At the Financial Times, Europe editor Tony Barber’s initial response to the atrocity in Paris included this:
Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.
This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.
That text was later changed to (amongst other things) remove the words I have highlighted, but the stink of the suggestion (no, more than a suggestion) of self-censorship remains.
Meanwhile the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, “unequivocally condemned” the murders, but in a piece headed “Muslims Are Right To Be Angry”, he also attacked Charlie Hebdo’s sometimes very crude treatment of religious figures:
Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.
For the most part though, the response to the slaughter in Paris has been impressive, moving beyond hashtags, to large demonstrations, to the republication of ‘offensive’ images, the latter vital if the point is to be made—as it must be—that, to quote again those words from Jyllands-Posten (sorry, Mr. Butler) all those years ago, “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
But the real test will be to see if anything changes. Will the creeping reintroduction of blasphemy laws (dressed up in modern clothes, of course, ‘hate speech’, mustn’t give offense, that sort of thing) go into reverse, let alone the self-censorship that is (Butler must approve) such a feature of our times?
The danger is not that there will be too little outpouring of solidarity, grief, and outrage in coming days. Of course there will be that. Demonstrations are already underway across France. The danger comes afterward, once the story passes and intellectuals and those who discuss and distribute their work decide how and whether to adjust themselves to a more intense climate of fear. At media outlets, among conference planners, at universities, there will be certain lawyers and risk managers and compliance experts and insurance buyers ready to advise the safer course, the course of silence.
And then there are the lawmakers. After years in which blasphemy laws were assumed to be a relic of the past, laws accomplishing much of the same effect are once again on the march in Europe, banning “defamation of religion,” insult to religious beliefs, or overly vigorous criticism of other people’s religions when defined as “hate speech.” This must go no further. One way we can honor Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, and the others who were killed Wednesday is by lifting legal constraints on what their successors tomorrow can draw and write.
If I had to guess, those legal constraints will—after the briefest of pauses to honor those murdered for daring to express themselves—continue to tighten.
To take one example of the way things have been going in Europe, let’s look at what Britain’s Theresa May has planned for her countrymen should the Tories win the next election. Reason’s Brendan O’Neill (writing in November) can be our guide:
May wants to introduce “extremism disruption orders”, which, yes, are as terrifyingly authoritarian as they sound. Last month, May unveiled her ambition to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.” Whether you’re a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May’s words, a lack of “respect for the rule of law” and “respect for minorities”, then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).
Strikingly, EDOs will target even individuals who do not espouse or promote violence, which is already a crime in the U.K. As May says, “The problem that we have had is this distinction of saying we will only go after you if you are an extremist that directly supports violence. [This] has left the field open for extremists who know how not to step over the line.” How telling that a leading British politician should be snotty about “this distinction” between speech and violence, between words and actions, which isn’t actually some glitch in the legal system, as she seems to think, but rather is the foundation stone on which every free, democratic society ought to be built.
Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police…..What sort of people might find themselves branded “extremists” and thus forbidden from speaking in public? Anyone, really. The definition of extremist being bandied about by May and her colleagues is so sweeping that pretty much all individuals with outré or edgy views could potentially find themselves served with an EDO and no longer allowed to make any public utterance without government approval.
Both secularists and Christians understand where this could lead.
The Daily Telegraph reported:
Keith Porteous Wood, director of the [National Secular Society], said secularists might have to think twice before criticising Christianity or Islam. He said secularists risk being branded Islamophobic and racist because of their high profile campaigns against the advance of Sharia law in the UK….
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute, said traditionalist evangelicals who criticise gay marriage or even argue that all religions are not the same could find themselves accused of extremism….
“Hand a judge a file of a thousand Twitter postings accusing this atheist or that evangelical of ‘spreading hatred’ and they could easily rule that an EDO is needed….”
Freedom of expression is no longer a ‘European value’, not even in Britain, a nation where that right was once a source of pride. That’s not going to change. There will be more ‘blasphemy’ laws, not fewer. In fact, I would not be surprised if there is a politician somewhere already preparing the argument that the murders in Paris could have been prevented if only Charlie Hebdo had been kept under a tighter rein.