“Charlie Hebdo and the culture of offence” – LSS Secretary’s speech at UCL

UCL ASH

LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian’s* speech at University College London Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, Thursday 29th January 2015: “Living in outrageous times: Charlie Hebdo and the culture of offence”

(PDF here)

Hello everyone. Je suis Charlie.

I have to say, when I looked at Twitter on 7th January and everyone was talking about “Charlie”, and “Je Suis Charlie” was trending, I thought to myself: what have I done now? Sadly this is as funny as it gets.

Well we’re here to talk about “Charlie Hebdo and the culture of offence” so let me start by offending you.

I don’t think the discussion about Charlie Hebdo is necessarily one about “offence” at all.

Why do I say that? Well, people are quite happy to offend each other every day, and our newspapers, TV stations and creative industries simply wouldn’t be able to exist without causing offence and creating shock value.

Disagreement, and the causing of offence, are indispensable aspects of our democracy because they enable us to debate the merits of one political ideology over another; disagreement and offence are crucial to the principle of free speech, and our way of life wouldn’t be our way of life without them.

Do you think Mehdi Hasan, of the Huffington Post, who is considered by many to be a moderate Muslim but who has called non-Muslims “cattle of no intelligence”, and who wooed the Question Time viewers recently with his strange thoughts on Charlie Hebdo, lies awake at night worrying about offending Tory voters when he writes articles criticising David Cameron and George Osborne? Do you think Mehdi Hasan worries about offending the “deeply-held political beliefs” of Tories? Of course not. And nor should he.

Think of the principle of free speech as parallel lines. So long as those lines are running parallel, i.e. so long as people are in agreement, there is absolutely no problem. But it’s the point at which those lines diverge that the principle of free speech becomes so important.

And that’s the whole point of free speech – it’s to enable the airing of views that people disagree about, even very strongly. It’s to enable the scrutiny, criticism and yes even outright ridicule of ideas.

Shutting down free speech by claiming you’re “offended” is basically an admission that you’ve failed to understand free speech. And if you don’t understand free speech, you don’t understand freedom.

There are what we can probably call some “objective” forms of offence, such as racism, anti-Semitism, intruding into people’s grief – but I would call these “secular” forms of offence, that pretty much all decent people could agree are offensive, whether you are religious or not. But we’re still allowed to cause these types of offence; it’s not forbidden.

The crucial thing about these “objective” or “secular” forms of offence is that accepting they are offensive does not require the acceptance of any article of faith. And let’s remember, people don’t generally enforce these “objective” or “secular” examples of offence at the point of an AK47.

Arguing that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were “offensive” is different, because it does require accepting as a given, a particular article of faith – in this case the prohibition on depicting Mohammed – or accepting that all tenets of all faiths should be respected. And as we saw, this form of offence was enforced at the point of an AK47 in Paris.

What’s more, it was the fact Mohammed was depicted that caused the problem, rather than the nature of the actual depictions. The test case for proving this to us was the image that the former extremist Maajid Nawaz, who I have a lot of respect for, tweeted over a year ago and which landed him in hot water – he received numerous death threats and there were calls for him to step down as a parliamentary candidate.

Maajid tweeted the most banal Jesus and Mo picture imaginable – it was literally Jesus saying “Hey” and Mohammed saying “How you doing?”. Maajid deliberately chose that image to show it was the fact Mohammed was being depicted that was “offensive”, rather than the nature of the depiction.

So, somehow we have accepted that we are allowed to cause offence generally, and we’re even allowed to offend virtually all religious sensibilities, for example with films such as the Life of Brian, artwork showing a crucifix in urine, or plays about Mormonism.

So it appears there is one exception to this rule that we’re generally allowed to cause offence. That exception, as we have seen, is Islam. Islam is refusing to play by the rules. We are not allowed to offend Islam.

I think we need a different word to “offence” for the purposes of this discussion. Don’t you? How about, I don’t know, the word “blasphemy”? Shall we just call it what it is? It’s blasphemy.

Because when we use the term “offence” we are really using a code word for blasphemy.

Today, we are living under a blasphemy law. And the saddest thing is, most people can’t even bring themselves to admit this.

And there is other coded language that creeps in. When people say they don’t want to cause “offence” by depicting Mohammed, they are really saying “I do not want to be killed”, or “I do not want to be called a racist and lose my job.”

And there’s more. Other coded language that creeps in is “sensitivity” and “respect”. Apparently, we must now be “sensitive” to those who want to kill us and we must “respect” them. Since when, exactly? Maybe I didn’t get the memo.

So not only do we have a blasphemy law that we have to comply with, but we’re not even allowed to say we have a blasphemy law. This is what I call a blasphemy law on stilts. We are not even allowed to say there are things we are not allowed to talk about. This is what a blasphemy law does. It creates surreal situations.

It is also a democracy-killer. In January 2011 in Pakistan, the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, suggested that maybe, just maybe, it might be a sensible idea to reform Pakistan’s murderous blasphemy laws. Do you know what happened to him? He was murdered. Not by some random nutcase, but by his very own bodyguard. This is someone who hadn’t even blasphemed himself. This is someone who – as the journalist and author Nick Cohen described it – “blasphemed against the blasphemy law”.

Unfortunately I have to report that nothing has really changed since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, as far as I can see. Of course everyone found it very easy to condemn murder, as they should, but they didn’t find it quite so easy to unequivocally defend the right to free speech – and in particular the right to depict Mohammed. And they found it harder still to actually physically exercise that right to depict Mohammed.

Charlie Hebdo wasn’t a turning point; it was just the next step in a rapid downward spiral.

If anything was going to be the turning point, it should have been this. If anything was going to create the “I am Spartacus” moment across the media and the press, it should have been this.

Unfortunately it didn’t happen. There were some exceptions, for example the Independent and even the Guardian of all newspapers printed an image, and the BBC showed an image on the 10 o’clock News, on Newsnight, on Panorama, and on its website.

But the other papers bottled it, the Spectator bottled it, and even Private Eye bottled it. I feel particularly let down by the Spectator and Private Eye. Private Eye makes a living out of being offensive. A year or so previously, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, proudly said he would go to jail rather than sign up to Lord Justice Leveson’s press reforms. But he wasn’t prepared to allow his magazine to depict a man with a beard. Why? It’s because Fraser Nelson and the Spectator are living under a blasphemy law.

Well who could blame someone for wanting to live, you might say. Fair point. But there is one simple rule here. If you are scared you have to say you are scared. You can’t use stupid phrases like “not wanting to cause offence”, or “respect”, or “sensitivity” or “people’s deeply-held religious beliefs”. There is no shame whatsoever in being scared. It’s a natural and necessary human emotion. But there is shame in not admitting you’re scared, and there is double shame in saying you respect something when really you fear it.

And take a moment to consider just how shameful it was of all the TV stations and newspapers who chose not to show the images. It was shameful for two reasons. Firstly, it showed a complete lack of solidarity with their professional colleagues; their fallen fellow journalists. And secondly, by refusing to show the images they failed to do their job. The images were the story. You can’t tell the story without them.

Even if the press and the media said clearly that they had decided not to depict Mohamed because they were scared, that would have been an enormous step forward and I would have been very happy with that, because we would have started to identify the problem.

Unfortunately, for the most part, people are still in denial about this problem. Forget all the analysis you have read over the last few weeks because it all comes down to two simple points.

Point one is that people were killed for breaching a blasphemy code. And point two is that this blasphemy code comes from Islam. These aren’t my opinions. These are facts. That’s all there is to this.

Racism

I want to talk briefly about all the discussions we heard on racism in the aftermath of the massacre.

The first thing to say here is that even if the journalists had been racist, and there’s no evidence they were, it wouldn’t have made any difference at all. Racism is bad, yes, of course it is, but it is not punishable by death.

The American secularist and moral philosopher Sam Harris put it well recently. He said something along the lines of: if your first question on finding out about the murders was “what kind of cartoons were they” or “were they racist”, then you’ve already missed the point. As Sam Harris put it, “People were killed for drawing cartoons. End of moral analysis.”

Do you think the Kouachi brothers who gunned down the cartoonists used to sit at home saying to each other, “Personally bruv, I am absolutely comfortable with non-racist satire of our prophet Mohammed (PBUH), it’s just the racist satire that does my head in”? Of course not.

I think all the discussions about racism in the aftermath of the shootings were an unnecessary distraction – and they suited our opponents very well, because all the time people were talking about racism was time they weren’t talking about Islam’s blasphemy code.

Unfortunately even secularists have spent quite a long time “proving” that the journalists and the cartoons weren’t racist. In fairness it’s been a noble attempt to preserve the good names of the fallen, and I understand that completely. But when they announce their eureka moment of “proving” that Charlie Hebdo weren’t racist, ok congratulations, you’ve shown they’re not racist. But you know what else you’ve done? You’ve moved the discussion away from Islam’s blasphemy laws to racism. That’s not helpful. We need to keep our focus here. The problem here is a blasphemy code.

And we have to be careful we don’t create a hierarchy of victims here. Think about how noble the journalists were, and consider despite that just how many smears there were after their deaths and how much discussion there was about racism. Now think about other people who are in the public eye, who often get accused of racism. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. I don’t think he’s racist but just imagine for one second what his social media post-mortem would have been if he had been killed for drawing pictures of Mohammed. The obligatory “but” after the statement “freedom of speech is important” would have been even more pronounced for Dawkins. So let’s not create a hierarchy. Let’s remember that this particular discussion is about blasphemy, not racism.

And really, what makes you think that Islamists are bothered about racism? Do they seek to create equal, multicultural societies where everyone is equal before the law? No. They don’t care about racism. They care about protecting their blasphemy codes – and they can do that by changing the subject to racism after their fellow Muslims have just gunned down people for committing blasphemy.

I was also disappointed with all the discussions about a “backlash”. Let me emphasise, before I get misquoted: any racism at all is bad, and any backlash, even one small incident, is too many. But let’s try and remember what happened after the unimaginable horrors of 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, Sydney, Paris. Was there this huge “backlash” against Muslims that we’re always being told about? Even the respected author Kenan Malik has previously said: “In reality, discrimination against Muslims is not as great as is often perceived.”

I heard the 7/7 bus explode in Russell Square from my office. I remember the windows shaking. What was my “backlash”? I went to work the next day. I am involved now in challenging sharia. That’s my “backlash”. A friend of mine lost her brother. What was her “backlash”? She goes to a memorial every year. My family are Armenian. Some of them were wiped out by the Ottoman Turks. The lucky Armenians were given the choice of converting to Islam. What was the “backlash” of the survivors of the massacre? They went all over the world and they became successful professionals and business people.

I think this constant talk of a “backlash” demeans us. I’m a little tired of being told the British people are racist. I’ve been all over the world and this is the least racist country I’ve set foot in. How nice it would be to hear from organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain that this is the best country in the world to be a Muslim, the safest country for them.

Back to free speech

Well I said this discussion is not about offence. And nor is it really about cartoons. Think of the prohibition on depicting Mohammed as the firewall that protects Islam. It’s a way of protecting Islam as a whole from scrutiny. Because once we break through that barrier, we have a chance of challenging Islam’s power. And Islam does not like that.

A blasphemy code protects the religion as a whole. It protects ideas at the expense of people. The Pope is fully on board with this, by the way. He made it clear after these murders that we shouldn’t offend religious beliefs. Now think to yourself, how can the Pope look any fellow Christian in the face who is persecuted for blasphemy in an Islamic state? It’s because he doesn’t care. He would rather protect religion than people.

You might think to yourself, “come on, it’s clear that many people find these cartoons offensive, can’t we just give it a break?” Well let me tell you some other things that Islamists find offensive: uncovered women, Jews, gays, alcohol, freedom, watching football, blogging. Islamists are more outraged at blogging than flogging.

As the author Bruce Bawer put it, “Agreeing to one Islamist demand merely hastens the arrival of the next.”

There’s now a clear difference between Islam and other religions, and there has been for some time. As a general rule we can talk about the other religions without fearing death. All religious privilege and power is harmful, of course it is, but we’ve just about managed to contain the other religions. It’s a constant battle, we have good and bad days, and there’s still plenty of work to do, there are some problems with Christianity in America, and there is the problem of faith schools, but we’ve more or less got the other religions in a box. We can talk about them, we can criticise them, and we can ridicule them – and that’s all the tools we need. I read a blog piece recently where someone argued along the lines of “Take away all my rights but leave me with free speech, because I’ll use that to get back my other rights”.

We have to get Islam to this point. We have to get Islam within the general gravitational pull of secularism. At the moment it’s a rogue comet. Either we shackle Islam or it will shackle us. There is no compromise here.

Blasphemy codes, and apostasy codes, are the crucial ingredients protecting Islam’s power, and that’s why they’re so strongly guarded. Take them away, and the house of cards comes down. Very quickly. And you know what they say: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

We have to be brave. We have to be brave in diagnosing the problem honestly, and we have to be brave in solving the problem.

I have already said that the problem is a blasphemy code, and that the blasphemy code comes from Islam.

But let me end on a positive note by talking about the solution. I know my speech has been downbeat. Forgive me, but as a secularist and an Armenian and a lawyer I occupy a unique position on the Venn diagram of pessimism.

How do you solve the problem of this blasphemy code? It’s so easy, it’s embarrassing. You don’t have to lobby Parliament, you don’t need to start a political party, nothing like that. There’s only one way to repeal this blasphemy code – and that’s by breaching it. Over and over and over again. Do it loudly and do it proudly, and don’t apologise. If someone asks you why you’re depicting Mohammed, say “someone has to”.

Is it scary? Yes of course it is. But the more of us who do it, the less scary it becomes. We have to spread the risk, and we have to use the power of ridicule to isolate the nutcases – and their apologists. Hands up anyone who’s planning on living forever?

If we don’t do this, I guarantee that you and your children will live under sharia law, because if we accept a de facto blasphemy code, we accept limitless harm. We accept the end of democracy, the end of everything you take for granted.

Offence? Can you think of anything more offensive than killing human beings for drawing cartoons?

Remember: people were killed for drawing cartoons. End of moral analysis.

And end of speech, too.

Thank you.

* Charlie Klendjian was LSS Secretary and an LSS member from Oct 2012 to Aug 2015


Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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