It was just over six months ago that the world woke up to the news that gunmen had opened fire on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. I remember knowing instinctively who had done this and why. Everyone else found out pretty quickly too, as the haunting cries of Allahu Akbar and the sound and blurred out images of Ahmed Merabet being shot in the head at point blank range headlined every news bulletin on earth. ‘Not again,’ I thought as I remembered the the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons of 2006 which saw Islamic ‘protesters’ kill over 200 people worldwide, and the 2011 firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices.
The Paris attack was, sadly, not the end of the violence. But what really fascinated and pleased me was the series of demonstrations supposedly in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and the victims of the 7 January massacre. I joined with ordinary Parisians, journalists, newspapers, and politicians, in spontaneously and proudly declaring ‘Je suis Charlie.’ I was he! Like millions on the Place de la République and Martin Place, I printed off the ubiquitous black and white placard (which is still on my bookshelf). Online the day after the massacre I found that all manner of kitsch consumer items could now be branded with what had become a popular logo. I thought it was crass, but I didn’t really care. People were being Charlie, and so was I.
But after only six months, I wonder if anyone is Charlie anymore? Or how long can a person or organization or politician remain Charlie? The answer, it seems, is some time less than half a year. ‘Je suis erstwhile Charlie’ in comic sans and against a black background wouldn’t do aesthetically, but it would be accurate. Or even more accurate: ‘Je suis Charlie in name only.’
And it’s not as if the Charlie Hebdo massacre was such a rare event that the outpouring of emotion and solidarity could simply be apologised for with no real expectation of change. Far from being unusual, it is now expected that those who gratuitously mock Mohammed specifically or Islam generally might be attacked. As happened just five weeks later in a Copenhagen café which was hosting a forum to discuss freedom of speech and religion. And a month after that in Texas where a Mohammed cartoon exhibition was attacked. In the latter case, the organisers knew what to expect and had the good sense to station a SWAT team on the premises, a decision which, it must be said, didn’t end well for the Islamists.
The point is, Islamic opposition to free speech has intensified since the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Je Suis Charlie demonstrations. If it was worth being Charlie on 8 January, it is still worth being Charlie in the West today.
But it’s not only Islamic terrorism which threatens free speech. In fact the greatest threat to what the United Nations calls one of the ‘highest aspirations of the common people,’ is governments looking to pander to voting minorities, and patronise them by protecting them from bad words or indeed offensive pictures. Charlie would keep standing up to fragile worldviews with black flag-waving followers, as roughly 3.7 million people did in January. But Charlie would also stand up to governments, the commentariat, and the political class as they use all the power and privilege at their disposal to hypocritically deny the highest aspirations of the common people. They do this, we are assured, for the good of the people themselves, or even worse: for an imagined social cohesion. Charlie would have none of it!
But is anyone Charlie anymore? Not that I can see. I still have my A4 placard, but away from my bookshelf political impetus has now reverted to political correctness. Charlie, when he is heard of, is now just the patron saint for indignant soccer commentators and obtuse ABC executives who find themselves in trouble for saying or doing stupid things on the public payroll. That Mark Scott can invoke Charlie Hebdo’s hallowed name with impunity as justification for having Zaky Mallah on Q&A is proof that Charlie has failed. Who’s Charlie now? Frankly, who’d want to be.
Chris Ashton has a masters in church history and works for the Presbyterian Church
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