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We Must Stand With Charlie Hebdo Again

17/09/2015 15:05 BST | Updated 15/09/2016 10:12 BST

In January, the world was shocked by the brutal murders of 12 cartoonists and staff at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. The magazine had a history of mocking religious figures, including Muhammad, and in the ensuing analysis some in the media, and in religious communities - most notably the Pope, suggested that it was this habit of turning figures of faith into figures of fun which directly caused the shootings. There was a distinct atmosphere of masochism in some quarters that made those of us with deeply held free speech convictions extremely suspicious.

However, as if to cleanse the palate, there was also a mass movement in solidarity, to varying degrees of consistency, with the murdered Charlie staff - some of the most poignant and powerful of which came from their fellow illustrators and cartoonists. It was beautiful to see so many people counteracting the insipid self-hatred and victim-blaming narrative by proudly declaring their support for freedom of speech by announcing, 'Je Suis Charlie'.

Things are different now. It is more difficult to defend Charlie Hebdo's recent actions but it is more important to do so now precisely because it is harder.

On the cover of the most recent issue of Charlie Hebdo there is a cartoon depicting Aylan Kurdi (the little boy whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach and whose image has touched us all) beside a sign with a Ronald McDonald-esque clown on it and the captions, "Welcome to Migrants", "So near his goal...." and "Promo! 2 kids menus for the price of one".

Inside the magazine itself there is another cartoon showing Jesus walking on the sea while a pair of little legs - clad in shorts - poke up through the water with the caption, "Proof that Europe is Christian. Christians walk on water - Muslim children sink". It would seem that the new staff at Charlie intend to carry on their publication's tradition of combining blasphemy with biting satire.

The outraged reaction has been as one might expect. For instance, Peter Herbert, Chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, called the magazine "racists" and "xenophobic" while other commentators labelled it "tasteless" and called the cartoons "a new low".

Thankfully, others have defended the cartoons and it seems that the we are poised to have the same rather tainted and confused 'free speech debate' in the coming weeks; brace yourselves for people saying they believe in free speech 'but...' it's always a hoot... when it is not deeply concerning.

The publication of these cartoons presents an excellent opportunity for all of us to find out if we genuinely believe in free speech of not. It was easy to defend Charlie last time they made international news; they had just lost 12 of their number precisely because of what they had written, drawn and printed.

It was easy for many to people slap "Je Suis Charlie" across their avatars and circulate the corresponding hashtag because the case in Charlie's defence was so strong and clear-cut. The world was caught up in grief, sympathy and solidarity; so being on Charlie's side was easy, even for the self-flagellating and masochistic left wing.

This time, however, is very, very different

Charlie Hebdo has lost no blood on the streets of Paris. The families of their staff are not grieving nor is there an immediate sense of intimidation or threat to Western culture. This time, I suspect, fewer people will stand alongside Charlie and against the creeping and insidious censorious instinct that has blighted modern culture of late.

This is where we come to the crux of the issue; if you do not stand up for Charlie Hebdo this time, and you did in January, then you are a hypocrite. If you did neither, then you do not really believe in freedom of speech.

To say that Charlie should be free to say what they want to without the threat, or practice, of deadly violence last time but to say that they should not have printed their most recent cartoons for reasons of sensitivity is to make a mockery of any free speech argument you care to mention and demonstrates a deep inconsistency in character.

We must be clear that either the Charlie Hebdo staff (and by extension, the rest of us) are free to publish whatever they want, regardless of threat, condemnation or emotional blackmail and the much-overrated excuse of hurt-feelings, or they are not. Everything else is empty rhetoric. If you hear anything to the contrary - as I suspect you will - telling the magazine that they shouldn't have published the cartoons, it comes from a deeply sinister place, especially if that person stood with Charlie in January.

You may not like what Charlie Hebdo did but if you even contemplate that they ought not to have been able to print their cartoons then I fear you may have fallen victim to the creeping illiberal intolerance that now prevails, especially on university campuses. What I can tell you for sure is that any commitment you have to freedom of speech is purely a gesture to make yourself feel better - you don't really mean it.

As this story unfolds it is vital that we remember that unless we apply the principles of free speech universally then it is not a freedom nor are we, in any real sense, applying it. Regardless of whether we are talking about depicting prophets or dead children, free speech is absolute and must be applied absolutely to be of any use.

It must be remembered that the same freedom of speech and expression that allows us to challenge authority, to read what we want to, to be educated, to communicate and to impact political change is that which allows Charlie Hebdo to print cartoons of Muhammad mid-embrace or a dead child.

If you take it away then you make a rod for your own back.

For what it's worth, as I said then and say now.... Je Suis Charlie.

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