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As we consider Batley Grammar and the Mohammed cartoon, here’s the late Christopher Booker on Charlie Hebdo in 2015

Tom Winnifrith
Monday 29 March 2021

I sometimes find myself searching my emails for something or other and stumble on something completely unexpected. Tonight I stumble on the raw text of what my uncle, the late Christopher Booker, submitted to the Sunday Telegraph for January 16 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I am not sure if the Torygraph tweaked it but here is the original and in exposing the pious hypocrisy of the great and good back then, we might all reflect on matters such as the drowning silence of the left in defence of free speech in Bradford today. But also, as Chris notes, on why certain sections of the Moslem community do feel so justifiably angry and that can vent in various ways. I commend to you a great piece of journalism.


As the dust begins to settle on those recent horrendous events in Paris, a clearer sense of perspective begins to creep in round the edges. The Pope suggests that those who are too provocative to Islam can expect “a punch”. Even a co-founder of Charlie Hebdo itself says that its murdered editor’s urge to provoke had “dragged the team to its death”. As the original editor of Private Eye, who over the years has probably contributed as many words as anyone to its “satirical” pages, I’m afraid I have looked askance of much of what has been said and written about these events in recent days.


When David Cameron announced on Twitter that he was joining that vast rally in Paris “to celebrate the values of Charlie Hebdo”, one wondered whether he had even previously heard of that little magazine, let alone looked at its pages, Did he really wish to celebrate crude cartoons showing a naked Mohammed with a star coming out of his bottom, captioned “A star is born” – or another, captioned “the film that embraces all the Moslem world”, similarly showing a naked Prophet holding a camera to his bottom, saying “And my ass? You love my ass?” Did our prime minister really want to applaud a picture of the Pope, scantily clad as a Rio prostitute, saying “ready for anything to win some clients”. Even these are only among the images available online. A friend living in France tells me of others even more dubious, showing Jesus masturbating, or the Virgin Mary engaging in sexual acts.


 If this is meant to be “satire” which only someone without “a sense of humour” would find offensive, I suppose some might point to that strain of British cartooning exemplified by Gerald Scarfe, who for decades has repeated images of some powerful man exposing his bottom to a lesser figure trying to kiss it. At different times these might have represented Harold Wilson grovelling behind President Lyndon Johnson, or Tony Blair likewise behind President Bush, or David Cameron with Rupert Murdoch, But I am not sure this has ever represented satire at the wittiest and cleverest level of which it is capable (the only cartoon on recent events which prompted me to a faint smile was handed me by my friend Ian Hislop, showing a masked terrorist standing with his gun over a dead cartoonist, saying “he drew first”).


In trying to understand in human terms why this particular conflict came to such a gruesome climax, we must also call into play the plight of those five million Algerians who for decades have lived in France as third-class citizens, stuffed away in the ghastly concrete suburbs of Paris and other cities, treated with contempt by the authorities and horrifying violence by the police, creating a sense of utter alienation and despair. It is out of that rejection that the terrorists came, with murder in their hearts, seeking deadly revenge for the deliberate insults given to the religion which, however pervertedly, gave them a sense of identity.  Thus did we see yet again that age-old pattern whereby opposing extremes feed on their obsessive hatred for each other.


All this culminated in last Sunday’s extraordinary display of crowd emotion on the streets of Paris, led by an array of besuited “world leaders”, with television interviewers rushing round trying to get people to explain why they had wanted to join this demonstration of “solidarity”. With shining exceptions, they replied like automata that they were there to support “democracy” and “the right to free speech”. No sooner did these pious phrases emerge than one began to wonder how meaningful it is any longer to talk about “democracy” in a Europe where people have never felt more estranged from their politicians, and where they are now so lost and unhappy in the grip of that great act of make-believe, the “European Union”.


How ironic, one thought, that this mass-demonstration in favour of “the freedom of the press” should take place in a country whose “Ministry of Culture” had lately detailed the huge state subsidies given to France’s leading newspapers, to help keeping its press more cowed and tightly controlled than any west of Russia,


In a time when there is such pressure to prevent people saying things which do not conform with different forms of group-think – when every kind of “political correctness” rules, when Christians are arrested for quoting the Bible in the street for fear of giving “offence to minorities”, when boarding-house owners are prosecuted for not wishing to let rooms to gay couples, when there are calls for “climate deniers” to be sacked or put on trial, when judges repeatedly threaten people with imprisonment for trying to expose the travesties of justice in their “child protection” system – who really knows what “freedom of speech” is any longer?


There has been no better comment on the clouds of humbug recently billowing in all directions than the admission of BBC employees that they are under an edict from apparatchiks on high that they must not on any account describe to their audiences the contents of any of those Charlie Hebdo cartoons, It is Ihe kind of thing which made me want to put a collective photo-bubble on those shots of the politicians leading two million people through the streets, all in grey unanimity entoning the words of the old song, “Clap hands, here comes Charlie”. They didn’t really have the faintest idea what they were talking about.


Ends


I had a long chat with Chris that very week on the ludicrous spectacle of those politicians, media types and others saying #JeSuisCharlie by which they mean not “we will give our lives to defend free speech” but “we want to be seen as smug virtue signallers.” You knew that faced with an acid test on some issue inevitably involving LGBT rights or Islam, for in those days the transgender wars were yet to start, those who said #Jesuischarlie would not fight for liberty but would crumble and fold without hesitation.

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About Tom Winnifrith
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Tom Winnifrith is the editor of TomWinnifrith.com. When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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