Belfast Telegraph

Charlie Hebdo: No freedom of speech until liberals recognise their own intolerance

No one has a right to demand that others should be prepared to take offence if they're not willing to do so themselves, which means that if Muslim sensibilities must be protected, then so too must those of Christian bakery owners, writes Eilis O'Hanlon.

When Ronald Reagan was receiving treatment in hospital after being shot he reportedly quipped to medical staff that he hoped they weren't Democrats. To which the doctor in charge famously replied: "Today, Mr President, we're all Republicans."

There was a similar mood of solidarity in the air after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, with rallies across France and numerous statements internationally in support of freedom of speech. It was a powerful expression of support for the values of European civilisation in the face of violent medievalism.

Then, what inevitably happens inevitably happened. That sense of solidarity began to be unpicked. First came the whataboutery. What about the dead of Palestine? Did they not deserve candlelit vigils too? Some of it was well-meaning; much was deliberately designed to blur the moral boundaries in order to undermine that sense of togetherness. Then came the qualifications. Yes, it was awful, but...

Soon attention turned to "Islamophobia", as if that was the real problem, not bodies littering the streets of Paris. There were more column inches devoted to the Front National than to radical Islam, because of course left-wing resistance to the establishment, as seen currently in Greece, is always good, and right-wing resistance, as seen in France, is always bad. That's the accepted narrative, and not even this atrocity could shake it. It quickly became another example of how a moral consensus can be fatally undone by bad politics.

"Is France's aggressive secularism to blame?" asked BBC's Newsnight. The use of that loaded word "aggressive" was a definite signifier that something else was going on. Speaking on Today FM, Guardian journalist Peter Allen even said that, while people were "quite rightly" defending free speech, we "should also have a little bit of a think about how far we can go with some of the criticism" of other cultures. "It has been a bit out of control in recent years," he said. That image of freedom being out of control was a grim one.

The desire to show justified outrage at an attack on fundamental civil liberties met the liberal reluctance to criticise other cultures, and it was the refusal to judge that started to win out. On the offshore islands of Europe, at any rate. There is a strong, consistent tradition in France of left-wing anti-clericalism, which makes no distinction between different brands of theocracy, but in the UK and Ireland this has been blunted by a prevalent culture of moral relativism and political correctness.

The reaction of the Irish left to what happened in France was notably muted. The usual suspects barely made a comment about it at all, and, when they did, it was tinged with ambivalence. "Awful, but..." wins out every time.

That sort of casuistry has a knock-on effect, in that the mere proclamation of a desire to defend free speech becomes a substitute for actually doing it. "Grieve for the slaughtered," said historian Simon Schama, "but know Kalashnikovs can never murder laughter."

Which sounds impressive, but what does it actually mean? It's absurd to say that people should not be cowed by terrorism when they already have been. Newspapers and broadcasters did not show the cartoons which were the ostensible trigger for this attack, though the BBC was happy to show Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting a French soldier sodomising a goat.

They were criticised by some for ducking the challenge, but it's easy to demand the world makes a collective gesture of defiance by reprinting the cartoons, and harder to do so when the consequences can be so horrendous. Journalists have every reason and right to be afraid. What happened in Paris wasn't some indiscriminate terrorist outrage. It was a personal assault on specific individuals.

Of course, others will now engage in self-censorship to protect themselves and their loved ones; standing up for free speech in principle, yes, but thinking twice if they get an urge to mock or criticise Islam. And who could condemn them for that? Hashtags are no defence against bullets. One can laud the bravery of those who stand up to terrorism while sympathising with those who choose safety.

Especially as politicians, whilst paying lip service to the inviolability of free speech, consistently muddy the water by suggesting we be "sensitive" to extremists' beliefs.

What should be done is far from obvious, not least because we're trying to respond to a problem without first identifying what it is. Somalian human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose friend Theo Van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam after making a film about Muslims' subjugation of women, reiterated last week that this was about the rise of radical Islam as a transnational force and the radicalisation of disaffected youth who live physically in the west but psychologically in another place entirely. Instead of concentrating on how to counter that threat, there is a rush instead to excuse Islam as a whole for the phenomenon before even asking what there might be in that culture which allows the poison to spread.

Blaming Islam for violence, one caller even declared on RTE's Liveline, is like blaming Irishness for the IRA. Which, again, is a neat soundbite, but misses the point. Irishness wasn't itself to blame for the IRA, but there was something in Irish nationalism that allowed an aberration like the IRA to take root, and atrocities to occur, and for that nationalism did have to examine itself to see where and how the rot set in. Protecting Muslims from the same self-examination does not ultimately do them a service.

What also complicates matters is that we don't ourselves have a rigorous or consistent attitude towards freedom of expression. The blasphemy laws are patently absurd. Mere beliefs should have no protection under law. None. Yet when Amnesty Ireland's Colm O'Gorman rightly stressed on radio last week that women and gays are frequently offended by what the Church says but that Catholics have an "absolute right to express those views", it was hard to think of a recent example of this principle being defended by liberal Ireland.

On the contrary, there has been open hostility to the realisation that supporters of abortion and same-sex marriage, to name two issues, should even have to share the airwaves with their opponents, and many who express conservative views, or defend their right to do so, have been intimidated.

If Muslims have no right to expect their sensibilities to be protected from offence, then nor do liberals, but they behave increasingly as if they do. The Christian bakery threatened with legal action for refusing to decorate a cake with a pro-gay slogan is a case in point. This is a free speech issue too, but is not seen as such because liberals cannot recognise their own intolerance. They expect the religious to take offence, while insisting they themselves never be offended.

In a similar vein, Gerry Adams was expressing his horror at the attack on Charlie Hebdo when his entire modus operandi in recent months has been to paint his media critics as enemies of the people for daring to place republicans' own words and actions under scrutiny. Last Friday he actually posted another blog attacking the "coterie of columnists and hacks" at the Dublin-based sister papers of the Belfast Telegraph. After a dark week dominated by a murderous attack on journalists, there was, remarkably, not one single word in defence of the Irish media's right to freedom of expression without intimidation.

Or was the timing of this latest blog another "joke", Mr Adams?

Those whose beliefs are mocked and challenged have every right to respond robustly, because that's free speech too, but no one has a right to demand that others be prepared to take offence if they're not willing to do so themselves.

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