David Calling

Charlie Hebdo Our Duty to Think Freely

All who want to shout “Allahu akbar” or wave the black flag of jihad are presumably interpreting the massacres and hostage-taking in Paris as another major step towards remaking the world in their image. They will have to suppress free speech, and this is one way to do it. Presidents and prime ministers are already intimidated enough to repeat that jihadi violence is a perversion of Islam rather than the fulfilment of its more ferocious tenets. In a particularly cowardly weasel phrase, French president Hollande informed the nation that it is the victim of “obscurantism.”

Self-censorship has already spread far and wide. Jihadis are said to have been unnecessarily provoked. Was it right, or wise, to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq? Was it right, or wise, for Charlie Hebdo to poke fun at Islam? At any rate, the mainstream media make sure to suggest that the West has brought this trouble on itself, and even more sure not to reproduce any offending cartoons for the public to judge where offense really lies.

Apologetics and propitiation are real signs of fear. Those who enjoy freedom of speech have the duty to tell the truth. One of the seminal books of the age is Julien Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals, in which he argues that a free-thinker who doesn’t think freely is committing nothing less than treason to a high calling. The New York Times and CNN could do with presentation copies.

Rebecca West was an incomparable free-thinker who among other subjects made a study of treason. In the mid-1970s she stopped over in Jerusalem, where the mayor, Teddy Kollek, gave a reception in her honor. Afterwards, on the eve of the Lebanese civil war, she went on to Beirut. The telephone rang in her hotel room, and a Palestinian said that she had been observed fraternizing with the Israeli enemy and he was coming up to shoot her. She replied that she had lived a full and rewarding life, and was glad that her death now would spare her from illness and old age. Would the gunman, a dear boy as she called him, please make sure his gun was loaded, and she would leave her door open so he couldn’t mistake his target. Now why does her example come to mind at this moment?

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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