There has always been a sensitivity to humour amongst demagogues, dictators and fundamentalists

8 Jan 2015 at 16:04

There is a justified sense of horror and outrage in the civilised world at the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The real question is why are we at all surprised? In our cosy, reasonably well fed Western European comfort blanket satire and the freedom to cause offence is deeply embedded in our culture. It never has never existed anywhere in the Middle East with the exception of Israel.

Fundamentalists of all religions tend to be a humourless bunch. There are some pretty dreadful and barbaric punishments in Leviticus. Stoning to death children who disobey their parents, women who are menstruating near a temple and homosexuals, to name a few from quite a long and vaguely ridiculous list of capital crimes. And the Koran has plenty of smiting, smoting, and beheading for an equally ridiculous list. But the overwhelming majority of believers appreciate that these reflect a barbaric time and consign them to the eccentricities of history. Of course, those who want to promote their own warped causes cherry pick the bloodthirsty parts and turn them into some sick badge of honour. Like the American pastor who recently came to to the conclusion that God had the solution to AIDS; just kill off the gays. He quoted Leviticus.

The Muslim world is really going to have to get to grips with what happened in Paris and speak with one clear voice. It is not good enough to condemn and then add, ‘but the Prophet is more beloved to believers than parents or children, to insult him could lead to consequences’. In other words although we don’t condone this sort of behaviour don’t be too surprised if the nutters take the law into their own hands. The subtext being feel free to satirise anything but our religion. It should go without saying that this is contrary to everything that we hold dear. Dictators, demagogues and those who manically believe in a cause have one thing in common; they don’t like the piss being taken out of them. In Western Democracies satire is our escape valve and in rock and roll language ‘sticking it to the man’ is a helpful way of exposing pomposity and corruption. So how do we react to what happened in Paris?

There is the embryo of a thesis by some commentators that our newspapers have been engaged in collective cowardice. That they haven’t taken head on the fundamentalists. That they are afraid of causing offence. And there was some criticism that Private Eye didn’t reprint the Danish cartoons that caused such uproar. I don’t buy this for one moment. There has always been a degree of self censorship by the British Press regarding causing gratuitous offence to people’s religious beliefs, but never self censorship of the fight against Islamic extremism. Already the Internet is teeming with satire and I suspect that the next few days so will the main stream press. It’s risky but its the price we must pay for democracy and freedom of speech.

But I feel desperately sorry for the overwhelming majority of law abiding Muslims through Europe. There is a dangerous awakening of deeply unpleasant and right wing sentiments emerging in many EU countries. Paris plays into their dangerous hands. In Britain we must do everything we can to support and protect our Muslim communities. But we must stand shoulder to shoulder in the fight against extremism. There can be no equivocation.