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Je Ne Suis Pas Un Vrai Charlie

13/01/2015 11:17 GMT | Updated 14/03/2015 09:59 GMT

A quick challenge. Imagine, for a moment, that a satirical magazine like Charlie Hebdo had been based in Saudi Arabia. Having trouble? Me too, because it's unimaginable. Independently-minded discussion of "sensitive" matters like politics or religion in Saudi Arabia simply isn't tolerated. Even as the search for the Hebdo attackers was in progress on Friday, 6,500km away in the city of Jeddah the Saudi activist Raif Badawi was being whipped in a public square for daring to discuss politics and religion online.

Badawi, who'd set up a website called Free Saudi Liberals, was charged with "setting up a website that undermines general security", "ridiculing Islamic religious figures", and "going beyond the realm of obedience". As Eugene Volokh points out, it's by no means clear what Badawi is actually supposed to have done wrong, but it seems his discussion of religion - including his contention "that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal" - was enough to see him branded an "unbeliever" and an "apostate". He's been given a ten-year prison sentence and is to be flogged in public 1,000 times (in weekly batches of 50, the first of which occurred last week).

OK, why bother mentioning Badawi in the context of the carnage at the Charlie Hebdo office? Well, because these are both very serious attacks on free speech. One carried out by an armed gang. The other ... well, the other carried out by a state* which has no compunction over jailing and publicly torturing its own citizens when they criticise the government or question its religious-moral authority. (*A state, not a band of outlaws).

But the international reaction over Hebdo/Badawi has been very different. On the one hand the sheer bloodthirsty audacity of the Hebdo attack has magnetised the world's media (certainly Western-world media anyway) and generated enormous political outrage. The reaction to Badawi's plight? There's been media coverage (see here, here and here for example), but a muted political response. The US State Department's spokesperson Jen Psaki voiced the USA's opposition to the flogging the day before (though there's been nothing further), the Canadian government's ambassador for religious freedom also criticised the flogging - but in a relatively low-key way according to Amnesty Canada (despite Badawi's wife and children living in Montreal after receiving asylum in Canada), and similarly the UK has kept pretty quiet about its close ally's behaviour (an after-the-fact Foreign Office tweet but no FCO press release and certainly no sign of ministers taking to the airwaves to speak out about this cruelty).

But hang on. Is my coupling of Badawi and Hebdo a form of equivocation, a way of almost "excusing" the murderous Kouachi brothers by extending the focus to Saudi Arabia and even further onto a lack of consistency from leading powers over attacks on free speech? Certainly not. The Paris violence - including the horror of the anti-Semitic Hypercasher attack and the callous killing of the policewoman Clarissa Jean-Philippe - was utterly disgusting and totally unjustifiable on any level whatsoever. Lest there be any doubt, the pure hatefulness of the Yemeni Al Qa'ida cleric Sheikh Harith al-Nadhari's sordid acclamation of the Paris attacks (they were designed to teach the "filthy" French "the limits of freedom of speech") is a crystal clear reminder of just how complete the degradation of Islam has become in the disturbed minds of AQ-ISIS ideologues.

But my point is the - perfectly unoriginal - one that if free speech matters in Paris (home of liberté etc) it should matter just as much in Jeddah - and its curtailment in either place should matter just as much to everyone else as well. Indeed, I don't think the "Je Suis Charlie" outpouring should blind us to the fact that France actually has a far from unblemished record over defending free expression (onerous defamation laws, widely-drawn laws forbidding hate speech, a highly controversial niqab ban), and is rated only 39th in the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index (Saudi Arabia by the way is 164 out of 180, with Eritrea bottom). Brian Klug describes the "Je Suis Charlie" response as containing elements of "moral hysteria" and I think that's more or less right; at least, while the sight of people holding pencils in the air is fine and perfectly understandable after last week - it's nevertheless true that the République français is not quite the bastion of tolerance it's often held up to be.

The French police and local authorities regularly harass and mistreat members of the country's Traveller and Roma communities, and there's a disturbing pattern of foreign nationals and ethnic minorities dying in police custody. As a further point, I think Joe Sacco's cartoon about political satire being wasted on easy targets like the violent bigots of Al Qa'ida or their apologists is a valid one: Charlie Hebdo's staff have every right to poke fun at Islamic (or Jewish etc) figures, but maybe there were/are more interesting, challenging and worthwhile targets. Hugo Rifkind makes a similar point: by all means mock Muhammad (and in so doing offend millions of people) if you really want to, but maybe try hitting back at the fanatics without doing this. (See also Teju Cole on Charlie Hebdo's not-especially admirable record. And meanwhile, where are the global hashtags and gatherings of international leaders for equally innocent people killed in Gaza or in Nigeria?)

Again, to be clear: there's no "right" not to be offended and there's no justification for punishing (either with a Kalashnikov or a whip) people who "insult" a prophet. We need to defend this principle without fear or favour. All I'm arguing is that we also need to avoid sanctimonious preaching about "Western values" when double standards and institutionalised racism is frequently the dark underside to those values. And we also need to be honest about the discrimination and hostility that ordinary Muslims sometimes do experience.

The Voltairian principle of tolerating the unpopular or disagreeable is obviously right, and I'm saying let's not luxuriate in the business of endlessly re-quoting Voltaire* (apocryphally). Infringements of basic free-speech rights exist right across the globe, and the "justifications" for curtailing these rights make reference not just to religious dogma but also to "national security" concerns and suchlike. Satirists are at risk from authoritarians of all stripes - think of the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat for example.

Meanwhile, one genuinely offensive joke (a recurring one) is the sight of governments cloaking themselves in "free speech" clothes while happily peeling away civil liberties and conniving in the suppression of free speech when it suits them. We're all "Charlie" right now, but the authorities will make proper Charlies of us if we let them co-opt the horror of Hebdo, dictate the terms of the free speech debate and even use the killings in Paris to justify stripping away more of our basic freedoms.

*While writing this blog I re-read Voltaire's Candide, his absurdist satire on optimism and faith. It includes this rather brilliant passage - a nice reminder of how satire from 250 years ago could be perhaps a little more biting than the stuff we're used to today: "The University of Coimbra had pronounced that the sight of a few people ceremoniously burned alive before a slow fire was an infallible prescription for preventing earthquakes; so when the earthquake had subsided after destroying three-quarters of Lisbon, the authorities of that country could find no surer means of avoiding total ruin than by giving the people a magnificent auto-da-fé. They therefore seized a Basque, convicted of marrying his godmother, and two Portuguese Jews who had refused to eat bacon with their chicken; and after dinner Dr. Pangloss and his pupil, Candide, were arrested as well, one for speaking and the other for listening with an air of approval. Pangloss and Candide were led off separately and closeted in exceedingly cool rooms, where they suffered no inconvenience from the sun, and were brought out a week later to be dressed in sacrificial cassocks and paper mitres. The decorations on Candide's mitres and cassock were penitential in character, inverted flames and devils without tails or claws; but Pangloss's devils had tails and claws, and his flames were upright. They were then marched in procession, clothed in these robes, to hear a moving sermon followed by beautiful music in counterpoint. Candide was flogged in time with the anthem; the Basque and the two men who refused to eat bacon were burnt; and Pangloss was hanged, though that was not the usual practice on these occasions. The same day another earthquake occurred and caused tremendous havoc." Voltaire, the celebrated champion of free speech who was himself put in the Bastille for offending the French authorities, also held questionable views about black people and Jews (typically portrayed as hook-nosed and avaricious in Candide). Satire is marvellous, but then so is equality, fairness and social responsibility.