Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Bastille Day Reign of Terror in Nice, France – Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Terror claims 84 lives in Nice, France

During Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, a French-Tunisian has used a 19-tonne lorry to mow down revellers and civilians, and to shoot at police before he was killed himself. This is France’s second large-scale terror atrocity in 8 months since Paris’ Bataclan and third since Charlie Hebdo. Whilst Liberté, égalité, fraternité (ou la mort) was the cry of the French Revolution and last night’s revelries, life and liberty have been taken from many, including 10 children, due to someone’s lack of belief in equality and fraternity.

French flag 3 terror attacks, Charlie Hebdo, Paris Bataclan, Nice
Three terror attacks in 18 months: Charlie Hebdo, Paris Bataclan, Nice

It is time to assert our common humanity and not ideological differences, although the exact motivation and any affiliation of the heinous act are not yet known. Neighbours described Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as a divorced loner who was not evidently religious, nor had any known terrorist leanings according to security services. Yet, people are jumping to condemn Islam, Muslims, immigration, rather than the possibilty of his being a ‘lone wolf’ attacker or disturbed individual.

French prime minister, Manuel Valls, said in a statement:

“We are facing a war that terrorism has started against us. The objective of the terrorists is to instil fear and panic…Times have changed and we should learn to live with terrorism. We have to show solidarity and collective calm. France has been hit in its soul on 14 July, our national day. They wanted to attack the unity of the French nation. The only dignified response is that France will remain loyal to the spirit of 14 July and its values.” – Manuel Valls

President of the Nice region, Christian Estrosi, has held a press conference, in which he said:

“This is the worst catastrophe our region has seen in modern history. We now have to mobilise all of our services, all the psychologists, volunteers who are trained to help fellow human beings. We will work with the imams, priests and rabbis who will also join us to help the victims and families who are suffering and will probably never heal their wounds … I want to thank people who welcomed passersby and those people who show us tonight that hopefully, solidarity still exists in a world that is too egoistical and individualistic.” – Christian Estrosi

Jump to my personal response.

National & International Responses

Kneejerk responses have followed, with not a little emphasis on the ‘jerk’, coming from Donald Trump, “declaring war on terrorism” – we are here in part due to Bush’s “war on terror” and the criminal targeting and bombing of countries not individuals and ideologies. Trump also called for “extreme vetting”, a ban on immigration from terrorist countries and when challenged about home-grown terrorism, such as Orlando, said that “second generation” immigrants were “very bad” too.

Front National‘s leader, Marine Le Pen, speaking to Le Figaro called for “the closure of salafist mosques” amongst other right wing responses including this: “The war against the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism has not started, it is urgent now to declare”, all that before any evidence it was extremist Islamist.

Meanwhile, President’s Hollande’s threat to scale-up French intervention in Syria and Iraq, is incendiary and not helpful.

Germany and Italy have ordered tighter border controls with France.

Theresa May said a similar attack in the UK was “highly likely” and called for new police powers. She said that “The United Kingdom stands shoulder to shoulder with France”, well shoulder to shoulder in the future from outside the European Union. What a time to be leaving. The European Arrest Warrant applies to all 28 EU nations plus Norway and Switzerland, but obviously not Canada – the Single European Market model that David Davis, Brexit Minister, is in favour of adopting.

Jeremy Corbyn, on behalf of the Labour Party said this:

“Those killed yesterday will doubtless have been of different religions, ethnicities and nationalities. It was an attack on us all, attempting to set people against each other. That is why instead, we stand together, now and always, in defense of tolerance, peace and justice.” – Jeremy Corbyn

Jump to my personal response.

Social Media Response

Social Media was using numerous hashtags to stay up to date with the attack and offer support: #NiceAttack, ‪#‎JeSuisNice,‬ ‪#‎PrayForNice,‬ ‪#‎PortesOuvertesNice‬.

I have to admit to having a problem with #PrayForNice. Prayer doesn’t stop hate, indeed some prayers – Jewish, Christian and Muslim, incentivise it. Loving action stops hate. Loving acceptance, prevents it breeding in the first place.

Newspaper Headlines

Torn between “Tour de Farce” and Tory reshuffle headlines the newspapers couldn’t pull their first editions quick enough. Headline writers were regretting their already gone-to-print titles that ran with Brexit bloodbath or Cabinet massacre, etc. Political careers cut short, would seem so facile by the second editions which carried details of the actual bloodbath and massacre in ‪#Nice‬.

Sports pages ran with “Tour de Farce” and described Froome being “forced to run as crowds cause Tour farce” meanwhile in Nice crowds were running for their lives from a lorry and its driver intent on running or gunning them down.

“We left just before the truck came and then I looked out of the window and saw a river of people running and crying. It looked like the apocalypse but I didn’t know what was going on.” – Leila Pasini

Business paper City A.M. ran with an image of sniper’s crosshairs describing Theresa May’s “taking aim at Whitehall departments”

The Daily Mirror initially had a Coronation Street storyline about the death of Kylie Platt on the street’s cobbles – rather too close to people lying dead on the streets of Nice. Beneath that, it had Jeremy Hunt boasting about rumours of his (political) death being greatly exaggerated.

Daily Mirror 15 July 2016 front page first second editions
Daily Mirror 15 July 2016 front page first v second editions

Sailing By & Shipping Forecast Calm

My own reflections on Nice went through a distant relative grief process, as I feel a European more than a Brit and spoke at a Charlie Hebdo memorial in January last year. After the sadness and anger,  needed catharsis – and for that I turned to writing and the shipping forecast!

My first response was to keep up with the news barrage, mainly over social media and the Guardian live updates which trumped the BBC for immediacy. Sucked in like a Stockholm Syndrome victim it became hard to pull away from the uncertainty of whether it was over or was it only the beginning of multiple attacks. After several hours and the final midnight news broadcast, I ended up listening to BBC Radio 4’s “Sailing By” and the Shipping Forecast for their mundane reassurance that the world hadn’t gone mad, or had it? At least with the weather, a storm blows out, a flood abates, but the escalation of extremist terror seems to just keep coming like an undead zombie horde amidst a Game of Thrones winter.

Blame brought no resolution, nor is revolution and fresh invasion of the axes of evil. Evolution, on the other hand, is. Not a survival of the fittest, the ones with the biggest guns, cruelest views, etc, but an evolution of recognition of our common humanity, fellow human rights, freedoms to coexist, communicate, collaborate, learn from and love each other, irrespective of creed, colour, gender or sexuality.

A month ago, I spoke at an Orlando vigil and quoted MLK whose words remain as true as ever:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King

Pulp‘s Jarvis Cocker chose “Sailing By” as one of his Desert Island Discs, saying for many years that he’d used it “as an aid to restful sleep”

After the sadness and the solace came the guilt that I couldn’t pull away from other people’s pain, that what was real and terrifying for them was a distance news addiction for me. That each individual loss or injury was just a journalistic bean counter increasing and updating as the night dragged on. I had also begun writing and reflecting upon Baghdad’s worst ever post-war atrocity and not been able to post it or a #JeSuisBaghdad update as I’d done before because I was embedded in the outcome of the EU Referendum and pro-EU and anti-hate rallies ever since.

How do I go outside tomorrow and look at the sky, the birds, a flower, and regain my faith in humanity, in human nature? I don’t believe in a biblical Fall anymore, but are we not fallen, flawed?

Fortunately, my faith in humankind is renewed by acts of love and community, as when people rallied round the arson-attacked Eastern European shop on Magdalen St in Norwich, when 200 lovebombed the store, when 400 showed up to support Norwich migrant communities this week, when 2000 peacefully countered and overwhelmed an EDL demonstration in 2012 here.

Like as morning follows night, so my hope will rise anew with the dawn, well perhaps a little later, around coffee time…

Je Suis Tous Le Monde

What is happening in Nice happens nearly every day in Iraq, frequently in Syria, increasingly often in Turkey, and worryingly 3 times in 18 months in France.

A year on from Charlie Hebdo freedom of expression and criticism vital

Charlie Hebdo Anniversary

It is a year since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, already dwarfed as a massacre by the Paris attacks last month – two in a year of terror for France. Some countries witness those levels of extremist terrorist attack on an almost daily basis – Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Libya to name but a few. But these two atrocities brought it home to Europe. The result? More fear and less freedom. Today saw another shooting in Paris, this time of a man wearing a fake suicide vest, possibly expecting “suicide by cop” as a fast-track route to fanatical fantasy heaven.

Perhaps the most far-reaching threats to freedom of expression in 2015 came from governments ostensibly motivated by security concerns. Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, 11 interior ministers from European Union countries including France, Britain and Germany issued a statement in which they called on Internet service providers to identify and remove online content ‘that aims to incite hatred and terror.’” – PEN International

Repression and Restriction

Some national responses have been to monitor more communication, restrict creative output and freedom of expression, shut down borders, target migrants. Some newspapers have fomented xenophobia by encouraging that fear of attack by certain minorities – namely all Muslims.

Other communities have risen up to support migrant peoples and minority sections of society, to engage with Islam and unite with the peaceful majorities within them. Vigils and campaigns calling for an end to retaliatory air strikes on Islamic State targets embedded in civilian populations have been held, so as to prevent escalation.

Last year pen and brush, stand-up and essay, fought back against the terrorists and the censors. My fear is that we will see more censorship and not less in 2016. The whereabouts of five missing booksellers and publishers in Hong Kong is unknown. Cartoonists, bloggers, and journalists, around the world remain in prison or disappeared.

Whilst everyone is criticising Saudi Arabia over its executions and inflaming conflict with Iran, remember that it is Iran which imprisoned a female political cartoonist – Atena Farghadan. That is not to say that the cartoons and comment themselves should not also come up for criticism – but it is the very freedom to criticise that we need to preserve, it is the sign of a safe society that we can.

Cartoonists’ Rights

Apart from Atena, attention has been drawn to the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar facing decades in prison. Cartoonists have rights too, something which Cartoonists Rights Network International campaigns for, supporting targeted political cartoonists and “protecting free speech and right of expression.”

Freedom of Expression is Sacred

Charlie Hebdo anniversary cover 7 January 2016
Charlie Hebdo anniversary cover, 7 January 2016

Freedom of expression is a legal and moral right, protected in international law (Article 10). Republished today, an article from January 2015 in the Catholic Herald, speaks of:

“a moral duty to mock religion”

All religions. All philosophies, ideologies, political views need challenging. Humour is a necessary part of the debate to prevent people taking themselves overly seriously and as an essential barometer of freedom itself. Laws that say you cannot ridicule the leader, party or religion, are by their very existence signs of repression.

In Islamophilia (“the disproportionate adoration of Islam”), Douglas Murray draws attention to the fact that if we can make fun of Islam with impunity then there is less need to do so, but “until then, we have a moral duty to do so.”

“If somebody threatens to kill people who draw a cartoon because it offends them, the only proper response is not to agree to alter everything you draw in future or avoid certain subject matters: it is to keep drawing that cartoon until such a time as the people who do the complaining stop. And then you stop doing it because it’s no longer necessary – just rude.” – Douglas Murray, Islamophilia

Charlie Hebdo made fun of everyone – including Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. In fact, analysis of its covers over the last ten years showed that Catholicism was targeted three times as frequently as Islam on its covers. Charlie Hebdo may sometimes confuse the direction of its punches – up or down, but these may be a matter of perspective. It has devoted many cartoons to critiquing EU policy and action towards migrants and asylum seekers.

A history of humour and ridicule

Spineless leaders of democracy, David Low, Evening Standard, 8th July 1936
‘Spineless leaders of democracy’, David Low, Evening Standard, 8th July 1936

David Low was a New Zealand cartoonist who published cartoons depicting Hitler and Stalin in the UK during the Second World War infuriated the Nazis. Humour can humiliate and ridicule dogmatic ideologies – it is why historically it has been employed as a strategic counter measure. Nobody, within government at least, would dare do that currently, fearing that it would inflame the situation.

Low is but one in a long line of satirical and sarcastic commentators on society’s tyrants stretching back to biblical times, ancient Greece and Rome, eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain and France, to name but a few. It’s a tradition to be valued as much as any religious tradition. If we value freedom of expression at all, we must allow the freedom to criticise to co-exist alongside the freedom to practice any faith.

“On the anniversary of the brutal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo we, the undersigned, reaffirm our commitment to the defence of the right to freedom of expression, even when that right is being used to express views that some may consider offensive…Under international law, the right to freedom of expression also protects speech that some may find shocking, offensive or disturbing. Importantly, the right to freedom of expression means that those who feel offended also have the right to challenge others through free debate and open discussion, or through peaceful protest.” – PEN International

 

Imagine all the people Living life in peace…Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Sharm

A Response to Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Sharm…

…And countless other cities, countries, rural Nigerian towns, American schools, where people take it upon themselves to gun down others in the name of, well in the name of their hurts, offense, injuries, desires, greed, whatever. It’s not about Islam, or indeed any religion – each has been there with its own extremisms, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Biblical Judaism, even Buddhism and Hinduism, and Sikhism. As John Lennon sang – “Imagine … no religion”. But then there’s the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos and Polpots, of this world. Roman pagans trying to wipe out Christianity, Communist extremism. It is the extremism they have in common, not faith or race. Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Sharm el Sheikh, or Ankara, a month ago, have also seen similar scales of atrocity, not just once, but some of them daily.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

#PrayForParis / #PrayForBeirut / #PrayFor…

France and Lebanon, Paris and Beirut, Peace
France and Lebanon, Paris and Beirut, Peace

…Or don’t pray at all. My thoughts are with ALL the victims of extremist ideologies (religious and non-religious ones). Whether you pray or don’t pray, do not use this as an opportunity to promote or condemn people of faith. As with Charlie Hebdo, Muslim policemen and security guards were among those trying to stop the terrorists. Nor is it the time to berate people for turning their Facebook profile pics French, although opportunities to easily do so in solidarity with Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Turkey etc would be appreciated. I modified mine to include France and Lebanon, not either/or.

Reactionary responses will only lead to more radicalisation, terror, civilian deaths, in the wars of fanatical idealogues.

Now is not the time for shutting borders, scapegoating, retaliation – but, as with the reaction of Norway’s prime minister Jens Stoltenberg after the terror attack on Utøya Island by far right white  ‘Christian’ extremist Anders Breivik:

“Our response is more democracy, more openness, and more humanity…We will answer hatred with love.”

Brevik believed in a “monocultural Christian Europe” and was against “multiculturalism” and “Islamization”. Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) believes in a monocultural Islamic empire. Its attacks in Beirut were against the wrong kind of Muslims – Shia. Elsewhere in Paris, it was against the hedonism of the infidel West. The justifications need not be consistent or rational, but they are forms of tribalism and monoculturalism, the fear and despising of that which is other. Nature and the world need diversity and multiculturalism to survive and thrive.

Now is the time to embrace refugees and migrants, not point out that just one or two of them out of the countless tens of thousands entering Europe may have been ISIS cells. Indeed, the 99.9% peaceful migrants, some Muslim, some Christian, some agnostic, were fleeing Islamic State or other state sanctioned terrors themselves. They too are victims. Innocent bystanders very often in the West’s continued interference in the Middle East, whether past or present. Nobody has clean hands.

At a No to Hate vigil in Norwich – a city that has its own dark past with the Blood Libel, killing and expelling its Jewish population – last month, I spoke and ended with the words of Martin Luther King:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Whether John Lennon or Martin Luther King, I too am a dreamer and have a dream that one day we will all live as one, without hate, in an ideal world without the kind of idealism that kills your fellow human beings in the name of any belief – political, religious or nationalist.

Charlie Hebdo gets PEN award but did not pen Mediterranean migrants cartoon

Charlie Hebdo simultaneously attracts praise and criticism

Charlie Hebdo continues to inspire both writers’ rage and courage. It is to receive a PEN award for Freedom of Expression Courage and yet half-a-dozen writers are already staging a stay-away protest. It has also been condemned for an apparently migrant-bashing cartoon that it turns out was neither anti-Mediterranean migrant nor by the satirical magazine anyway. C’est la vie mais pas la vérité!

PEN Freedom of Expression Courage award

Je suis Charlie translations
Je suis Charlie translations

Following the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris in January this year, a social media and public protest campaign using the phrase “Je suis Charlie” went viral but also forced us to ask questions of whether satire always punches up or even gets it right at all.

A month ago PEN awarded the Charlie Hebdo magazine the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, which is to be received in person by staff member Jean-Baptiste Thoret on 5 May in New York, who arrived to work late on January 7, “barely escaping the attack that killed eight of his co-workers and four others.”

“The Charlie Hebdo attacks dealt a blow to the bedrock principle that no act of expression, no matter how provocative or offensive, can justify violence”

Writers protest Charlie Hebdo PEN award

The double Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey is one of a number of writers protesting the praise of Charlie Hebdo. In a New York Times interview he said the PEN award went beyond the organisation’s role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression, saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about? All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

The PEN International Charter states that:

  • Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.
  • In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
  • Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.

It is, perhaps, questionable whether Charlie Hebdo or indeed PEN are doing their “utmost to dispel race…and national hatreds” or increasing “good understanding”.

Teju Cole, another of the protesting writers, wrote in January, shortly after the magazine massacre, an opinion piece in The New Yorker magazine, ‘Unmournable Bodies‘, in which he drew attention to Charlie Hebdo’s willingness to satirise and insult all, yet increasingly Islam, and highlighted Western hypocrisy:

“The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture.”

There was some excellent and varied commentary upon the New Yorker piece on their Facebook page from French citizens bemoaning the lack of understanding of French satire and cultural context.

PEN and Human Rights

PEN International American Center logoPEN International is one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations and the oldest international literary organsisation. The American Center is its largest regional body. PEN advocates on behalf of writers denied their human rights for writing, such as Raif Badawi.

PEN justify Charlie Hebdo award

The current PEN America president, Andrew Solomon, has acknowledged the offence felt by some at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but has added that PEN believed strongly in the “appropriateness” of the award:

“It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted, but, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracise or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off-limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression. We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”

PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel said:

“It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all…In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”

Salman Rushdie, a former PEN president and someone with the experience of people coming after him for what he wrote, said:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name”

Mediterranean Migrants Cartoon case of Mistaken Identity

Charlie Hebdo was also, last week, condemned for a cartoon depicting drowning migrants (“people” for those of us with a streak of humanity) in the Mediterranean, on that platform of accurate factchecking – Twitter. Except it wasn’t a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, just by one of their newer cartoonists and published elsewhere in a French-Algerian publication, Liberté. The gross caricaturing of African migrants in it seems to fail the “punching up” test and appears to mock a humanitarian tragedy at sea.

Ali Dilem, Liberté 'Regroupement familial' cartoon
Ali Dilem, Liberté “Regroupement familial” cartoon

The double irony, however, was that the cartoon, condemned for racism among other things, was drawn by an Algerian, Ali Dilem, who was satirising French immigration policy (“regroupement familial”) and condemning the losses at sea because of that policy. Not everything is what is seems before we jump to judge.

“Ironically, Charlie Hebdo has actually done a magazine cartoon which condemns Europe over their inaction over the thousands of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean monthly.”

Charlie Hebdo, Un Titanic par semaine, Mediterranean migrant deaths
Charlie Hebdo, Un Titanic par semaine, Mediterranean migrant deaths

Furthermore, Charlie Hebdo has actually critiqued the Mediterranean migrants issue in its own cover-image cartoon based around the idea that a tragedy of Titanic proportions is happening each fortnight in the Med. Last year some 3,500 of 350,000 people escaping North Africa died at sea – that’s a similar number to the deaths in Nepal due to the recent earthquake. This year we’ve reached half than number in barely months.

It is a whole other question – to which I don’t have an answer, of whether disaster and loss, tragedy and terrorism, should be satirically pilloried at all, and if they are, how.

Human Writes and Wrongs

The right to offend should never be taken lightly, nor honoured without a thought to the consequences of what it may encourage. That is not to say that PEN is right or wrong in its award, perhaps that there might have been better, or safer, recipients. Playing it safe, though, is not what freedom of expression is about. The right to offend, satirise, challenge, does not mean that we should always write it. Think it, yes, voice it perhaps, but disseminate it – that is a choice, not just a right. Rights come with responsibilities – though, none that would suggest the Charlie Hebdo attack was merited or justifiable.

The responsibility for PEN, Charlie Hebdo, Liberté, and us all, I would caution, is that we need to take account of the context, culture and consequences, of what we write – draw or say, of how we depict not just what we depict. Sometimes, the end may not justify the means. Not all freedoms are equally important. Respect, however, should be mutual and equally carries the responsibility of two-way tolerance. To caveat what Voltaire never said: “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it and my right to critique the manner in which you said it, or whether it needed to be said at all.

JeSuisCharlie vigil honours freedom of expression and Charlie Hebdo victims

Norwich #JeSuisCharlie Peace Vigil

Around 200 people gathered in the rain and cold outside the Norwich Forum to stand with the #JeSuisCharlie victims in a poignant and peaceful vigil marked by respect for all beliefs, but especially of freedom of expression.

JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015
JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015

This was Norfolk’s small but inclusive contribution after nearly 4 million people assembled in France at the weekend, 1.5m in Paris alone, only tarnished by the presence of leaders and foreign ministers from around the world, many of whom shackle freedom of speech and belief in their home countries.

The Norfolk crowd, with a a few dozen French nationals studying or living here, assembled calmly outside the Forum, candles were lit to spell out “Charlie”, after an introduction by French organiser Clémentine Pellegrino – in which she quoted Albert Camus, there was a minute’s silence during which pens and pencils were raised aloft.

There followed an invitation to those present for anyone to say or share something, some came with prepared words others seemed inspired with spontaneous speeches, each leading on from the last.

People of varying backgrounds, political and religious beliefs, were represented. Several began their speeches in French. A woman from the local Liberal Jewish synagogue asked for raised hands from members of other faiths – Jews, Christians, Buddhists, not that I spotted anyone noticeably Muslim by any stereotypic dress.

JeSuisCharlie en Arabe photo by Ann Nicholls
JeSuisCharlie en Arabe photo by Ann Nicholls

When I felt moved to speak, I spoke up for the hundreds of journalists around the world imprisoned or killed for publishing political or religious comment that may not agree with everyone. I mentioned the Al Jazeera journalists locked up in Egypt currently awaiting appeal against their sentence.

I noted how many Arab papers and cartoonists had also drawn cartoons of support but also how the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat had been beaten for criticising and caricaturing President Assad.

I raised the hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia sending condolences and criticisms of the criminality of the terrorist attack whilst locking up and carrying out a sentence of a 1000 lashes upon Raif Badawi for setting up a Liberal political website.

I mentioned the view against polarising this as a clash between civilisations, but instead one of a clash within them. By far the majority of extreme Islamist victims have been Arabs and Africans, Muslims and Christians, not Western writers and commentators satirising religious figures.

I also drew attention to the dozens of Arab and Muslim countries and organisations who did condemn the Parisienne atrocity as “Not in my name” and nothing to do with the tenets of Islam. Because of this I carried not only #JeSuisCharlie placards but the same sign written in Arabic, along with #JeSuisAhmed – the Muslim policeman who died protecting the rights of others to criticise his religion, #JeSuisRaifBadawi; #JeSuisJuif for the Jews in the Kosher store who were also targeted – if anything that *was* a racist attack; #JeSuisMusulman to say I stand with peaceful Muslims, like the Australian #IllRideWithYou hashtag that trended after the Sydney cafe siege.

Whilst I had also made a sign #JeSuisNigerian to remember the 2000 massacred in Baga a few days ago, as if African lives mattered less, I did not remember to mention it, but my omission was more than made up for when the local Police head of diversity, Abraham Eshetu, spoke about what had happened in Nigeria.

JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015
JeSuisCharlie Norwich Forum Vigil 12 Jan 2015

There was no racism, or Islamophobia, at the event, no far right hijack as was feared by some, indeed quite the contrary, these were condemned amidst the solidarity against fear and violence, and for freedom of expression, belief, and speech. This was echoed by the organiser’s intent for a peaceful demonstration. It was sad that some did stay away as “Je ne suis pas Charlie”, because this movement of people, galvanised over social media, need not be hijacked by world leaders for their political ends, nor used by racists to rant against immigration, instead it should be an opportunity to stand up for diversity of belief and the rights to express them. It is probably forgotten that Charlie Hebdo also ran cartoons satirising the far right, Marie le Pen, not just the icons of all the major faiths and political leaders of all hues.

Clémentine, originally from Nice and a Norwich resident for two years, was reported in the local EDP newspaper, as saying:

“My French friends and I felt like it would be good for the freedom of speech and to show the outside world that people do not want to surrender to these attacks. There is a chance that the people in France see what we have done and we want to show our support. This is a message of peace, and a chance to show the Muslim community that we support them.”

Despite, therefore, the very non black-and-white world of the #JeSuisCharlie stand for freedom, I was and am willing to be counted among the millions voicing their support, ensuring that all beliefs are free to be expressed, albeit with respect, yet open to criticism and humour. The right to insult, does not mean the need to do so. Challenging power structures and ideologies – religious or political, that oppress rather than attacking individuals or faiths in an ignorant blanket manner, is my preferred approach.