As yesterday’s horrific events in Paris unfolded the airwaves and social media filled with shock and outrage, and rightly so. No one should be in doubt that these murders were highly cynical politically motivated actions calculated not only to silence the victims but the wider world. When we think of the people gunned down as they worked in their offices, we should also remember the larger target here was freedom of expression, yours and ours.
PEN International is a worldwide association of writers, editors, translators, journalists and academics which has been working to promote and defend freedom of expression for over ninety years. Many of the governments and public figures who will condemn this attack are themselves guilty of heinous crimes against humanity, of suppressing human rights and freedom of expression, and PEN campaigns against all who take such actions, from the US to Saudi Arabia , the UK to Russia – any regime, any religious cult, any political group, without fear or favour.
It takes genuine courage to speak truth to power, and perhaps even more guts to take such a visible public stance and poke fun at it. The Charlie Hebdo magazine and its variations have been doing just that for over fifty years on and off, through countless malicious libel actions and, in 1971, an outright ban by the then French Government. In 2005, like countless PEN members across the world, they stood in solidarity with the Danish cartoonists at the JP newspaper despite being diametrically opposed to that publication’s right-wing political stance. Charlie Hebdo, indeed, went further with its 2011 special ‘Charia Hebdo’ issue claiming to be “guest-edited” by the Prophet Mohammed with the quote, “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.” The evening before publication its offices were firebombed and its website hacked. Many in French society called for the magazine to show restraint and not to further inflame Islamic extremists.
In light of that it may seem an odd for Scottish PEN to say this but we too ask for restraint at this time though not in terms of your freedom of expression. If you do feel moved to express your feelings we simply ask people to be wary of allowing outrage to spill into hate speech against Moslems. The people who committed these cold-blooded killings are not Islam, they do not represent its hundreds of millions of followers or core beliefs any more than Anders Breivik represented Christianity. And make no mistake; these murderers want your hate almost as much as they want your fear. They want you to react against them and call them “Islam” to empower the illusion they are its true leaders, its most faithful adherents. That is a lie, and the cause of free expression – what the workers at Charlie Hebdo ultimately risked their lives for – can never be served by burying the truth under hate and lies.
Remember those who died by speaking truth to power, and supporting those who do.
President of the Scottish Centre of PEN International