Paris Attack Wakes Europeans To Importance Of Free Speech

Posted on Fri 01/16/2015 by


20100527_DanielHannanBy Daniel Hannan ~

We all know the traditional routine that follows an Islamist terror attack: momentary shock, then platitudinous disapproval, then condemnation of Western foreign policy, then hand-wringing about an imagined Islamophobic backlash. We’ve seen it again and again, even following such abominations as the murder of Theo Van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 and the London Tube bombings in 2005.

GERMANY-FRANCE-ATTACKSBut not this time. Something in Europe has changed – changed utterly. A decade ago, Trafalgar Square was filled with Muslims complaining about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed – not, to be clear, about the assassination attempts they had triggered, but about the cartoons themselves. This time, crowds in the same place, including many Muslims, held pencils and “Je Suis Charlie” signs.

A decade ago, it was a rare and brave newspaper that reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. Today, it’s the papers that hang back that find themselves under pressure.In 2009, when the anti-Islamic Dutch politician Geert Wilders was banned from entering Britain by the Labour Home Secretary, bien pensant commentators growled their approval. After last week’s attack, few of them would dare.

Nor, these days, do we hear the equivocal semi-condemnations that were perhaps the single most depressing response to terrorist outrages. “Of course I oppose violence, but as long as Western powers support the Zionist occupation…” “Of course I condemn the killings, but we have to understand the alienation caused by racism and poverty…” As a former editor of mine liked to say, “everything before the ‘but’ is bullshit.”

This time, the repudiation was unambiguous – not least from the main Islamic organizations. “Nothing is more immoral, offensive, or insulting to our beloved Prophet than such a callous act of murder,” declared the Muslim Council of Britain. “It is an attack, not just on the people of France, but on all of us here in Britain, on our fundamental freedoms,” said the Islamic Society of Britain. No fretting about Islamophobia; no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan; no buts.

Ambiguity turned out to have deadly consequences. Every newspaper that took an editorial decision to report on Islam by different rules left Charlie Hebdo more exposed. Every politician who condemned critics of Islam as racist emboldened the jihadi murderers. Every restriction on free speech convinced the extremists that they were winning.

A few months ago, one of the candidates standing against me at the European election decided to draw attention to himself by standing in a public place and reciting, through a megaphone, a passage written by the young Winston Churchill which said disobliging things about Islam. As he must have hoped, he was arrested. It was, by any definition, a political arrest: a candidate had been taken into custody because passing busybodies objected to the content of his pitch. Had such a thing happened in Burma or Belarus or Bahrain, there would have been outrage. In Britain, though, it ended up falling to me – the chap he had been running against – to criticize the police response.

A mere 10 months have passed, but I genuinely struggle to imagine the same thing happening again. The pendulum has been wrenched back toward free speech. Even the dimmest multi-culti sloganizers are starting to see that their cant about freedom not being an absolute right has led us to a bad place.

The change has come, above all, from the soft Left. We conservatives never had a problem with the unapologetic defense of Western values. As for the old Left, or what remains of it, it cheerfully snarls at all religions. In between, though, is a swathe of people for whom the paramount political virtue has, until now, been not causing offense to minorities.

There is no British magazine like Charlie Hebdo, but we used to have a scatological TV show called “Spitting image,” which parodied, in puppet form, politicians, celebrities, Royals and, for a time, Jesus. A few Christians wrote in to complain and were dismissed as uptight prudes. Then a Muslim objected to the way his second prophet was being mocked, and the puppet was promptly dropped. Immigrants, explained the editor, had a hard enough time of it without their beliefs being mocked.

Like so many on the soft Left, he saw religion through the lens of race. Or, rather, he saw everything through the lens of race. Anti-racism was the card that trumped everything else: free speech, free contract, free association. Because most religious minorities in Europe were also ethnic minorities, Leftists tended to avert their eyes from things they would otherwise have criticized: inequality between the sexes, discrimination against gay people, sectarianism.

In doing so, they were guilty of the offense they most loathed in others: prejudice. For they were making the elementary mistake of lumping all minorities together. They tiptoed around Islamist violence because they assumed that an unequivocal denunciation – a denunciation unaccompanied by qualifiers about white racism and Palestinian kids and yada yada – would offend Muslims per se rather than just apologists for terrorism.

Conservatives, of course, have few such hangups. We approve of civility, and find papers like Charlie Hebdo tiresome, childish and obnoxious. But we also know that their obnoxiousness is the flip-side of religious freedom. If you are free to practice your faith, I must be free to laugh at it.

In recent years, in Europe at any rate, a large chunk of the population lost sight of that principle. If the Paris monstrosity has brought some of them back to their senses, then a tiny bit of good might have come of this foul business. Contributor Daniel Hannan is an British writer and journalist, and has been a Conservative MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.

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