The grotesque disproportion between the act of publishing mocking cartoons and the retribution of brutal and cold-blooded murder is shocking, but not surprising. The magazine Charlie Hebdo – a venerable product of the 1960s – and its equally venerable cartoonists Cabu and Wolinski had long practised provocation and offense against all established institutions and conventional values, and it had made them household names. They refused to make an exception for Islam: as they mocked the Pope, Abraham or the Virgin Mary, so they would mock Mohammed. It made them the target of death threats and bomb attacks. Both old men, they finally paid with their lives. I did not always like their work, but I admire their courage in the face of repeated threats of violence, and, retrospectively, uphold their right to freedom of expression. ‘Je suis Charlie’ is today an expression of decency.
There is no danger of the same thing happening in Britain for one simple reason: no magazine, broadcasting organization or publisher would nowadays dare to disseminate such material, or – to give them the benefit of the doubt – regard such material as proper for publication. As long ago as the Danish cartoon affair in 2005, those of us who wanted to know exactly what all the fuss was about had to look to foreign websites, not the British media. They have collectively taken the decision to refrain from publishing anything deemed offensive to Muslim susceptibilities. Self-censorship is hardly a glorious act, but it is a prudent one, perhaps even a responsible one. Unlike in France, where both militant secularism and press freedom are regarded as central to the Left-wing Republican tradition, we have not chosen to confront Islam and demand of Muslims that they should accept the mores of a secular society – which includes tolerating attacks on religious taboos. The same cross-Channel difference can be seen in attitudes to women wearing the burqa or the niqab, and perhaps more profoundly in the greater freedom given here to Muslim education. There are many smaller examples of an attitude that many French commentators would surely regard as appeasement. British television journalists seem to have been instructed always to say ‘the Prophet Mohammed’, though I doubt they would say ‘the Lord Buddha’, let alone ‘the Lord Jesus’; and I admit to having been a little shocked to see a seemingly non-Muslim BBC journalist today wearing a headscarf in the garden of the official Paris mosque – not required practice. We must surely beware a slippery slope to ever increasing self-censorship and deference. This is a theme of the sadly topical new novel by the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq, entitled Soumission- ‘submission’ – the literal translation of course of the word Islam. It features on Charlie Hebdo’s latest cover.
It is not possible to say now which approach – French confrontation or British conciliation – is likely to work better in the long run. It has been common in France to criticise British multi-culturalism, and to scorn ‘Londonistan’. Nevertheless, given the state of the two countries, I would still put my money on principled (as opposed to sycophantic) conciliation. Yet neither has been successful in the short run in preventing outrageous acts of violence. The murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby by two British Muslims is now matched by Wednesday’s murder of journalists and policemen by two French Muslims. Yet if the situation in both countries is preoccupying, that in France seems far worse, following years of worsening relations between French Muslims, particularly those of Algerian origin, and the white population. This was, of course, the subject of the much praised film La Haine (1995), a portrayal of the conflict between ethnic minority youth in the notorious Paris banlieue, and mainstream French society embodied by the police. The majority of the inmates of France’s prisons are now of Muslim background.
What I therefore find most worrying is that the Charlie Hebdo outrage has its root in this long-festering social and political tension. The Paris murderers are hardly motivated by extreme religious piety. Assiduous frequenters of mosques may be angered by blasphemous cartoons – if they take the trouble to seek them out – but they do not commit acts of terrorism. Those who have committed murder, if the French police’s suspicions are correct, seem very similar to the butchers of Lee Rigby and to other known Western jihadis: their past records feature family tensions, petty crime and social marginality of a very un-Muslim kind. They seem motivated by a generalized anger against a Western society that both attracts and repels them. A born-again discovery of religious extremism – many are radicalized in prison – offers undemanding male comradeship and a sense of belonging. Violent jihad at home or abroad provides a glamorous cause and narcissistic pseudo-heroism to self-obsessed and rootless young men. Respectable Muslims should not need to be persuaded to oppose such actions: these crimes are committed in their name by people whose devotion to Islam is self-serving and skin deep.
The remedy for these deeply rooted social hatreds is obvious but difficult and long: not indoctrination or compulsion but education, integration, employment, and more equal opportunity – the basics that are so difficult to provide in France’s present political, economic and fiscal circumstances. Assertion of secular republican principle may be a sign of integrity, and even, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, of genuine bravery. It is not, however, a solution to France’s problems.
*Professor Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at Cambridge University and fellow of St John’s College. His recent publications include The English and Their History (2014) and That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present—with Isabelle Tombs (2006).