just condemning it, but to defend free speech and expression to the last. All too quickly, we have forgotten that the mere act of disagreeing with a sentiment does not necessitate its censorship.
It is our free press that differentiates us from the brutal dystopia that the instigators of the Charlie Hebdo attack yearned for. It is our willingness to question the norms of society, to poke fun at prevailing assumptions, and to tolerate sentiments we find unpalatable that prevents us from descending into barbarity.
To censor images, opinions and jokes we find offensive is to do the Kouachi brothers’ job for them. “Je suis Charlie” must mean “Je suis toujours Charlie”.