On Wednesday, two gunmen shot 12 men and women dead in cold blood at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Ebdo in Paris. As they fled they cried “Allahu Akbar! We have avenged the Prophet!”1.
Charlie Hebdo is notorious for its irreverent cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad; and has been firebombed by Islamic extremists once already.
The Paris attack is only the latest in a string of murderous atrocities committed by Islamic extremists against free societies. In the last year alone, we have seen hostage taking in a Sydney cafe2, and an assault on the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa3. All of these crimes, like the 2013 slaughter of Fusilier Lee Rigby, were committed by home-grown extremists.
This barbaric atrocity is the act of a dangerous, highly motivated and monstrous enemy. An enemy that strikes at the foundation stones of our identity in the west: the ideas of free speech and free expression.
The cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo dared to laugh in the face of a humourless, murderous enemy. Those who lost their lives are martyrs. We should never forget what they died for.
Without the freedom to speak and write as we will; our ability to reason and to think is curtailed. If we cannot criticise our leaders or speak out against their policies, we have only the illusion of democracy.
We who live in the West are lucky. Across vast swathes of the globe, there is no freedom of speech or of expression. You may say and write only what is considered acceptable to the state, the faith, or the leader.
Convert to Christianity anywhere in the Muslim world and you might be beheaded, shot, beaten to death or hanged4. Criticise the Chinese Communist Party and you may well find yourself in prison5. Call for the release of political prisoners in Cuba and you could wake up one morning to find the Castros’ baseball bat wielding thugs breaking down your door6.
Free speech and free expression are the foundation stones of all other freedoms. And they are concepts that incubated in Britain. The barons who resisted King John fought, amongst other things, to protect the individual from arbitrary punishment. The Levellers campaigned extensively for the freedom of religion and of conscience. John Milton famously condemned censorship and championed free speech in his Areopagitica of 1644.
The Bill of Rights of 1689 contains clauses championing the right of MPs to free speech in Parliament. The radicals of the 19th century saw themselves as heirs to the proud tradition of Magna Carta. And so did those rebellious colonials in the United States, who enshrined free speech in the first amendment to their Constitution.
It is sad to say; but both free speech and free expression have been badly eroded over the last two decades. There is a very real risk that we are abandoning our proud tradition of liberty of speech and thought at a time when we need our ideals more than ever.
Labour’s politically correct hate speech laws have criminalised vast swathes of thought and made it a crime to say things that might possibly be interpreted as giving offence. This has been directed mainly against Christian street preachers7, Twitter trolls8 and political oddballs.
Under the assumption that the UK is a hotbed of institutional racism and that protected groups need special protection, the Labour government tore apart free speech, expression, and equality before the law. An official definition of racism in the MacPherson Report defines it as existing wherever the victim “or any other person” perceives it9.
Theresa May now wants to bring in ‘extremism disruption orders’10 banning the expression of “extremist views” that may inspire others to violence. It is hard to see how this legislation; aimed like other restrictions at Islamic extremists; would not be used against those it seeks to protect.
Press freedom has been assailed in recent years following the phone hacking revelations at the News of the World. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats back state regulation of the press along the lines proposed by Lord Justice Leveson.
And as the assault on liberty continues, an increasing number of young people reject the ideas of free speech and expression.
The NUS ‘No Platform’ policy bans the national socialist BNP and the anti-Islam EDL from university campuses. This is the same NUS that thinks condemning ISIS atrocities is ‘Islamophobic’13.
Mobs of professional offence-takers hang on Jeremy Clarksons’ every word hoping to hear something racist14, or attempt to have the ever-annoying Katie Hopkins (practically a national treasure by now, surely?) arrested for hate crimes15.
Our enemies are violently opposed to the concept of freedom. The radical preacher and apologist for terrorism Anjem Choudary recently stated that “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression”16, and that “freedom of expression does not extend to insulting the Prophets of Allah”.
Choudary certainly does not speak for all of Britain’s 3.3 million Muslims, but he is not alone in his views.
A recent poll suggests 7% of UK residents back ISIS (the figure rises to 16% in France)17. Hundreds of British citizens wage jihad overseas, and terrorist recruiters hand out leaflets on Oxford Street18.
Make no mistake, a violent and ruthless enemy is among us. Now is no time for equivocation. We must never forget the brave example of Charlie Hebdo: standing up takes courage.
It would be so much easier to abandon our principles; to take the path of the snivelling apologist on the one hand, or the police state on the other. But the easy path is rarely ever the right one.
When barbarians and terrorists attack our freedoms, we should shout them from the rooftops; proclaim them on the front page of every newspaper and on every blog; and never abandon our greatest ideals in the face of adversity.
Je suis Charlie