Monday, 12 January 2015

Je Suis A Pencil Sharpener

Amidst the chorus of righteous indignation and pithy cartoons which poured scorn in a fairly safe way on the attacks in Paris last week, this simple yet quite powerful image by the French artist Lucille Clerc (and not by Banksy, as many originally thought.)

The painfully obvious message is that you can't shoot freedom of expression, and we will come back stronger. The less obvious point, perhaps made inadvertently is that between the tragic breaking of the pencil last week and the coming back stronger someone has actually made a conscious decision to get a pencil sharpener out and sharpen the broken end. They haven't put an eraser on it, or forbidden that pencil ever be used to mock Islam, or even included guidelines on cultural understanding. They have sharpened the broken part so that the resulting two pencils can draw twice as much of whatever it was that offended in the first place. This is not so much a message of passive resilience to violent attack as it is a message of an aggressive and active response to an assault on our way of life.

So what should that pencil sharpener be? It's hard to imagine the sorry morass of faux "defiance" offered by most of the world's media, or retweeting "Je Suis Charlie" to a bunch of keyboard warriors is much help. This sort of weakness has been a defining feature of our supposed war on terror at home, and it has failed miserably. 

Terrorist spokesman Anjem Choudary, improbably writing for USA Today, made it very clear why the pencils are being broken: because the French government "allowed" the cartoonists to insult his prophet. This passage in particular leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever that Choudary is on the side of the shooters:

Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, "Whoever insults a Prophet kill him."

Muslims, according to Choudary are obligated to defend Muhammad, and the punishment for mocking him is death. 

This view is, needless to say, simply incompatible with life in a liberal western democracy. There's no compromise to be reached and no qualifications needed. If you believe that, then you are placing yourself firmly on the side of terrorism. 

The idea that it is prosperous and stable western democracies who ought to change our way of life and centuries old political traditions to accommodate the views of maniacs like Choudary is absurd. These views are widely held in Nigeria and Afghanistan, in Somalia and Syria and they bring misery, poverty and violence to each of these places, on a scale which thankfully remains extremely rare in the western world. But not rare enough.

The sharpening of pencils needed is to stamp such behaviour out entirely and decisively. There is no room for compromise on this. Freedom of expression must be non-negotiable, leaving the only logical course of action for Choudary to move to a country where he is comfortable with the laws. Any yielding, any restraint or compromise of this principle is as good as a total surrender. It will simply make them stronger and more determined.

Choudary, like most of his ilk has been arrested on several occasions and given the usual meaningless fines and discharges, and carried on with his mission of trying to stir up a religious war in the west. In France last week they basically succeeded, briefly. In huge swathes of Africa and Asia they have succeeded already and the result is horrific. Consider that "in other news" last week some 2,000 people were feared dead in the town of Baga in northern Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram. We absolutely can not and should not tolerate it happening here on any scale.

When people are prosecuted for terrorist offences they must be viewed not simply as misguided fools who have gone off the rails but as enemy combatants who are a very real and immediate threat to the peace and freedom of the western world. Releasing them to continue in their holy war is utter madness and will only reinforce the notion that we lack the moral courage to stand for the beliefs and laws which have served us so well. 

Our pencil sharpener must shave away the vague and pathetic notions of tolerance, and the limp wristed folly that dictates that we ought to respect people's religious beliefs, however absurd and violent they are, down to a fine and focused tip unashamedly highlighting the superiority of an open and uninhibited society over the orgy of violence and destruction which fundamentalist Islam seeks to replace it with.