It is little wonder that over a decade after the “war on terror” was declared terrorism is still going strong. Indeed, it is having rather a successful recruitment drive. It is not just that it provides a fulfilling ideology for young men and women to cling to, it is just so damnably effective! I do not refer to the people they have murdered, or the acts of terror they have committed, because actually these are few and far between and most attempts are thwarted. Yes, I know it is easy to forget that isn’t it? Statistically you have more chance of dying of food poisoning, or in a train crash or being drowned in the bath than of being killed in an act of terrorism. It is extremely unlikely to happen, you may as well worry about debris from space landing on your head. Yet something as statistically insignificant as death by terrorism can spread fear and hysteria through a populace, and allow a government to get away with investing vast amounts of money, enacting laws, removing liberties and declaring wars just to supposedly protect us from it.
The “war on terror” was declared in response to the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001, could the terrorists have hoped for a better response from the leading nations of the west? Trillions were spent, and thousands of lives lost, in fighting (and losing) disastrous wars. To defend “our values” against terrorists our governments have systematically betrayed them with paranoid authoritarianism. We fight the “war on terror” with vast increases in state power that destroys the liberty of our law abiding citizens. We are losing the war because our response to terrorism is to be afraid, to turn on each other and to betray the virtues that set us apart.
Terrorism only works when we allow it to. The Islamists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo staff claim another victory every time the media censor themselves by refusing to show the images that inspired the attack. How can the media properly report on this topic without printing the cartoons? They are conspicuous by their absence and self-censorship makes a bold political statement that read: you win terrorists and what is more, you were right. These double standards concede to the Islamist murderer’s demand that their deity be given special treatment, this must end now.
Charlie Hebdo was an easy target, why? Because they were isolated and stuck out like a sore thumb. They were making a stand and barely any other members of the so-called “free press” stood with them. If they had done so, and collectively, they could have spread the risk and faced the enemy down. Unfortunately, cowardice is part of a long term pattern and every time a great shock to the system occurs there is talk of it being a line in the sand that will change things fundamentally. I would dearly like to believe that liberal western countries, and their media and artistic industries, are going to wake up and stand up for their supposed values that they allegedly hold dear but their track record is poor.
If the hysterical response of Islamists to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent terror campaign against him and anyone affiliated with the book, didn’t inspire liberal countries to stand up for what they believe in, what will? So much for “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”, the author was instead criticised by many cultural and political figures at the time for his ‘insensitivity’. Rusdie has lived in some degree of fear for his life ever since but (thankfully) has been successfully protected, others have not been so lucky. The Italian translator of The Satanic Verses, Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed and seriously wounded, the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was murdered. The books Norwegian publisher Willian Bygaar survived an attempted murder in Oslo. In 1993 a Turkish cultural festival was set upon by a mob of Salafists aiming to murder Azin Nesin who had tried to get the novel published in Turkey. 37 people died, mostly intellectuals, artists and musicians but also several of the hotel staff.
That was a real test for of our resolve, a test that so many people sadly failed. Instead of defending freedom of expression and seeing through the Islamic world’s reaction as the ludicrous hysteria it was, some chose to criticise the quality of the book (as if that was even the point), some criticised the author for being offensive, some criticised the fact that the taxpayer would be funding the author’s security. Book burnings on the streets of Bradford, death threats for the writing of a novel, an author having to go into hiding, and people were still saying that perhaps he had it coming for being provocative and perhaps he should have known better. How sad. You can trace our cultural malaise back to 1989, that was when the era of the intolerant offence culture began, it has yet to come to an end.
18 years later, when Rushdie was up for a knighthood in 2007, there was predictable outrage in the Islamic world and amongst a minority of British Islamist lunatics who took to the streets to burn books, effigies of the author and the union flag. Even more predictable, and regrettable, was the cowardice and hand wringing evident in the prominent protests of some British politicians and intellectuals. Of course Rushdie had many staunch defenders,but the very fact that the question of “is this an insult to Muslims? was raised in response to the knighthood was a sign of severe timidity, and a complete misunderstanding of what was at stake. It was a potent reminder of the sad fact that a novel like The Satanic Verses simply would not get published now.
For decades now our artistic and journalistic culture has been constrained. How many other novels have been rejected because the publisher didn’t want to provoke the rage of terrorists? How many novelists have censored themselves? How many film makers have opted to play it safe? I don’t ask that we collectively and deliberately do what we can to provoke the Islamic world, I simply ask that we stop being afraid. That we stop making that possible offence our primary concern, that we stop censoring ourselves and that when another test of our resolve comes, we refuse to be intimidated. When Charlie Hebdo’s offices were bombed in 2011, they reprinted the cartoons to show that they would not back down in the face of terrorism; that takes courage. Because so few other people showed that courage the magazine and its staff was left to make a lonely stand.
After the uproar over the crude, but pretty innocuous, 2005 Danish cartoons no other major newspaper or magazine in Europe reprinted them. After the bombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011 the same whimpering cowardice prevailed. After the Paris shootings last week many failed the test once again. There were a few notable examples but at this stage it is difficult to believe that the tragedy will trigger the cultural shift that is so necessary.
This is not a “clash of civilisations”, that phrase is overblown, a tired neo-con relic from the build up to our foolish military campaigns. This battle is ideological, this war is cultural. We have to stand up for ourselves and flex our cultural muscles. Our response to terrorism should be proportionate and unyielding. We must refuse to be panicked into a knee jerk overreaction in which we enact further illiberal laws. This generational struggle is temporary, but the virtues of our culture can last forever if we refuse to surrender them. If anything, we should be repealing laws; defending our freedom by increasing it. The media should reach a consensus in which it refuses to be gagged and stops censoring itself, if a picture of Muhammed is central to the news report, print or show the damn thing!
Above all else I pray for an unrestrained artistic renaissance. This is a time when people are being murdered because of cartoons, when a few loons can gag the mass media. When small terrorist groups can send the whole western world into a spasm of war and paranoid delusion. When disillusioned young people are being indoctrinated with a radical ideology and turning to murder and terror, when a stagnant religion shackles the mind of vast swathes of British Muslims and hinders their integration. When the hypocritical governments of the west are ever expanding and using a climate of fear to increase and consolidate their power. Now is the time for untrammelled plain speaking, criticism, analysis and satire. Come authors, poets, film makers, artists and writers, all, please heed the call!