France, Belgium, Denmark: a few thoughts

Since the Paris shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo there has been much talk of provocation. In some cases, European Muslims have been recast as the true victims of the tensions between secular, liberal democracy and their own religious certitude and probity. Causing deep offence, or worse, being discriminatory or racist, is discussed in the same breath as acts of physical violence, even murder. The implied parity may be disavowed, but I think it is there and it is insidious.

It is true that a number of depictions published by Charlie Hebdo were lewd and intentionally offensive. It is also true that the cover that appeared in the aftermath of the murders engendered fresh ire despite its tameness: a cartoon image of Muhammad proclaiming that “all is forgiven”. The president of the Muslim Association of Britain – deftly calibrating his priorities – claimed to be disgusted by the image, which some argued actually carried a conciliatory message.

And now to Copenhagen where the staging of a debate about the parameters of free speech on the subject of religion apparently represents a fresh provocation. The benchmark of moral outrage really is that low. That is not to mention that both in Paris, Copenhagen and elsewhere, simply being Jewish can invite violence.

In upholding freedom of expression we don’t need to relish insulting and offending others. But the moment our attention is diverted from the slaughter of fellow human beings to the hurt feelings – or even the prejudice suffered by – subsections of our society, we have lost perspective.

Equivocation is often mistaken for sophistication. But this conflict should be seen as essential and fundamental: the right to criticise, lampoon, mock and sneer at religious dogma – dogma of any kind – is not negotiable. Unfortunately this can’t be repeated too frequently.