This week the magazine Charlie Hebdo will publish a defiant response to the terrorists who assassinated 8 members of its staff and four shoppers in a Jewish supermarket. This response will involve publishing an image of the Prophet Muhammad.
Is this an appropriate response? Is this the way in which we should demonstrate our defiance to such an appalling act?
Having the right to do something does not necessarily make it the right thing to do. We have (and must defend) the right to publish an image of the Prophet Muhammad, but with this right (as with all rights) comes the responsibility of deciding whether to exercise it. And in making this decision, we have to think about consequences. Indeed having rights creates the responsibility to think about consequences - something it is often convenient to forget or ignore.
What are the consequences? The terrorists themselves will not be weakened. In fact such an act will simply strengthen their hand within the community from which they draw their strength. However, this act will offend almost all Muslims. If one wishes to adopt the vocabulary of war, which we all seem so keen to do, one could characterise this as a missile strike that has zero tactical impact, but creates significant collateral damage. We have the right to launch such a missile, but not without consideration of the consequences.
Of course, this is an act which also has consequences for those of us who are launching it. It is a gesture of solidarity, defiance and resolve. It is a powerful gesture, but is it an appropriate gesture? Is this really a statement of the values that we stand for, or simply an(other) expression of cultural arrogance? Just because we (whomever 'we' are - Christians, Jews, secularists, French or British citizens) have no prohibition against publishing images of gods or prophets, how does this give us the right to place this value ahead of the values of those people whom, for whatever reason, have such a prohibition? How is the non-publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad a threat to our society?
Choosing not to exercise our right to offend is as much an expression of our values as deciding to exercise that right. By choosing not to offend Muslims we are not surrendering to religious exceptionalism. It would only be surrendering to religious exceptionalism if we were to outlaw publication of images of the Prohpet Muhammad - but this is not what is being proposed.
This is not to say that we should never criticise or satirise aspects of religion or politics and thus offend or confront specific, targeted groups or individuals, but this is a form of attack that is neither specific or targeted. Publishing an image of the Prophet Muhammad offends all Muslims, not just the extremists and there are many ways one can and should criticise, satirise and offend militant Islamists without also throwing a blanket of offence over all Muslims.
It seems to me be more appropriate to say that we will defend the right to offend - but that we will choose not to offend. We can, but we won't. Is that not a much more powerful statement of the values we stand for?
I believe that this week we have seen all that is wrong. The terrorism itself: so senseless and so violent, yet also so easy to perpetrate. Can it ever have become more obvious that there is no 'security solution'? And then there is the response. Calls for more 'security' (from the security agencies). Politicians wrapping themselves in the cosy cloak of outrage whilst thumping their chests as they posture as leaders in a battle of civilization against the barbarian. Gestures of defiance that consequently (perhaps consciously) apply the barbarian war paint to the faces of millions of tolerant, moderate Muslims. How can any of this lead us closer to a solution?
This is not a war of civilization against the barbarian and we must not allow politicians to characterise it as such. This is not a religious problem, it is simply a political problem that has wrapped itself in religious clothes. And it is a political problem that we in the West have had a fundamental role in creating through our intervention in the countries of north Africa and the middle-east both in the recent and more distant past.
The target of militant Islamism has never primarily been the West and 'western values'. Its primary target has been the corrupt and repressive regimes in place in much of what we call the Muslim world. How easily we forget the 132 school children killed by Islamic extremists less than one month ago. We forget because it happened in Pakistan. It therefore doesn't easily conform to the story of Us against Them that we are encouraged to believe. There is no T-shirt or slogan we can wear to represent our outrage against this act (not true - there is, we have just chosen not create it). There are many, many more innocent civilians killed by Islamic fundamentalists within Islamic countries than there have been within the West. We have chosen (and still have it within our power to choose) the extent to which this a battle between Islam and the West and until we confront this uncomfortable fact and acknowledge our responsibilities for the creation of this problem, we will simply create yet more 'Charlies'. We shall allow ourselves to become labelled victims of terror. We will, indeed, 'Be Charlie'.