At first, there are no words. Then Salman Rushdie – a man whose opinion carries more weight than most in the present circumstances says this:
Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today.
I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.
‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion’. Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.
While this response from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian is the best I have yet read:
Why does it happen? Whenever a political outrage is committed, the sensible question is to ask: what does its perpetrator want? What reaction does he seek, and what does he not seek?
Twelve dead cannot go unremarked. Those journalists who confront violent intolerance, even in the supposed security of a city office, need every support. When, very rarely, they die in that cause, they must be lauded and mourned.
Those who comment through satire are peculiarly bold, more so than those who deploy argument. Ridicule is the most devastating and wounding of weapons. It reaches parts of the political and personal psyche that reason cannot touch. It is one of democracy’s most effective weapons, and the price those who wield it have to pay is sometimes as high as any other.
There can be no doubt that the magazine Charlie Hebdo was testing the boundaries of taste and religious tolerance. But that is the burden freedom of speech in a democracy has to bear. The US bore it recently with its satire on North Korea’s leader; it was the risk Charlie Hebdo took, and knew it was taking.
If satire reaches places argument cannot touch, should terrorism now be allowed to do the same? All authorities on terrorism agree, as its student Richard English has written, that the question has “no easy solution”. The reason is that it is a technique of conflict, not a cause. It is merely a weapon, not an ideology.
In murdering so many, we can assume the terrorists sought to achieve two things. They sought to terrify others and thus to deter continued criticism, and they now seek to reduce the French state to a condition of paranoia. They want to goad otherwise liberal people to illiberal actions. To them, western democracy is skin deep in its freedoms, while the simple disciplines of their form of Islam are more powerful, more courageous, more lasting.
For the past quarter-century, the west has misread and misplayed the upsurge in fundamentalist sentiment across the Muslim world. The anti-western thrust was manifest in movements as diverse as Sayyid Qutb’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran’s ayatollahs, Bin Laden’s al-Qaida and, more recently, Isis in Syria and Iraq. But it has almost always been cultural, directed at the states of the Middle East, at keeping them to some concept of religious purity.
Some of these movements sought caliphates and toppled secular regimes, notably those of the Ba’athists. But the insurgencies were mostly contained within the region. The threat to the west was negligible. The threat to western commercial interests was more substantive, but it was likely to be short-lived. Oil would always need to be sold, as has proved to be the case.
Osama bin Laden’s attacks on the United States, culminating in New York in 2001, were exceptional. The intention was entirely propaganda. As a result, all advice at the time was for America not to universalise its response to 9/11, let alone characterise it as a “war”. This would merely fuel the flames of horror, and lead on to God knows where. As Tom Paine warned: “Sanguinary punishment corrupts humankind.”
That advice was ignored, and years of war ensued, years that realised al-Qaida’s wildest dreams. Western nations plunged into battle, at a cost of some $3tn. Thousands of lives were lost and regimes were destabilised across the region. Democratic governments lurched towards authoritarianism. Almost willingly, it seemed, governments tore up many of the central tenets of their liberties. In the more belligerent states – the US and Britain – habeas corpus, private communication, legal process and even freedom of speech were curtailed or jeopardised. The forces of state repression suddenly found themselves singing the best tunes.
Bin Laden was handed his triumph. For a decade he was able to rally supporters to his cause. He boasted at the vulnerability of this supposedly superior society. He taunted democracies that claimed immunity from the devious tactics of militant Islam. American presidents and British home secretaries alike became al-Qaida’s useful idiots.
Today’s French terrorists want a similarly hysterical response. They want another twist in the thumbscrew of the surveillance state. They want the media to be told to back off. They want new laws, new controls, new additions to the agenda of illiberalism. They know that in most western nations, including Britain, there exists a burgeoning industry of illiberal bureaucrats with empires to build. This industry may be careful of public safety, but it is careless of the comfort and standing it offers the terrorist. There will now be cries from the security services and parliament for more powers and more surveillance.
Few would be so foolish as to want any group, in this case journalists, to be left unprotected from acts such as those that have occurred in Paris. Huge resources have already been allocated to forestalling terrorist acts, and that is appropriate. But these acts are crimes and should be treated as such. They are for assiduous policing, at which Britain has so far been reasonably successful. They are not for constitutional deterioration.
Only weakened and failing states treat these crimes as acts of war. Only they send their leaders diving into bunkers and summoning up ever darker arts of civil control, now even the crudities of revived torture. Such leaders cannot accept that such outrages will always occur, everywhere. They refuse to respect limits to what a free society can do to prevent them.
Britain has never been free of acts of violence. The 20th century saw bombs in London from anarchists, Fenians, Palestinians and Irish nationalists. Now we have so-called jihadists. The last is the only group seriously to threaten Britain’s custodianship of freedoms handed down by centuries of the rule of law. This very week parliament considers stripping British citizenship from those merely “suspected” of going abroad in pursuit of terrorism. Anyone visiting London at present – with its blast barriers, armed police, alert notices, even train announcements – senses a government in thrall to terror, unable ever to say enough is enough.
Terrorism is no ordinary crime. It depends on consequence. It can kill people and damage property. It can impose cost. But it cannot occupy territory or topple governments. Even to instil fear it requires human enhancement, from the media and politicians.
That is why the most effective response is to meet terrorism on its own terms. It is to refuse to be terrified. It is not to show fear, not to overreact, not to over-publicise the aftermath. It is to treat each event as a passing accident of horror, and leave the perpetrator devoid of further satisfaction. That is the only way to defeat terrorism.
In the Huffington Post, Mehdi Hasan writes an open letter to the terrorists quoting the Quranic verses “There is no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:6):
Yes, you have every right to be angry. … Muslims have much to be aggrieved over – from Bagram to Guantanamo Bay, from Abu Ghraib to Haditha, from US soldiers urinating on the Quran to the spate of racist films and cartoons depicting our beloved prophet as a terrorist/murderer/paedophile/rapist/ delete-as-applicable.
Anger, however, is not an excuse for extremism. Have you not read this saying by the Prophet? “The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger.”
- The case for mocking religion by Christopher Hitchens (Slate, 2006)