Remember Voltaire

Je suis Charlie. It really is as simple as that. Aussi, je suis Ahmed, the policeman who was killed. I am the people at the Kosher supermarket, and I am the million-plus people who marched in Paris this weekend. For the past six days, this is all I have been able to say, but that is not enough.

It is with sadness that I admit that I am alarmingly used to terror; it is everywhere, all the time. So when my BBC News app informed me, between lectures, that 11 (then 12) people had been killed in Paris, I winced, told a friend, and then carried on with my day.

It was not until I returned home and switched on the news that the name Charlie Hebdo registered, nor that those killed were mostly journalists and cartoonists. As I waded through the media storm in what became an increasingly concerned effort to find out as much as I could, I felt shivers go down my spine. I called home to talk of other things, but was caught off guard by my French mother’s audibly shaken voice. After I hung up the phone and went back to trawling the media, I began to cry.

I haven’t cried at a news story for a long time, and I was shocked at my own response. I chastised myself; did I only care because these were people, doing a job I adore in a city I love, whom I could relate to? Why hadn’t I cried at the Peshawar attack, or the horrible deaths IS have inflicted on Iraqi civilians? Even looking back to the 7/7 bombings, which happened in my own city, I couldn’t remember feeling like this. Sitting in bed, tears flowing down my face, I wondered how, at a time like this, I could see the world in such a self-centred way? And why, under all the sadness, was I angry as if I had been personally victimised?

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I no longer think I was upset because the news hit a little too close to home. It has become apparent over the last few days that much of the world feels how I do – the shows of support for Paris have come from all corners, and people haven’t stopped talking about it. The name Charlie Hebdo is etched into the collective consciousness, and anyone who’s read a newspaper is now familiar with the names Charb, Cabu, Wolinski et al. We are all shocked, and hurt, and, I think, a little scared.

I now think that what hit home was that this attack was not so much perpetrated against our people but our values. Freedom of expression was gunned down, and two days later multiculturalism came under fire too. And so in our fear we are defiant; the words “je suis Charlie” can be seen at every turn, people all over the world have marched in solidarity, and world leaders gathered in a remarkable show of strength. In a week of gloom, we have much to be proud of.

The debate which the terror has sparked has been wide-ranging and fierce. Some of it has made me think, some has made my blood simmer, and some has had me nearly thumping the table in agreement. I do not know how we are going to counter Islamic extremism. I do not know how we are going to convince rightfully angry people that they need to direct that anger wisely, that French Muslims are as peaceful as their Christian, atheist or Jewish neighbours. I am as worried by the prospect of reprisals as I am copy-cat attacks, and I can only hope that France keeps it together, but I don’t know what will happen next.

There has also been much debate about where we ought to draw the line between the right to freedom of expression and an expectation of religious tolerance. I, like many, find the Charlie Mahammad cartoons to be in bad taste. The point though is this: I don’t like the cartoons – they are offensive – but that doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with their publication. Incorporated in a journalist’s right to say whatever the hell they like is your right to be offended by it, to display your disgust with angry letters or protests or boycotts. No where is there a right to kill people because you didn’t like what they said. All those people who are handwringing over whether the cartoons were acceptable or not are missing the point: people died for drawing a picture. A certain Voltaire quote comes to mind.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

And so I find myself cheering the republication of images which make me wince, and prepared to go out and buy the next issue of Charlie, a magazine I had never heard of this time last week. I find myself angry with those turning the debate into one about self-censorship. I find myself with no answers, but strong convictions. Most of all, I find myself sad. Yes, je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. And if you’re not, well, you’re just wrong.

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