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One Year Since Charlie Hebdo, There Remain Many Assassins Court Toujours

11/01/2016 14:33 GMT | Updated 07/01/2017 10:12 GMT

One year ago last Thursday, 11 cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo were gunned down in their offices for drawing satire of Muhammad. In their anniversary edition, Charlie's front-page cartoon depicts God with a gun and spattered with blood, captioned "the murderer is still at large". While there can be little doubt that overtly-religious repression continues to justify attacks on free expression throughout the world, in the West we must not be blind to the far more insidious (and numerous) attacks on free expression by other groups.

Today more than ever, there can be little doubt that fundamentalist religion is one of the biggest threats to free expression across the globe. 22% of countries in the world still have blasphemy laws, in the first instance, and Saudi Arabia - Chair of the UN's Human Rights Council no less - has declared atheism to be terrorism; beheaded 47 people in one day earlier this year, including a prominent Shia cleric who led anti-government protests; and sentenced liberal blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes for creating a secular-liberal website. In Bangladesh, five secular bloggers were hacked to death last year by extremists. In Uganda, moreover, Christian fundamentalist beliefs are used as the excuse to pass anti-gay legislation, including attempts to make homosexuality punishable by death.

In the West, thankfully, such direct attacks on people's freedom of expression are far rarer, with Charlie Hebdo perhaps the only major example of people being murdered for their beliefs recently, but that doesn't mean that we should simply look the other way when free expression is attacked in the West. Indeed, discrimination against openly gay people in the USA is still allowed under many state laws, and the recent controversies over Kim Davis's refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and North Carolina's passing of an anti-gay Bill should serve to remind us that the freedom of gay people to be openly gay still needs to be defended in the West; attacks on gay people in the name of religion are far from confined to ISIS's hurling of gay people from buildings.

In Britain, sadly, we are not immune from state policing of expression which does not incite violence, but merely offends. The Prevent initiative is the most recent example, with proposals to "disrupt" non-violent extremism such as restricting premises known to be used by speakers deemed extremist and even authorising the HEFC to cut funding to universities that don't sufficiently comply with measures to vet extremist speakers. The disingenuous idea appears to be that the response to preachers such as Anjem Choudhary, who are careful to remain within the law by cleaving close to the line between legal and illegal speech is to redraw the line such that he now crosses it rather than confront their ideas with better speech. Far more infamous, however, is the offense of sending a grossly offensive communication under the 2003 Communications Act, which was recently used to prosecute controversial pastor James McConnell for calling Islam "satanic" - though fortunately he was acquitted, with the judge declaring that the right to offend must be protected.

While we may like to hope that the McConnell case will lead to less censorship rather than more - indeed, Dr. Muhammad Al-Hussaini declared that he wished to go to prison with McConnell if the latter was convicted - but unfortunately there seems little reason to think that realistically there will be any change. We need only look at the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings among sections of the regressive left to see this. On the day of the attack, Charb was derided as a "racist asshole", despite the fact that he was a committed anti-racist in life, and Stop the War's incredulity was directed not at the fact that cartoonists had been massacred on our doorstep but at the fact that this doesn't happen more often because of "provocation" which allegedly justifies such attacks. On Sky News, too, the day after the attacks, Asghar Bukhari smeared the dead cartoonists as racists. Later, he exactly the same in Trinity College Dublin in October by presenting the killers as victims of France's past imperialism (they were of Algerian descent), and responded to an accusation of apologism for murder by Brendan O'Neill by calling Mr. O'Neill racist too.

More worryingly for the future of free speech in this country is the reception Mr. Bukhari's accusation of racism received. It was applauded by sections of the audience, while Mr. O'Neill was heckled by contrast. This, too, is sadly unsurprising when we look at the state of free speech on many university campuses in Britain. Oxford today has a Student Union which is content to ban student magazines from its Freshers Fair ultimately on account of disagreeing with some of the views contained therein, and an activist far-left which proudly believes that disagreement with Germaine Greer on transgender identity means that she should not be allowed to speak on any subject at all. While such examples are reprehensible in themselves, it is the seeming alliance between student leftism and Islamism - the ideology of the Charlie Hebdo killers, lest we forget - that is most worrying of all.

Today, we have the remarkable situation where a visit by Marine Le Pen to the Oxford Union is accompanied by the Oxford Student Union helping to whip up a mob which put other Oxford students under Police protection but a visit by the openly anti-Semitic Nation of Islam two weeks later sees prominent members of the mob take front-row seats at the talk; where two LGBTQ speakers - Milo Yiannopoulos and Julie Bindel - are no-platformed by Manchester SU while the identity of a speaker calling for LGBTQ people to be killed is vigorously protected by the same SU; and the intimidation of ex-Muslim feminist Maryam Namazie by student Islamists sees Goldsmiths Feminist and LGBTQ Societies express solidarity with the latter rather than the former. Moreover, our Dear Leaders as students in the NUS have opposed all attempts to fight ISIS too; a motion to condemn ISIS tabled by a Kurdish NEC member was rejected on the grounds that it was "racist" and "Islamophobic", and the NUS's response to the Syria vote was to hold a snap meeting in which it unanimously condemned the decision to attack ISIS in Syria - without any kind of consultation as to whether condemnation, let alone unanimous condemnation, could possibly represent the "definitive national voice of students" in a staggering (but sadly slightly predictable at the same time) display of self-righteousness and arrogance.

So while we certainly cannot ignore the influence of religious fundamentalism worldwide in suppressing freedom of expression, I would submit that the future of free speech in Britain will depend rather on the willingness of those who believe in free speech to stand against criminalising offensive speech for its own sake (or under the guise of preventing hate speech) in the present, and the future of free speech in this country will depend on our ability to fight not just the expanding imposition of no-platform policies on universities by paternalistic, self-righteous "student leaders", but an increasingly-evident double standard whereby Islamist extremists can express beliefs which would have anyone else no-platformed, and governments are condemned for fighting ISIS rather than the latter be condemned for the Paris attacks. Failure to do so may lead us to a future where the leaders of the Left make John McDonnell's past comments that we should honour the IRA seem very mundane indeed.