Where the French Revolution took place, religious terror now haunts the streets. Today's voices of free speech must turn to state authority to feel secure. What we need to do now.
BERLIN — As these words are being written, editorial offices in Paris are under siege. Venerable debating societies for the freedom of opinion such as Le Monde and Le Figaro are cordoned off by heavily armed police. A dozen murders have been committed in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the sort of paper-and-ink publication that the social media and selfie culture derides as an archaic relic from the days of Gutenberg.
The outrage was perpetrated on people who worked the old-fashioned way, with words and images, as did precursors Voltaire and Hogarth, Daumier and Gernhardt, Monty Python and Ralf König.
It's not possible to overstate just how brutal this is. In the same city where free speech — not a religion, state or ideology — has been the enzyme of European civilization since the 1789 revolution, state forces now have to protect the nuclei of free expression. Journalists and caricaturists, defiant critics of authority and surveillance can now only turn to authority and surveillance to feel secure.
After a temporary triumph of the freedom of opinion over censorship and narrow-mindedness in Europe, the continent has reimported intolerance. The bishops and guardians of morals that feisty magazines such as the 19th century Charivari defeated have now been replaced by fanatical Salafists and killers who've returned home.
Polluting the safe harbor
And this universal threat isn't about the fight between a refined Europe and an atavistic Middle East. Dozens of journalists, cartoonists and TV professionals in the Middle East have been similarly murdered in recent years, and hundreds live in permanent fear of the plague of Islamism but continue courageously to pursue their work. Many thousands of Christians, Muslims and free spirits, threatened by Islamist terror, have fled to Europe. And now in the middle of that continent, where the French Revolution took place, religious terror has been reborn.
There is a long backstory to this. When I lived in the Barbès-Rochechouart Arab quarter of Paris in 1989, I couldn't read the then-bestseller, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, in the park for fear of my life. When the first Gulf War threatened that same year, there were martial pro-Iraq demonstrations by Arab fundamentalists in the streets outside my apartment building. The favorite name for male newborns was "Saddam."
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The Barbès neighborhood in Paris — Photo: Jürgen Glüe
The fatwa against Rushdie worked well enough. His Italian translator Ettore Capriolo was stabbed in 1991 in Milan, but he survived, as did Norwegian publisher William Nygaard, who was shot in Oslo in 1993. Japanese translator Hitoshi Igashari died after being stabbed in 1991 at Tsukuba University. Their names belong up there with those of Charb, Cabu, Tignous, Wolinski, the cartoonists who also dared to approach the historic figure Muhammad with criticism, poetry or humor.
The systematic turmoil created by Copenhagen mullahs over caricatures that appeared in the Danish daily Jyllands Posten cost cartoonist Kurt Westergaard not his life but a life of freedom. Like Danish free speech activist Lars Hedegaard, he has escaped multiple assassination attempts. The European media barely reported the one in February 2013.
Just how inappropriate Europe's non-alertness to Islamic brutality is is best illustrated by events in the Netherlands. Last November marked 10 years since Islam critic and filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed. The perpetrator, Mohammed Bouyeri, now in a high-security prison, cut his living victim's head off, thus setting the example for the "executions" of innocent captives in the Middle East. The resulting and fundamental cultural changes in the Netherlands, that most traditional bastion of tolerance and free speech, cannot be denied.
On the death list
What happened there in 2004 within the space of a few hours is now what Paris and indeed the whole continent is expecting: Non-conformists, intellectuals, historians, editorialists, satirists — all are virtually on the death list. One media poll showed columnists and satirists frankly admitting that they would do better in the future not to deal with the subject of Muhammad or the Koran.
But for a while now in our internationally networked and enlightened civilization, there have been things that literature, satire and science don't dare speak of unless those who do are prepared for death threats or to pay with their lives. No publisher in Germany would publish a novel like Rushdie's Satanic Verses. And what press group, concerned for the life and health of its employees, can now risk publishing religious criticism in the style of Charlie Hebdo?
These are the kinds of questions every journalist and satirist in Europe is silently asking. We grew up seeing the normative, controlling state as an enemy. Religion as represented by age-addled popes and bigoted church councils were as much a source of ridicule and jokes as politicians. Now the word "conservative" has taken on new meaning. Whether anarchist or fierce patriot, protection and conservation values instantly prevail in our open society, which is being archaically attacked with assault rifles and machetes. We're all in the same boat as the writers in the barricaded Paris editorial offices.
A German prosecutor opened a case against courageous cabaret artist Dieter Nuhr a few weeks ago for having uttered disparaging words against Islamic terror. After the bloody events in Paris, Nuhr too is going to have to weigh what he says carefully but hopefully will not give up saying it.
All of us need to pay attention not to fall prey to blaming the victims at Charlie Hebdo for their own deaths, as there was some tendency to do after Van Gogh's murder. But why should they have had to align with Islam? In the same depressing vein was German TV channel ARD, which was still insisting hours after the attack that any Islamic associations to the event were unconfirmed.
Were they bank robbers? After Theo van Gogh was slaughtered, the otherwise critical director Volker Schlöndorff wondered aloud during a TV interview about some connection with America Christian fundamentalists. Keep your eyes shut — and whatever you do, don't malign Islam!
Anybody who still talks that way is not only ridiculing the memory of courageous artists who died for their convictions but is also hacking away at the very ground beneath our feet. In Berlin and Beirut, in Copenhagen and Kabul. And for the moment, in Paris.