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 isdouble 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
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”