Looking at the blasted-out print works where the Kouachi brothers holed up after their campaign of terror at Charlie Hebdo last week, an elderly Parisian told me with tears in his eyes: “There is no more liberty in France.”
Liberty has been a dearly held and dearly won right in France, even more so than in other Western countries. This has come home to me as I reported on the events of the last week in Paris. Some 40,000 “enemies of the revolution” died during the French Revolution, between the guillotine and summary executions. From the violence of the revolution emerged the three defining values held most dear by the nascent Republic – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, which originated as a popular slogan of the revolutionaries.
Today we in the West hold the freedom of the individual, including freedom of expression, as sacrosanct – a view we tend to imagine is universally accepted. It is not. There are many parts of the world that place little value on the rights of the individual. Generally in the Muslim world and Confucius-influenced China, the emphasis is on elders and the family over personal fulfilment.
As the story of the murder of 12 people at the satirical magazine broke last week, I was in Calais interviewing a Syrian refugee called Mohammed who had fled a call-up by Bashir Assad’s army and was trying to making his way to the UK. He immediately condemned the violence, saying: “This is not Islam,” but added that the magazine should not have published pictures of Muhammad. For him, respecting Muhammad was vastly more important than freedom of expression.
While my interviewee is a moderate Muslim, he appeared to prove comments by the hate preacher Anjem Choudary yesterday that Muslims do not all believe in full freedom of expression.
Choudary wrote to USA Today: "Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires." He also points out that at certain times, for example in the use of extraordinary rendition and restriction of movement of terror suspects, we in the West have been willing to sacrifice some of our civil liberties.
He tweeted on 7 January:
If freedom of expression can be sacrificed for criminalising incitement & hatred, Why not for insulting the Prophet of Allah? #ParisShooting— Anjem Choudary (@anjemchoudary) January 7, 2015
When I interviewed Michele Catalano, the owner of the print works, who was held hostage by Said and Cherif Louachi as they made their final stand. I asked him if he was sorry that the brothers died. The question seemed to pull him in two directions and he choked up. He said that they had shown him humanity, and he regretted that two young people had lost their lives.
Despite the attack on one of the founding principles of the nation, liberty, another, fraternity, appears to be helping to hold the country together. But one cannot be sacrificed for the other. France needs to find a way to convince its Muslims to embrace all the three tenets of the Republic. Or we may face a conflict that will play out for decades all around the globe.
Hannah Roberts writes for The Tablet from Rome