Irish people who genuinely believe in free speech need to support the scrapping of our blasphemy laws.
Charlie Hebdo. Very few Irish people had heard of the French satirical magazine before the news story broke that 10 members of its staff and two police officers had been brutally gunned down by Islamic terrorists in Paris, in what has been described as the biggest single massacre of its kind on French soil since the second World War.
The news sent a cold snake slithering down the spine. Charlie Hebdo might have more in common with Private Eye or Mad Magazine than Hot Press, but to a considerable extent we are in the same game. A small community of like-minded people work furiously together to get an independent publication onto the streets. It is the kind of endeavour that demands a huge level of commitment on the part of everyone involved. The rewards are seldom bountiful. People do it because it matters, or at least because they believe it has the potential to.
Sometimes, it seems, it matters too much. We are not in the business of merely trying to be popular. However you view the end product in any individual case, the calling of magazine publishers and editors has much more to do with the commitment to providing a platform for a coterie of like-minded spirits – journalists, writers, humorists, illustrators and cartoonists among them – to have their say on the issues of the day, as well as the larger life questions. Is there a shred of meaning to any of this? What makes people tick? And can we make them laugh?
A large part of the role of a magazine is to provide a counterpoint to what is happening in the wider media landscape. Publications like Hot Press ideally provide a place where conventional wisdoms are challenged and maverick spirits feel free to roam. Sometimes what we say and do is important. Other times, it is not. But the existence of vehicles, like Charlie Hebdo, where those who view the pompous world of conventional politics in a radically different, irreverent way, have the opportunity to get their points of view across is crucial to our sense of ourselves as people who have won the right to freedom from slavery, whether economic, intellectual or religious.
The fundamental cornerstone of democracy is that we are capable of making our own minds up, individually and collectively.
To those who have been around Hot Press for a few years, in so many ways, the scene sounded familiar: on Wednesday January 7, a small group of people were gathered together, to work on production of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo. It is not hard to imagine the small talk and the banter, as people went about the often less than entirely serious business of discussing editorial subjects and getting their drawings done.
Two balaclava-clad gunmen burst in. Selected their victims. “Don’t worry,” they reassured a female member of Charlie Hebdo staff, Segolene Vinson. “We don’t shoot women.” Instead, they drilled the men full of holes, with their horrified colleagues looking on. And then they chanted what is in danger of becoming a zealot’s mantra: “Alahu akbar.” God is great. Dead bodies lay all around them, including those of staff cartoonists Charb (byline for the editor Stéphane Charbonnier), Cabu, Honoré, Tignous and Wolinski, and Mustapha Ourrad, economist Bernard Maris, maintenance worker Frédéric Boisseau, Michel Renaud and police officers Brinsolaro and Merabet. Eleven people lay injured. They had not been true to their word on women either: editor Elsa Cayat was among the slain.
The murderers left. Carefully organised their Kalashnikovs. Packed them into the back of their gateway vehicle. Engaged in a skirmish with the occupants of a police car. And drove, temporarily, to freedom.
The bloody massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris offices was carried out by Said and Cherif Kouachi, two young Muslim men in their 30s, who were originally from Gennevilliers, a commune in the North Western suburbs of Paris. On the face of it, you might think they are unlikely terrorists. In photographs, they look perfectly normal. Sensitive even. Along the way, clearly they had drunk of the horrible poison of aggressive fundamentalist Islamic ideology. The Kouachis claimed links to al-Queda.
The brothers must have known that their chances of escaping were minimal. Either way, they were determined to wreak brutal revenge on those who had mocked the prophet Muhammed in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, even at the cost of their own lives. Two days later, on January 9, in an armed showdown, the brothers, in turn, were killed by police at an industrial estate north of Paris.
On the same day that the Kouachi brothers were killed, a 32-year old man by the name of Amedy Coulibaly set out to wreak his own brand of bloody mayhem. In an act of vicious anti-semitism, the gunman, who had pledged allegiance to Isis, and is described in a video as a “soldier of the caliphate”, murdered a policewoman and shot dead four hostages in a Jewish grocery. In a recorded message, he claimed that the attacks were co-ordinated with the Kouachi brothers. It was subsequently confirmed that Coulibaly had met Cherif Kouachi in prison, while he was serving a sentence for armed robbery.
It has also been confirmed by security sources that Coulibaly’s common law wife, Hayat Boumeddine, had been in constant touch with Chéif Kouachi’s wife, speaking to her more than 400 times during the course of 2014. Boumeddine is said to have fled Paris in advance of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, travelling via-Turkey and Iraq to Syria. She has since been described as France’s “most wanted woman.”
The carnage at the Charlie Hebdo offices inspired an outpouring of solidarity with the French cartoonists, their colleagues and their families. In France, four million people marched in support of freedom of speech. Leaders from all over Europe, and further afield, linked arms in Paris under a banner that proclaimed “Je suis Charlie.”
Across the internet, cartoonists and illustrators joined together in a show of strength, digging deep to chisel out images that aimed to capture the terrible, stark truth of what had happened. It was an extraordinary moment, but also a complicated one.
Freedom of speech is recognised as a vital human right in the western, democratic tradition, which goes back to the French revolution in 1789. And yet, many of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo felt enormously uneasy at the sight of establishment politicians trumpeting their commitment to the idea of free speech. Among those who gathered in Paris was the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Alone among European countries, Ireland has on its statute books a law against ‘blasphemy’.
Across Europe, people struggled to come to terms with what had happened. The killings were condemned by the vast majority of moderate muslims. In Ireland, letters to the editor flooded in to newspapers, and message boards and Twitter were jammed with comments.
Irish imams spoke to reporters: they condemned the slaughter but more than one equivocated on the right to publish the cartoons. Dr. Ali Selim of the Irish Islamic Culture Centre appealed to Irish media not to republish them, threatening that he might take legal action, based on the law which prohibits blasphemy, against anyone who did. The threat was hardly an empty one: a look at the statute confirms that any magazine or newspaper would run the risk of being in breach of the law if it did publish the cartoons.
We have been here before. During the 1990s a man by the name of John Corway – a carpenter, in fact, from Harold’s Cross (you couldn’t make it up) – initiated civil proceedings against Hot Press on the basis of the constitutional ban on blasphemy, following the publication of a humorous Mad Hatter in our Christmas issue, credited to Jesus Christ (Birthday Boy). The case hung over us for a few years. Mr.Corway had also taken a case against Independent Newspapers and the case against Hot Press died, when – in the case against the Indo – the Supreme Court decided that no criminal prosecution would be permissible on the basis that without legislation it was impossible to say what blasphemy is.
Subsequently, in an act of hopeless, craw-thumping obsequiousness, the then Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern decided to insert a section, which defines blasphemy, into the Defamation Act 2009, opening up the possibility that an action like the one initiated by John Corway might now be successful.
Against that backdrop, was it a surprise when the Pope too seemed to side with the Charlie Hebdo murderers? “If somebody says a curse against my mother, he can expect a punch,” he said. “It is normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
To which one can only respond: why on earth not?
Among the millions of words written about the issue of freedom of speech following the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices, I was struck by one moderate’s suggestion that the killings had nothing to do with religion. The writer went on to suggest that the murders were an affront to all religion.
This, of course, is wrong. As an atheist, I will stand up for everyone’s right to believe in any God of their own choosing or none. Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahais, Moonies and Scientologists – and the rest of the groups and sub-groups that adhere to the Christian and Islamic traditions – are all equally entitled to bow down to the deity of their choosing.
But in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe and throughout most of the civilised world, we have fought for and won the freedom – for everyone – to debate the competing claims of any and all of these religions and expose them to the bright light of reason, without fear of being attacked, charged, threatened, shot, stoned or otherwise brutalised. Under no circumstance must that freedom be compromised.
The massacre at Charlie Hebdo was an attempt to impose a narrow, bigoted, sectarian, religiously-motivated view of the world on everyone. Murderous bigotry is not exclusive to Islam: historically, it has been common to most of the major religions, Christianity and Judaism included. But it is currently a specialism of a nasty strain of extremist Islamic fundamentalism – and is best opposed by the free exchange of ideas across all religious, cultural and ethnic divides. We need to talk about Charlie. But liberal democracies must also fiercely defend this right to intellectual freedom. In Ireland, we can start that process with a referendum on the issue of blasphemy. The Government should act now.
And then let the real work of promoting tolerance begin.
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