The only respectful way to mark the first anniversary of the Paris killings is to honour the memory of the dead by fighting for the Enlightenment values they lived by and died for. Whether we can is moot. Anglo-Saxon societies have enjoyed the privilege of Enlightenment freedoms for so long our defences have fallen into disrepair. We fool ourselves into thinking we are in a post-Enlightenment world. The old battles appear dead and gone, even though all around us murderous fanatics remind us that they intend to fight the war all over again.
People who call themselves liberals would not be as keen on censorship as the conservatives and bishops of previous centuries if they could not subconsciously reassure themselves that their Enlightenment freedoms at least were safe and no one would come for them. Assuming, that is, the thoughtless prigs know what the Enlightenment was.
Kant provided a guide for the uninitiated. What is Enlightenment? he asked in 1784. It was nothing less than the freedom to argue for your own ideas without being forced to comply by authoritarians: the general who says: “Do not argue – drill!”; the taxman who says: “Do not argue – pay!”; the priest who says: “Do not argue – believe!” To overcome them, you must first understand that “the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind”.
Charlie Hebdo was free at all times and dared to exercise its freedom in public. So many lies have been told about it by the regressive left that I must remind you that its journalists were at the forefront of the campaigns against the French far right and in favour of asylum seekers.
But it would not refuse to mock sharia law because polite society preferred to look away. Nor could its journalists in conscience lay into the Catholic church, while leaving radical Islam alone. Where is the satirical edginess in savaging the beliefs of Catholics, who will not murder you, while passing on Islamists who might?
For this, they died and the clerical gang that murdered them made their counter-Enlightenment intentions plain by going on to murder Jews, the favoured target of lethal reactionary power from the Inquisition to the Nazis.
Kant’s generals, governments and priests bawl orders to this day. To update him, however, we would need to add an authoritarian the 18th century could not have imagined: the pseudo-liberal who says: “Do not argue – respect!” They were bawling at the Parisian dead before their graves were dug and the loudest bawls came from Pope Francis. Far too few people can see that he is now at the centre of two malign forms of western self-deception. Liberals reveal their absence of principle by treating him as His Progressive Holiness. Equally smug conservatives use him to justify the unearned notion of western religious superiority over other faiths.
I’m damned if I can see any moral superiority, liberal, conservative or otherwise. The pope responded to the murders of satirists by lecturing their corpses. You cannot insult or make fun of the faith of others, he said, as he came as close as he dared to blaming the victims. A man’s religion was like his mother, he added. And anyone who insulted his mother could “expect a punch”.
The Vatican … tried to pretend that militant religion had nothing to do with religion
Last week, the Vatican changed its line without changing its mind, the tactic of every cornered propagandist in history. Perhaps it realised that the pope’s claim that you could not satirise militant religion without expecting a punch in the face or a bullet in the head might unnerve even the most uncritical churchgoers. Instead, it tried to pretend that militant religion had nothing to do with religion.
Hebdo had marked the grim anniversary by putting a cartoon of a blood-spattered God carrying an assault rifle on its cover. “The assassin is still out there”, read the headline. Rather than have the sense and decency to keep its mouth shut, the Vatican denounced Hebdo for “hiding behind the deceitful flag of an uncompromising secularism” – this about a magazine that never “hid” from danger and whose staff had been the victims of truly “uncompromising” murderers.
Religious leaders of different beliefs rejected violence, the Vatican daily, Osservatore Romano, continued, in defiance of all contrary evidence. Indeed, that great moral authority Pope Francis himself had said: “Using God to justify hatred is an authentic blasphemy.”
Few protested. Challenging the Vatican would have meant breaking with a clash-of-civilisations myth that runs from the white far-right way into the mainstream of politics. Judaeo-Christian culture is inherently more civilised than Islam, the argument goes. It produced democracy and human rights, while the luckless believers in lesser creeds groaned under tyrannies. Our traditions alone mean that the pope would, of course, regard religious hatred as a blasphemy.
Cultural conservatives do not want to be reminded that there is no Islamist crime so great the Judaeo-Christian tradition did not once authorise it. The Iranian judiciary murders gays and Islamic State throws them from tall buildings to delight the faithful. The Book of Leviticus would approve. It says that men who have sex with each other “shall surely be put to death”.
Assad, Iran and Hezbollah engage in the mass murder of Sunnis. Isis returns the compliment and takes Yazidi, Shia and Christian women as their sex slaves. But then Moses commanded the Israelites to fall upon their enemies and kill everyone except “women that have not known a man by lying with him”. Those they could keep for themselves.
It may be objected that the New Testament is less gory that the Old. But Christ no more forbad slavery, rape, torture and genocide than did the Ten Commandments. Christians in power engaged in orgies of persecution of one another, of non-believers, of witches and of Jews. Indeed, the true Judaeo-Christian tradition was the 1,600-year tradition of Christians murdering Jews. What civilisation Judaism and Christianity possess came from the outside. They did not reform themselves, which is why calls for a Muslim reformation so spectacularly miss the point. Civilisation came from the battering that religion took from the Enlightenment, from sceptics, scientists, mockers and philosophers, who destroyed their myths and exposed the immorality of their taboos.
Charlie Hebdo told us a truth that too many do not like to admit: anyone who tries to do the same to Islam today can end up dead.