What is it about some sections of the liberal left and Charlie Hebdo? The decision of six authors to withdraw from PEN’s annual gala, over the organisation’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo with its ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award, is stomach-churning. The Pontius Pilate-like excuses of one of those authors, Francine Prose, about how she deplores the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists but can’t support a posthumous award being given to them, is one of the worst bits of nonsense I’ve read in years.
The Guardian’s stance shortly after the massacre on January 7th was almost as craven: editor Alan Rusbridger argued that “he didn’t agree that it was necessary to show solidarity by republishing the offensive cartoons”.
This fence-sitting results in some contorted thinking. According to Prose – who even likens the Charlie Hebdo staff to neo-Nazis marching in Illinois – the unforgivable crime of being “white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists… feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East” (she forgets that at least one of those gunned down was Muslim).
This relativism suggests that writers should lie in bed all day, writing nothing, in case they offend someone. Furthermore, it’s immoral to do anything that might provoke Islamic terrorism, just in case it also provokes a neo-con politician to invade Iraq again.
Thank heavens there have been saner voices. Salman Rushdie – not someone who I always agree with – is quite right to call out such humbug.
Francine Prose’s difficulties stem from the fact that most of reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre – both right and left, and both libertarian and authoritarian – has been framed in terms of Freedom of Speech. Unsurprisingly, the libertarian Spiked Online argued that the Charlie Hebdo killings meant that freedom of speech- and the duty to confront radical Islam – is now more important than ever. But no-one would defend the right of someone to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre. As the Guardian’s Gary Younge has pointed out, much of the reductive, Manichean debate about Charlie Hebdo forgets that, since time immemorial, freedom of speech has always been restricted, and rightly so. And as countless other commentators have pointed out, many world leaders who appeared on the ‘We are Charlie’ march suppress freedom of speech in their own country (even in the UK, for forty years successive governments have strengthened the law on hate speech and inciting religious hatred, and once banned Sinn Fein politicians from having their voices heard on TV).
Mehdi Hassan, writing in the New Statesman shortly after the massacre, gleefully highlighted the hypocrisy of western leaders pontificating about freedom of speech while curtailing ancient liberties – and rightly called out Jon Snow for tweeting lazily about “Europe’s belief in freedom of expression”.
But as most Muslims point out, there is no truth in the commonplace assertion that portraying the prophet Mohammed has always been supremely offensive, and that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists should have known better. In fact, as the BBC’s website explains, there is no specific, or explicit, ban in the Koran on images of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad . The BBC’s refusal to show the “offending” cartoons in any of its coverage of Charlie Hebdo is thus all the more baffling.
Freedom of speech isn’t at the heart of this. At best its only a peripheral issue. Even if you think Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons should be banned, or at least subject to legal restrictions, only a fanatic would defend the extra-judicial assassination of the people who drew them.
Politicians and commentators have all been tripped up by arguments about freedom of speech, religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity. It’s really a question of the rule of law, and the right of people to work and express themselves without being massacred. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, but should those glasshouses really have to be made of bulletproof glass?
And it is also simply wrong to argue, as Mehdi Hassan does, that the West is applying double standards, celebrating ridicule of Islam while not tolerating similar ridicule of Christianity or Judaism. Charlie Hebdo itself regularly insults the Pope by a rude pun (Pape is the French word for Pope, and also a slang term for excrement). In the last fifty years dozens of films have been criticised for treating western religions, and sensitive topics like the Holocaust and the crucifixion, in a disrespectful or even blasphemous way.
As long ago as 1979 – the same year as the Iranian revolution which helped create militant Islamicism – Monty Python caused huge offence with their film Life of Brian. Brian – clearly Jesus Christ’s alter ego – was portrayed as a bawdy, swearing jack-the lad, and his believers as a credulous bunch of idiots. But when it came out there were no calls for its producers to be put to death, and few calls for it to be banned, as can be seen on Youtube in a hilarious episode of the Friday Night, Saturday Morning chatshow where the film was discussed.
The moralist Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, tutt-tutted piously but neither advocated any violence against Palin, Cleese or anyone else associated with Life of Brian. For all their huffing and puffing on the programme, they didn’t even contend that portraying Jesus – or his alter ego Brian – in a satirical film was intrinsically wrong (Jesus Christ only briefly appears once in the film, whose running gag is that the hapless Brian is mistaken for the Messiah).
Their main argument was simply that the film just isn’t much good: a “Little squalid number… that couldn’t destroy anyone’s genuine faith”, according to Muggeridge, “it’s much too tenth rate for that.” Even Bishop Stockwood, who condescended the forty-something Palin and Cleese as a schoolmaster would mock two cheeky sixth-formers (“I am familiar with undergraduate humour,” he opines, with unintentional hilarity), is primarily concerned with matters of taste, not religion. “Would you ‘guy’ Socrates or make him appear as a clown at the moment that he drank poison?” Stockwood asked (a point that fell flat as that is exactly what Monty Python would do). He seems primarily concerned that like Judas, the Monty Python team had earned “Thirty pieces of silver” from a film that lampoons death, not just religion.
In the most telling part of the programme, Muggeridge said “If you made that film about Mohammed, there would be an absolute hullaballoo in this country…. the anti-racist people would have risen up in their might and said this is quite disgraceful.” Cleese replied that “400 years ago we would have been burnt for making this film – I’m suggesting that we have made an advance [since then].” Indeed we have.
The programme is in many ways a Seventies time capsule (its suggestive title sequence shows a dapper 70s man returning from work one Friday evening, changing into his pyjamas, and climbing into bed with a scantily-clad blonde only for them both to turn on the programme). The set has bamboo furniture and all those appearing wear ties (apart from Bishop Stockwood’s dog collar, and Michael Palin’s open shirt beneath a tweed jacket). Its pace is very slow by modern standards – the laid-back host Tim Rice and his four guests spend nearly an hour discussing one film. There’s a genuinely funny moment a few moments in, thanks to a technical hitch that would not happen today (Rice introduces a “moderately controversial” clip from the film, only for nothing to happen, suggesting divine intervention).
But in other ways this episode of a forgotten 70s chatshow could hardly be more relevant today. In 1979 Life of Brian – despite its gentle mockery of Christianity, lack of swearwords and violence, and minimal nudity – was seen as the cutting edge of controversy. But even the most conservative Christians that TV producers could find did not call for the film to be banned, or condemn its actors and producers as blasphemers. It’s easy today to laugh at the pomposity of Muggeridge and Stockwood, but they are part of a tradition of tolerance – or limited intolerance – which Britian can take some pride in. It is reasonable for other religions to be offended by, and to condemn, what they perceive as blasphemy – but also reasonable to expect them to refrain from massacring those who offend them.
Voltaire never did say “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (it was in fact his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall). But as an aphorism it can’t be bettered. I find Salman Rushdie’s novels unreadable, and his memoir Josef Anton was one of the vainest books I have ever read (written in the third person like the cogitations of a Roman emperor, much if it is an extended name-drop of the celebrities who helped Rushdie, and the turncoat politicians who didn’t). But even the author of unreadable books, like those who draw irreverent cartoons, do not deserve a death sentence. Arguing that freedom of speech (or more accurately, the freedom to not be assassinated) only applies to those we agree with, or whose work meets some arbitrary yardstick of good taste, is a hiding to nothing.
Freedom of speech does not mean that anything goes, and that there should be no legal restrictions on what can and cannot be said. But for freedom of speech – and the rule of law – to mean anything we must always deplore the killing of journalists and artists, and the literary establishment must honour them posthumously. Those writers who piously object to PEN giving an award to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists might think differently if they had ever received death threats. Such cowardice may have been understandable while the Charlie Hebdo gunmen were still at large. Served up cold three months later such cowardice makes even Malcolm Muggeridge seem like a beacon of reason and free speech.