The Parameters of Laughter

(Illustration by Alex Mellon)

Since the slaughter of ten cartoonists and writers (as well as two policemen) in Paris, much has been made of the importance of unity and resistance to division. With Marine Le Pen poised to exploit this terrible trauma to buttress her contempt for multiculturalism and dislike of immigration, caution of this kind is understandable and clearly benign. The politics of “us and them” should be utterly repudiated, we are warned. Well, that depends on who is being discussed. It should be clear, I hope, that to view the events of 7th January as a microcosmic rehearsal of the clash between Muslims and secularists would be utterly misguided. Indeed, the proud French tradition of secularism is too often confused as synonymous with atheism and disdain for religion.

But I’m afraid there does exist an irrefutable clash, both in France and elsewhere. What room is there to negotiate between those of us who claim the right to express opinions, even insulting ones – about anything from the monarchy, to pompous politicians, to, yes, supposed prophets and deities – and those who would seek to censor such views by complaining, lobbying, threatening or even murdering? The culture of the Western world is often depicted as an avaricious, vapid moral wilderness. We hold nothing sacred and have no principles. I hope that the reaction to this brutality dispels this fatuous, masochistic point of view; thousands of people have filled the streets of cities all over the world in demonstrations of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

You either believe it to be permissible to satirise (even if you do not take delight in the results), or you do not. As it happens, the right to mock is enshrined in law – this is especially true in France, as well as the United States. But this basic fact is sometimes not understood: Anjem Choudary, the attention-seeking British Islamist recently criticised the French government for “[allowing]” Charlie Hebdo to publish offensive content; similarly a number of delegates from Muslim countries demanded the Danish president gag his country’s press after the Jyllands-Posten affair of 2006. This is constitutionally illiterate but it is also revealing. A section of people, it seems, would like to live in a society in which religious leaders can forbid publication on a whim.

It should be remembered that Charlie Hebdo has lambasted and pilloried other individuals, groups and faiths. These include the Pope, Jews and innumerable politicians. Now, France may be a constitutionally secular country but it is home to many, many Roman Catholics and has the largest Jewish population in Western Europe. We are reminded that French Muslims are marginalised and treated with suspicion. Are Jews not marginalised? The resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe is well documented and yet a similar attack to the one of 7th January, perpetrated by pious Jews, is almost unthinkable.

Predictably, a great deal of discussion since the murders has been couched in the language of provocation. These cartoons were “bait”, we’re told. Well, if they were quite so invidious why were the assailants armed extremists rather than ordinary, integrated French Muslims? (One of the policemen killed was a Muslim, Ahmed Merabet). The view that a publication like Charlie Hebdo must be stopped at all costs is an extreme one – and this is borne out by the huge numbers of Muslims repudiating the actions of the killers. Arguing that the magazine was trying to provoke Muslims, including moderates, ignores this fact.

Would-be apologists cannot blame the murders of the 7th January on Tony Blair or George W. Bush. They cannot invoke the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. The attackers were members of al-Qaeda – perhaps disgruntled by the media coverage and ubiquity of Islamic State – and yet what they sought was revenge and the restoration of the sanctity of their prophet, by any means necessary. This was punishment for blasphemy, a concept that is incompatible with a modern, pluralist democracy.

The “Danish Cartoons” affair of 2006 was a comparable episode, and from a distance it is illuminating. Bear in mind the context: a small Danish newspaper published a dozen cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, often in unflattering ways. The publication of these drawings did not provoke very much at first. But a phalanx of Danish imams, recognising that insufficient offence had been taken, embarked on a preposterous tour of the Muslim world in order to induce the rage and thirst for revenge which, apparently, are the only appropriate responses to cartoons.

A further detail, which is both funny and sinister: apparently, dissatisfied with the existing cartoons and suspecting them of being too mild and reverent, a couple of confected or appropriated images were brought along, too (one allegedly depicting Prophet Muhammad as a pig). Any contortion or affectation will do for those who are determined to feel victimized.

As David Aaronovitch observed in The Times on Thursday, Charlie Hebdo is only conspicuous and notorious because there are so few publications that match its audacity. Tongue-tied by fear, many of us do not criticise Islam or mock it as stridently as we might Christianity, or Scientology for that matter. This is because, as we have seen, it can be a genuinely dangerous thing to do. Some who have staunchly defended free speech have claimed that some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were nevertheless gratuitously offensive. But much of its satire traded on the notion of radical Islam’s murderous intolerance; and the horrifying response has vindicated many of the cartoons and the murdered magazine’s staff – though, regrettably, only posthumously.