6 weeks ago the horrifying murders at Charlie Hebdo took place, a mass murder on a continent synonymous with civilisation and peace. The largest solidarity marches in history swept across Europe, with 3.7 million marching in France alone, many holding up signs "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie").
I am still not sure whether or not I would say "I am Charlie", though. The murder was horrific, 11 people killed for exercising their freedom of speech. There was, and could be, no justification for those murders. I remember back when the Danish cartoons were published, I had a long discussion with my brother Russell about whether they should have been allowed - I took the hard line that there should never be any bans on offending people.
In America there is a robust voice that Charlie Hebdo crossed a line. This voice contains some from the right, who believe that religion has a special status and should be protected from insult, and some from the left, who claim that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were racist or that Islam should be respected. I disagree that Charlie Hebdo crossed a line, indeed, I disagree that a line even exists. Religion gets no exemption from mockery; indeed, as a source of the ludicrous it should attract more. I am strongly against the "blasphemy laws" (eg, the 2009 Irish law) that rear their ugly head when religious people want to protect themselves from criticism. I'm also not convinced that the cartoons are racist, I have seen a few examples that at face value look racist, but context is missing and satirical humour is very hard to translate across cultural boundaries. I personally don't find the cartoons funny, but then I don't even find American political cartoons funny, despite loving Australian political cartoons and being intimately familiar with the American context. And insulting someone's religion is very difficult from insulting a person, even if it may feel the same to the recipient. No, in every way, shape and form, I have no reservation in affirming the right of Charlie Hebdo in drawing the cartoons, and, indeed, even commend them for tackling a taboo subject.
So why, then, do I hesitate in tacking up the banner "Je Suis Charlie"? One problem is that I am not Charlie. I'm not a political cartoonist, I didn't read Charlie Hebdo, I wasn't killed for my beliefs. The millions who did say "Je Suis Charlie" also don't fit these criteria, so what exactly do they mean when they say "I am Charlie"? I'm not sure, which is my second problem with tacking up the banner. Some (hopefully most) simply mean "I believe in freedom of speech and secular values". Almost certainly, though, others are standing for something that combines this solidarity with an anti-Islam agenda. My thoughts on Islam are rather complex. Yes, it is a religion, and in dogma and in practice it stifles scientific and progressive thoughts. On the other hand, in this it is not notably different from Christianity or Judaism, so I strongly disagree when Islam (rather than religion more generally) is targeted for reproach. Most of the anti-Islamic movements in the western world reek of bigotry, lack a sophisticated understanding of Islam or the intersection of religion and culture, and push regressive, rather than progressive, positions. In short, while being anti-religion, I tend to find myself defending Islam more often than not, as it gets attacked disproportionately and often from the wrong angles.
One question that keeps on rolling around my head is why there were no international marches saying "I am the Norwegian left". The Kouachi brothers killed 11 left-wing journalists, justifying the murders as an extreme right-wing defence of Islam. Breivik killed 77 left-wing politicians, justifying the murders as an extreme right-wing defence of Christianity. I understand both Paris and Oslo having enormous marches (1.6 million and 200,000 is roughly proportional to population size), but the Oslo killings didn't spark the personal intensity of international solidarity of the Paris killings, or even check the growth of the far-right politics that spawned it. Is part of the "Je Suis Charlie" call co-opted by the likes of Pegida, the anti-Islam movement in Germany?
Perhaps, rather than embrace a slogan that I am not quite sure I want to be associated with, I'll just express my anger at the murders in my own words. I embrace free speech. I encourage blasphemy and despise violence. The victims of violence have my sympathy, as do those brainwashed into committing it. Long may France, and Europe, practice what others only preach - an assertive secularism and a refusal to cower in the face of aggression. We won't sacrifice our lifestyle in a misguided attempt to find security under the blanket of cowardice. We grieve, but we also understand that life cannot be ruled by fear.