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
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
"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
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
"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.