Professor Siddiqui on Radio 4

8th January 2015

Professor Mona Siddiqui

‘Je suis Charlie’

‘Je suis Charlie’ was all over social media yesterday in widespread condemnation of the tragic killing of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and policemen in Paris; a show of solidarity with the dead and the injured and an act of defiance against the Islamist perpetrators. This was a cold and carefully planned attack after years of threats against the satirical magazine for its cartoons of the Prophet.

The editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known simply as "Charb," was one of the victims paying the ultimate price for a magazine which refused to be silenced especially in its portrayal of religions. For some people the magazine was outrageously bold, overstepping the boundaries of decency and taste while others saw it as clever and inspirational, challenging anything and everything, central to the establishment, with its own history and ideals of the French republic. It’s been closed down before, it’s run out of money, warned for being too provocative but it stood resolute with the editor once saying, "When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it." And in 2012, he bravely told Le Monde, I would rather die standing than live on my knees.’ For Charb, there was never any intention of giving into fear, telling the New Yorker, that mocking Islam must continue "until Islam is just as banal as Catholicism." Ridicule against extremism was his weapon and it angered those who could only confront satire with guns. But in using the prophet as an excuse to kill, the gunmen chose to ignore the Qur’anic reprimand of Muhammad himself that he had no right to impose his belief on others.

Defence of free speech

The defence of free speech is again at the forefront and while freedom of expression may never be absolute, let it set its own limits rather than be frightened into submission. I've heard many say that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should and at a purely pragmatic level that may sometimes be true. But it is free speech which gives minorities the right to practice their religion, groups to hold anti war rallies and journalists to expose the tyrannies and hypocrisies of power. Freedom of expression with all its messy boundaries lies at the very core of liberal societies; if you lose this fundamental and hard fought privilege, you've lost the very soul of western freedoms.

These actions will only entrench social tensions about Islam in Europe. The irony of course is that more people will now see the very cartoons these gunmen wanted banned. And they will also see that their actions killed 12 but brought together thousands across the world, waving a pen in their hands holding vigils and showing that if gunshots try to divide us, the simple act of being with one another can still unite us.