As the dust begins to settle on those recent horrendous events in Paris, a clearer sense of perspective is starting to creep in round the edges. The Pope suggests that those who are too provocative to Islam can expect “a punch”. And even a co-founder of Charlie Hebdo says that its murdered editor’s urge to provoke had “dragged the team to its death”.
As the original editor of Private Eye, who over the years has probably contributed as many words as anyone to its “satirical” pages, I’m afraid that I have looked askance at much of what has been said and written about these events in recent days.
When David Cameron announced on Twitter that he was joining that vast rally in Paris “to celebrate the values of Charlie Hebdo”, one wondered whether he had even previously heard of that little magazine, let alone looked at its pages. Did he really wish to celebrate crude cartoons showing a naked Mohammed with a star coming out of his bottom, captioned: “A star is born”? Or another, captioned “The film that embraces all the Muslim world”, showing a naked Prophet holding a camera to his bottom, saying: “And my ass? You love my ass”?
Did our Prime Minister really want to applaud a picture of the Pope, scantily clad as a Rio prostitute, saying: “Ready for anything to win some clients?” Even these are only among the images available online. A friend living in France tells me of others even more dubious, showing Jesus masturbating, or the Virgin Mary engaging in sexual acts.
If this is meant to be “satire” that only someone without “a sense of humour” would find offensive, I suppose some might point to that strain of British cartooning exemplified by Gerald Scarfe. For decades, he has repeated images of some powerful man exposing his bottom to a lesser figure trying to kiss it. At different times, these might have represented Harold Wilson grovelling behind President Lyndon Johnson, or Tony Blair likewise behind President Bush, or David Cameron with Rupert Murdoch.
But I am not sure that this has ever represented satire at the wittiest and cleverest level of which it is capable. (The only cartoon on recent events that prompted me to a faint smile was handed to me by my friend Ian Hislop: it showed a masked terrorist standing with his gun over a dead cartoonist, saying “He drew first”.)
In trying to understand in human terms why this particular conflict came to such a gruesome climax, we must also call into play the plight of those five million Algerians living in France. For decades, they have lived as third-class citizens, stuffed away in the ghastly concrete suburbs of Paris and other cities, treated with contempt by the authorities and horrifying violence by the police, and this has created a sense of utter alienation and despair.
It is out of that rejection that the terrorists came, with murder in their hearts, seeking deadly revenge for the deliberate insults given to the religion which, however pervertedly, gave them a sense of identity. Thus did we see yet again that age-old pattern whereby opposing extremes feed on their obsessive hatred for each other.
All this culminated in last Sunday’s extraordinary display of emotion on the streets of Paris, led by an array of besuited “world leaders”, with television interviewers rushing round trying to get people to explain why they had wanted to join this demonstration of “solidarity”. With shining exceptions, they replied like automata that they were there to support “democracy” and “the right to free speech”.
No sooner did these pious phrases emerge than one began to wonder how meaningful it is any longer to talk about “democracy” in a Europe where people have never felt more estranged from their politicians – and where they are now so lost and unhappy in the grip of that great act of make-believe, the “European Union”.
How ironic, one thought, that this mass demonstration in favour of “the freedom of the press” should take place in a country whose “Ministry of Culture” has lately detailed the huge state subsidies given to France’s leading newspapers, to help keep its press more cowed and tightly controlled than any west of Russia.
In a time when there is such pressure to prevent people saying things that do not conform with group-think – when every kind of “political correctness” rules; when Christians are arrested for quoting the Bible in the street, for fear of giving “offence to minorities”; when boarding-house owners are prosecuted for not wishing to let rooms to gay couples; when there are calls for “climate change deniers” to be sacked or put on trial; when judges repeatedly threaten people with imprisonment for trying to expose the travesties of justice in their “child protection” system – who really knows what “freedom of speech” is any longer?
There has been no better comment on the clouds of humbug recently billowing in all directions than the admission of BBC employees that they are under an edict from apparatchiks on high that they must not on any account describe to their audiences the contents of any of those Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
It is the kind of thing that made me want to put a collective photo-bubble on those shots of the politicians leading two million people through the streets, all in grey unanimity, intoning the words of the old song, “Clap hands, here comes Charlie”. They didn’t really have the faintest idea what they were talking about.
Christopher Booker, an English journalist and author.