Heads Will Roll

Heads will continue to roll over Charlie Hebdo’s decision to publish obscene cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. At home, heads shake with solemn condemnation at an editorial decision deemed to be recalcitrant and inflammatory. Yet in France, government criticism of the magazine’s headstrong defiance has hardly been convincing. ‘Liberty of expression is one of the fundamental principles of our Republic’ reaffirmed the French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as France simultaneously battened down the hatches and braced itself for its share of violent protests.

For freedom of expression, it’s a price France is more than happy to pay. The successors of Voltaire and Moliere, who built their secular republic free to criticise religious institutions, will not go down without a fight.

This is lucky, as the condemnation from this side of the Channel has been nothing short of embarrassing. ‘Free speech does not confer the right to be wrong, mistaken, biased or an axe-grinding-pain-in-the-ass’ declared Deborah Orr for the Guardian. But of course it does; it allows our journalists and cartoonists to be the instigators of a polemical discourse, allowing society to question and define its values and belief systems. We entrust our journalists to provoke, we do not entrust them with the moral burden of being ‘right’ and never ‘mistaken’, which sounds ominously dictatorial. It shouldn’t even be a requirement to espouse what is believed to be right; even playing devil’s advocate gives preconceived notions and ingrained norms an airing. If a free press isn’t free to behave irresponsibly, then quite simply, it isn’t free. The cartoons may well be offensive and ‘wrong’, even to non-Muslims, but as the famous quote goes, (mistakenly but fittingly attributed to Voltaire) ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Stephen Fry once said, ‘it’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights.’ For some, to ridicule religion, whatever religion, is to express a legitimate grievance against an institution that has caused more violence, more extremism and produced a greater negation of fundamental human rights than any other. In a 2010 discussion concerning Vatican accountability, Geoffrey Robertson QC poked fun at the pope in his ‘pope-mobile’, using his ‘pope-toilet’. But after an exhausting hour examining the egregious paedophilic crimes raging throughout the Catholic Church, the audience barely batted an eyelid.

A few hotheads have caused one of France’s most cherished democratic vehicles to be questioned, and it seems likely that had the protests remained peaceful (as the majority in fact did) the reaction to Charlie Hebdo would have been milder. Must freedom of expression suddenly become so dependant, so vulnerable to geopolitical volatility? The violent minority must be the ones held responsible for the chaos caused, not the cartoonists. It is unfathomable that cartoons, by nature irreverent, puerile and downright silly, should provoke such a reaction. But it seems likely that had the offence been a piece of serious and intellectually rigorous prose, the violence would still have erupted – just look at Rushdie’s infamous fatwa. As the guillotine comes crashing down on Charlie Hebdo, it must be realised that capitulation in the face of inexcusable violence is not the answer.