Paul Thomas

Charlie Hebdo and the But Brigade

Jan 16, 2015 | The Age of Terror

Writer Salman Rushdie, who knows a thing or two about attacks on freedom of expression, calls them the “But Brigade”: those who deplored the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but then watered down their condemnation with context, caveats, extrapolations and warnings against “over-reacting.”

Our own Derek Fox was quick out of the blocks, breezily recasting cold-blooded murder as getting “bitten severely on the arse.” But there were plenty more where he was coming from.

Calling for calm and a sense of proportion, British political commentator Matthew Parris declared “that was our approach when Rushdie was threatened with a fatwa 26 years ago. It passed. So will this.”

Actually, it didn’t pass. The fatwa is still in force, having been reaffirmed by Iran’s current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, meaning a handsome reward still awaits anyone who puts Rushdie on a slab. With the implacable logic that characterises many Islamist pronouncements, Iran has explained that the only person who can lift the fatwa is the person who imposed it. Given Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989, I think it’s safe to assume the fatwa’s here to stay.

There were instant experts on satire insisting that true satire is at the expense of the establishment rather than disaffected minorities, as if the dead Charlie Hebdo staffers were guilty of, amongst other things, taking aim at a soft target. Or that CH’s satire was dismayingly crude and heavy-handed, as if the killers were merely making a particularly trenchant critical judgement.

Or that since believers take their faith so seriously, religion should be off-limits, as if political fanatics don’t take their ideologies equally seriously or Christianity in its various forms isn’t regularly mocked. Or, for that matter, as if Judaism isn’t routinely and viciously caricatured by cartoonists throughout the Islamic world.

There were warnings that these and similar incidents may be used by the state to increase its powers and extend its surveillance, as if the real problem is some vague, undemonstrated potential threat, rather than actual terrorist attacks that strike at the heart of secular democracy.

In a similar vein, there were laments that these attacks will increase electoral support for the xenophobic far right. This line of argument combines defeatism – we can’t do anything about the cause, so let’s worry about the effect – with elitism - the assumption that the unenlightened masses are suckers for the politics of fear.

We’re not surprised when people vote for the party offering the biggest hand-out or whose leader talked over his opposite number in a debate; how should we expect them to respond to domestic terrorism inspired by an ideology that would erase their way of life?

One would have thought it’s up to proponents of multi-culturalism and large-scale immigration to demonstrate how those policies enhance and benefit society, as opposed to playing the race card against those who make the incontrovertible point that a by-product of those policies is the existence of an enemy within that loathes everything the majority values.

The lesson of the Satanic Verses affair was that if the west is even slightly equivocal or defensive when its core values come under flagrant, murderous attack, that only serves to embolden the attackers. As Rushdie said this week, the west “must not give an inch” when it comes to freedom of expression and standing against militant opponents of secular democracy.

Secular democracy is underpinned by tolerance, but the notion that tolerance must be extended to those who brazenly advocate and plot the destruction of secular democracy is misguided. That, in fact, is not tolerance; it’s decadence.

And while we should never forget that jihadists have killed many more Muslims than Christians and atheists combined, surely the time has come for Muslim communities in western countries to be far more emphatic in their embrace of secular democracy’s core values and far harsher in their condemnation of those who reject them.

They could follow the lead of Ahmed Aboutaleb, mayor of the Dutch city of Rotterdam, a Moroccan-born son of an Imam and self-declared “secular Muslim” who saw the issue more clearly and grasped the nettle far more firmly than the hand-wringers, moral relativists, obscurantists and quasi-apologists who have been out in force this past week.

“It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom,” he told his fellow Muslim immigrants when news of the Paris massacre broke, “but if you do not like freedom, in heaven’s name pack your bags and leave. There may be a place in the world where you can be yourself.

“If you do not like it here because humorists you do not like make a newspaper, then may I say you can f**k off.”