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Muhammad: those missing images

16 January 2015

BY THE time last week's column appeared, discussion about Islam in France had shifted very decisively away from Michel Houellebecq and on to the slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, and later at the kosher deli in Paris. There was nothing I could have done about it: the column was in press before the murders started.

The one predictable thing about catastrophes of this sort is that the comment afterwards will prove that all the commentators were right all along - in the causes they ascribed to the catastrophe, the warnings so fatefully ignored, and the remedies they had already proposed.

The most perfect example this time around was the Fox News commentator Steven Emerson, who has written six books on the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. He told his viewers: "In Britain, it's not just no-go zones: there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go in."

I actually think I know where this came from: there was a piece in the magazine Standpoint a few years back by the pseudonymous wife of an inner-city Birmingham priest, describing a life of harassment and misery as conspicuous Christians in an overwhelmingly Muslim parish. As she was pseudonymous, I was never able to check the story.

Yet there will always be a tiny handful of pieces bobbing on this tide of garbage which are worth reading, either because the writer really did know something we didn't, or - even less likely - because he or she had actually learned something new from the shock.


TWO stood out for me: David Aaronovitch, writing in The Times almost immediately after the murders, and Nick Cohen, reflecting in The Observer on Sunday.

Both of them pointed out the hollowness of the "solidarity" offered by the British media to Charlie Hebdo. Aaronovitch first: "Let me remind readers that just under a year ago there was a minor British controversy about a cartoon called Jesus and Mo, which depicted a nice-looking Jesus and and a nice-looking Muhammad. A Muslim politician, Maajid Nawaz, tweeted this cartoon to demonstrate its anodyne quality, and was rewarded by a campaign against him on the basis of insulting the prophet.

"The BBC's Newsnight hosted a discussion but would not show the cartoon being discussed. There was 'no strong journalistic reason to use it', said the programme editor, ludicrously. Channel 4 News showed part of the cartoon but with Muhammad blanked out.

"They weren't the only ones - as far as I know no one but tweeters published it. Newspapers don't like insulting the religious. That's a genuine inhibition. But the main reason was given yesterday by the blunt editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, and it's the reason that all seasoned hacks know: fear of violence and a sense of responsibility towards employees."

Cohen, for once finding a subject proportionate to his capacity for outrage, wrote in The Observer: "The British are the world's worst cowards. It is one thing to say you don't approve of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons. But the BBC, Channel 4, and many newspapers won't run any images of Muhammad whatsoever. They would at least have acknowledged censorship if they had announced that they were frightened of attacks on their staff.

"They would have clung to a remnant of their honour if they had said: "We are not censoring out of respect. We loathe the murderers who enforce their taboos with Kalashnikovs. But we do not want to spend years living in hiding, as Salman Rushdie did. Or be stabbed in the street, as Theo van Gogh was. Or hear an Islamist smash at our door with an axe and cry: 'We will get our revenge,' as Kurt Westergaard did. So we are backing away.'

"Admittedly, an honest admission that terror works would shred the pretence that journalists are fearless speakers of truth to power. But it would be a small gesture of solidarity. It would say to everyone, from Pakistani secularists murdered for opposing theocratic savagery, to British parents worried sick that their boys will join Islamic State, that radical Islam is a real fascistic force.

"Instead, most journalists have lived a lie for years, as have many in the arts, academia, and comedy. We take on the powerful - and ask you to admire our bravery - if, and only if, the powerful are not a paramilitary force that may kill us.'

Cohen works, as I do, for the Guardian Media Group, which did not publish any cartoons of Muhammad whatsoever, but did sponsor a debate on free speech in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, and sent a donation of £100,000 to the magazine, which is, as I write, planning to republish some of its cartoons in the first issue after the massacre.

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