There are some respectable reasons that may be advanced, of course, and we have heard them a lot over the past few days. No one likes to give unnecessary offence to any religion, or to any group of people. There are many acknowledged limits to freedom of speech today – many of which are enforced by the law. There are words that may not be used, or not in certain contexts. There are assertions that may not be made, or not without the risk of legal challenge. But it is very striking that we in the British media have been almost uniquely reluctant, in Europe, to elucidate our viewers and readers as to the images at the heart of the furore, and I am afraid that it is not just a question of politeness, or punctilio, or old-fashioned good manners. The main reason no one is running the cartoons is that they are afraid.
About 10 years ago, the whole Danish cartoon controversy blew up – and I remember distinctly concluding that I would never have published them in The Spectator, which I edited, not just because they were gratuitously inflammatory, but because I didn’t see how I could justify my decision to the widows and orphans of my staff, in the event of an attack on our offices (and I note that one of the German publications to use the Charlie Hebdo cartoons has just been fire-bombed).
It is essential to admit this element of fear (and several editors have been candid enough to do so), because fear is a very bad and corrosive thing. Fear leads to anger. Fear leads to mistrust. Fear can make you irrational, and in the case of Islamist terrorism, the resulting fear can obviously encourage prejudice and division. Fear leads to hatred – and that is exactly what those terrorists hope to provoke. They want to see anti-Muslim marches of the kind that are now appearing in Germany; they want an anti-Muslim backlash; they want war; and it would be absolutely fatal if we were to allow ourselves to fall for it.
London was united in the aftermath of 7/7 – the terrible bombings that killed 52 people and injured 700 – because the Muslim communities of this country were able to show beyond doubt that the murders had not been done in their name. The same outpouring of feeling is happening now, and the same show of unity.
Many fine things have been said and done over the past few days, but some of the bravest words and deeds have come from Muslims. I think of the Muslim policeman, shot in cold blood as he lay on the pavement – try to watch that clip without weeping. I think of the Muslim shopworker, who helped hide some of the kosher supermarket customers in the cold store.
Across France, Britain and the rest of Europe, there are Muslim voices saying what needs to be said, like the Association of British Muslims – which issued a dignified and sensible statement, in which it not only condemned the killings in the strongest possible terms, but defended the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish the cartoons.
And my hero – the man who got straight to the point – was the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, himself a Muslim. “If you don’t like freedom,” he told the Dutch nation’s potential jihadists, “then pack your bags and leave. There may be a place where you can be yourself, so be honest with yourself, and don’t kill innocent journalists. If you don’t like freedom, then f— off.”
That is the voice of the Enlightenment, of Voltaire. We can and will protect this country against these jihadist thugs. We will bug them and monitor them and arrest them and prosecute them and jail them. But if we are going to win the struggle for the minds of these young people, then that is the kind of voice we need to hear – and it needs above all to be a Muslim voice.