My first reaction to last week's murders was one of anger against Islam and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. When I looked at some of the past front covers of the magazine, though, my sympathies began to shift. You might like to look at some of them here and make up your mind: http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/charlie-hebdo-front-covers#.fgJ9pj39W .
Nobody has a right not to be offended, and nobody has a right to kill over an insult. That is for sure. What the terrorists did was utterly wrong. But we might want to reflect a little before we start wielding the 'je suis Charlie' placards down Berkhamsted High Street.
It is hard for us to understand the extent of Muslim offence at the portrayal of their prophet. Yet Christians too have rioted and killed over the very same issue of religious images, first in the 8-9th century iconoclastic crises in the East, and later in the West during the 16th century Protestant Reformations.
Yet this pales compared with the horrors of the French Revolution, two centuries later. In 1789, the rights of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité were declared. A new calendar was created, starting at year 1 and eliminating all Sundays and Christian festivals. In 1792, two thousand Christians were butchered for practising their religion. In 1793, some 55,000 were killed, and the entirety of the Vendée region sentenced to death for rising up in the name of God and King: women and children were made the priority for killing, by mass drownings, shootings, poisoning and even being roasted alive in ovens. By 1794, teh death toll was about 250,000 and only 150 of France's 40,000 parishes still celebrated Mass. Incredibly, all this was done in the name of 'Enlightenment.'
We are often rightly called to task for glorifying our military history and brushing over our nation's historical crimes. Our commemoration of the First World War, for example, seems to forget our historical role in starting it through our imperialistic expansion in the previous century, and the bloodshed that came in our wake. Perhaps this is an apposite time to remember post-Revolutionary France's established pedigree of bullying religious minorities. It might make us a little less keen to wave the tricoleur and hautily vaunt France's 'Republican values.'
As a matter of free speech, journalists have every right to abuse minorities— but that does not mean it is a right they should exercise. This week's massive, multilingual print run of Charlie Hebdo featuring a drawing of Mohammed on the cover is like someone running round the streets swearing at every Muslim he meets. We should ask ourselves whether that is that a noble and just use of freedom of expression, and whether it makes the argument for the right to free speech stronger or rather weakens it.