Sarah Palin – or someone pretending to be Sarah Palin – has tweeted that Salman Rushdie should invite Pamela Geller to the PEN gala dinner. She’s right. Geller is no pussy. She has courageously expressed her views that Muslims should be expelled from the US and Europe, that they pray five times a day for the deaths of Christians and Jews, that Obama is the love child of Malcolm X and frequents 'crack whores', that the State Department, the American media and Campbell’s Soup have been taken over by 'Islamic supremacists', and so on.
The frat-boy humour magazine Charlie Hebdo is unfortunately back in the news. Six writers who were scheduled to be 'table hosts' at the annual PEN American Center gala in New York – tickets start at $1250 – have refused to attend after it was announced that the surviving staff of Charlie was to be awarded the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the dinner. The response to the six has been almost uniformly negative. Salman Rushdie, for one, who has turned PEN American into his little fiefdom, charmingly tweeted that they are 'pussies'. Others have even accused the writers of being apologists for terrorism.
I woke yesterday morning to the news that the vice chancellor’s office at Queen’s University in Belfast had cancelled a symposium, due to take place in June at the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. ‘Incomplete risk assessment’ was the reason given. All day yesterday I kept schtum. Too busy working. At least I convinced myself that was the reason. When I woke in the early hours of this morning I wondered if I hadn’t actually been carrying out a bit of risk assessment of my own.
I don’t know when ‘banlieue’ became a word in English, but it’s in a 1990 edition of Chambers as ‘precinct, extra-mural area, suburb’. Many people living in the rougher outskirts of France’s cities prefer the expression ‘quartiers populaires’; others use the word ‘cités’: working-class neighbourhoods where architects, planners and commissioning bodies created huge, affordable housing projects half a century ago (long horizontal ‘barres’ and grandiose high rise set the tone). The rundown cités at the margins of Paris, Marseille, Lyon and other major cities are once again under inspection after the 7-9 January killings: Amady Coulibaly, who murdered the policewoman in Montrouge and the four Jews in Paris, grew up in a dismal estate south of the capital. ‘Ghetto’ and ‘apartheid’, words already murmured whenever France talks to itself about these places, are now spoken openly. The prime minister, Manuel Valls, used ‘apartheid’ in a recent speech about urban segregation.
Last week François Hollande wished teachers in France a happy new year and announced a plan to create ‘citizen reserves’ for schools: volunteers drafted in to inculcate a proper sense, in the wake of the 7-9 January killings, of how the country’s meant to work. Who would these reservists be? Journalists, lawyers and unspecified ‘cultural actors’. The president talked up secularism (la laïcité) and reminded teachers, if they hadn’t known before, that religion has no place in schools. Though ‘there can be lay instruction about religions.’
A hundred pages into Soumission by Michel Houellebecq the narrator’s on-off sexual partner announces that she and her parents are leaving France for Israel. We’re between the two rounds of the 2022 French presidential elections, with the Front National out ahead in a run-off against the Muslim Brothers; it looks as if the old parties – big centrist machines – are about to be mothballed along with the Fifth Republic.
Uri Avnery on Binyamin Netanyahu's marching in Paris: I have been in many demonstrations in my time, maybe more than 500, but always against the powers that be. I have never participated in a demonstration called by the government, even when the purpose was good. They remind me too much of the late Soviet Union, Fascist Italy and worse. Not for me, thank you. But this particular demonstration was also counterproductive. Not only did it prove that terrorism is effective, not only did it invite copycat attacks, but it also hurt the real fight against the fanatics.
Paris yesterday: all copies of the post-mortem Charlie Hebdo issue with the Prophet on the front, a tear in his eye, rapidly sold out. In our local backwater in the south-west, I’d already driven to the nearest newsagent. There, too, sold out. ‘They should have sent us 150 copies,’ the man on the till explained, ‘but we only got 11.’ Then came news of a massive new run, bringing the total number of copies to five million, with deliveries to retail outlets spread over several days. But this morning it was the same story: every copy gone by eight in the morning, though this time the local shop only received six. Tomorrow for sure.
The march in Paris on Sunday was called originally in honour of the dead at Charlie Hebdo’s offices. In the meantime the dead had become more numerous. By the time the marchers reached Place de la Nation yesterday many were carrying A4 print-outs reading ‘Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis flic.’ In addition to three dead police officers, four Jewish French citizens had died in the kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes. The mood among yesterday’s vast crowds was quietly upbeat and self-assured. We were all ‘Charlie’ and we knew we were marching in step. Occasionally you saw the name Yoav (son of the chief rabbi in Tunis who was killed in Porte de Vincennes) on a home print-out. Often, when the crowd passed the rows of police vans lining the route there was spontaneous applause. By the time participants arrived at the destination and solemnity was no longer in order, a group of Syrian oppositionists began chanting: ‘Je suis Syrien, je suis Charlie.’ There were large pencils everywhere in evidence, one mutating into a Kalashnikov, with a shoulder-butt and magazine clip. A desultory teenager – 15 at most – strolled beside his parents with a placard reading: ‘Culture murdered by barbarians.’ A niggling wind got up but the Place de la Nation was becoming a happy-sad party by the time I left, around seven. Everyone was Charlie, for a day.
After 9/11, Le Monde declared: ‘Nous sommes tous Américains.’ The love affair was short-lived: as soon as the French declined to join the war against Iraq, American pundits called them ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and French fries were renamed ‘freedom fries’. When Obama took office, relations warmed, but the tables were turned: the new administration in Washington shied from foreign adventures, while the Elysée adopted a muscular stance in Libya and Mali, and promoted a more aggressive response to Bashar al-Assad's assault on the Syrian rebellion. Neoconservatives who had vilified the surrender monkeys now looked at them with envy. Today a new cry can be heard among intellectuals in the US: ‘Je suis Charlie.’ It is a curious slogan, all the more so since few of the Americans reciting it had ever heard of, much less read, Charlie Hebdo before the 7 January massacre. What does it mean, exactly? Seen in the best light, it means simply that we abhor violence against people exercising their democratic right to express their views. But it may also be creating what the French would call an amalgame, or confusion, between Charlie Hebdo and the open society of the West. In this sense, the slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ is less an expression of outrage and sympathy than a declaration of allegiance, with the implication that those who aren't Charlie Hebdo are on the other side, with the killers, with the Islamic enemy that threatens life in the modern, democratic West, both from outside and from within.
Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders has solemnly reaffirmed the right to joke. The French state – which banned the magazine three times between 1961 and 1970 – has piled in to defend laicity. A humid stupor presents itself as moral clarity, voiced by such statespeople as Le Pen, Wilders and Farage. Liberals, who tend to distance themselves from Thomas Hobbes’s account of state power, have as partial a view of it as he did. Hobbes thought physical security mattered so much that people would trade most of their rights to get it. Liberals see the trade as overpriced, because it may well include things like free speech. Hobbes was clear-eyed about that. But he was much less clear on the other side of the question, as regards those for whom worldly security matters less than, say, their eschatological destiny. Either the concern for security lacks the decisive force that Hobbes needs it to have, or it has it, but recast as security not for one’s mortal coil, but one’s eternal soul. The avatars of modern jihadis spook the pages of Leviathan, and were hardly unknown to Hobbes: Thomas Harrison, a New Model Army commander and puritan fanatic, used to yodel ecstatically in battle when he saw royalists being run through. Hobbes’s case for obedience is vulnerable not only to liberal goods, but distinctly illiberal ones.
At the time of writing, ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are reported dead following this morning’s attack on the paper’s offices off the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. They include the editor Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu) and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous). Two police officers are dead and five other people are seriously wounded. Only a narrow provincialism imagines that blasphemy is not a dangerous pastime. But Charlie Hebdo isn’t a cosy backwater: it has always blasphemed in earnest, as a vocational duty with high attendant risks; the signs are pretty clear so far that this terrible attack was carried out as a lesson of some kind.