Charlie Hebdo : Is britain too polite or too scared ?

Charlie Hebdo : Is britain too polite or too scared ?

21 January 2015 | PAR La Rédaction

The events of the 7th and 9th of January in Paris were intensively covered by the British media, as was the march the following Sunday, but when it came to the publication of the new edition of Charlie Hebdo they became strangely coy. Is it symptomatic of how confused Political Correctness in the UK is making us unable to find a coherent way of responding to Islam and to Islamic Extremism?

Tout est pardonné - la Une du Charlie Hebdo du 14 janvier
French version, click here.
I heard of the shootings at Charlie Hebdo just minutes after they happened and on turning on the BBC news was stunned to see myself looking at a street I had been walking down just 24 hours before, on a trip to Paris. It flashed me back to 2004, when I had recently moved to Madrid and awoke one morning to hear the final ‘boom’ of the Atocha train bombings nearby. Visiting the UK that weekend I opened the Sunday Times to find the face of Jamal Zougam staring back at me, who had served me in his little ‘locutorio’ just days before but was now arrested as one of the ringleaders of the attacks. So between that and dealing with IRA bomb scares when growing up, terrorism has always seemed close at hand but also simply a part of the fabric of life that shouldn’t affect our behaviour any more than the reality of traffic accidents stops us getting in a car.

But how to respond? In the case of the Madrid train bombings, anti-Muslim graffiti sprang up in the city the next day and the Council wisely sent out ‘hit squads’ to clean it up almost immediately. That was their simple but effective method of countering public Islamophobia. In the months and years that followed, I certainly wasn’t aware of a rising anti-Muslim feeling in Spain, despite its chequered history with Islam. What did happen was an entirely spontaneous grassroots urge that we all needed to take to the streets to show defiance – as happened in France, but not the USA or UK. The sight of millions of Spaniards, including political leaders and royalty, defiantly jamming the streets in the pouring rain whilst the killers were still at large with weapons and a large stock of explosives, was one of the things that made me want to stay in Spain.

After the Paris killings, the British media echoed the messages about defending free speech and pointing out that British satire has always been pretty tough on religion (can anyone imagine a Muslim equivalent of “The Life of Brian”?). Indeed, being able to “take a joke” is seen as part of having strength of character here. Then the new edition of Charlie Hebdo came out and it was, in every sense, front page news. The cover itself was a surprisingly sweet expression of forgiveness which, were it to feature any other religious or political figure, would not have raised many eyebrows or caused consternation to news editors. But it caused something truly bizarre in Britain.

I watched a BBC reporter standing by a Paris news-stand, which carried a poster of the cover (out of shot) and where the magazine was on sale (but we weren’t shown it) describe in detail what the cover looked like, as if it was audio description for the blind. No explanation was given for this strange form of news presentation. This was echoed on all news UK channels. The convention on British TV is to warn viewers in advance if images might be offensive or upsetting so they can choose not to watch, but here was a whole new policy. I turned to the newspapers. Most had photos where the cover was strategically folder over, or half out of shot, or other cartoons were shown. There were full reviews of the whole magazine, without a glimpse of the cover. Only the two papers with the greatest reputation for bravery displayed the entire cover and even then only as a very small image. The Guardian online carried a warning and journalistic justification for its inclusion, the Independent did much the same. Yet even most US papers featured the Charlie Hebdo cover.

In recent times it has come to light that some state schools in the UK have been illegally pushed towards adopting Islamic ideas by parent governors. There have also been a couple of horrifying stories of organised sexual abuse of young girls by gangs of men of Pakistani origin. In both cases there seems to have been a reluctance by the authorities to intervene at an earlier stage for fear of being seen as racist or discriminatory. I genuinely believe that Britain is the most open and tolerant society to different ethnicities and beliefs that exists on this planet. That has only come about over a long time, passing through some very dark moments and it is far from perfect. However, it does seem that in the case of Islamic conservatism and extremism we are allowing a very British sense of politeness and not wishing to be seen to cause offence play into the hands of those who wish to disrupt and cause division. It is right to be wary about anybody using recent events to foment hatred but it is also right to be wary of religious leaders who openly state that the liberal tolerance of the British is something to be exploited to push for more Muslim policies.

And to not show a tender and peace-loving magazine cover at a moment like this seems like throwing our hands up in the air and saying “OK, you won, we’ll do it your way, please don’t shoot us”. We need to be braver and a bit less polite if the free speech and tolerance so trumpeted in recent days is to continue to be a reality and all people in Britain are to be able to enjoy the freedom and equality they have a right to.

Peter Domankiewicz*

*Peter Domankiewicz is a British film director. After 7 years living in Madrid, he has now returned to London. His first feature film, “Tea and Sangria” is soon to be released in the UK. Toute La Culture could see this witty comedy in a preview, at the Festival du Film Britannique de Dinard.

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