This blog is normally reserved for personal reflections on the nuances of life in the US as compared to the UK, with occasional commentaries upon other matters as they seize my interest. But the murder of 12 people by Islamist fanatics in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has cast any other thoughts into irrelevance. Along with millions of others, I feel profoundly angry and upset at the massacre of bunch of journalists who were armed only with pens and a biting sense of satire.
Like others I ask myself how could this happen? How could such medieval tyranny be visited upon a country synonymous with Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité? Where will it end, and what effect will this have upon freedom in France and elsewhere in Europe?
But while this outrage is shocking, it is also not unexpected. It is just the latest in a long line of attacks by jihadists in Europe against freedom and against those that have offended their bloodthirsty nihilism. Remember Theo van Gogh – the Dutch film director murdered on the streets of Amsterdam ten years ago following his film, ‘Submission’ which criticized the treatment of women in Islam? Recall the riots along with attacks against European diplomatic missions, churches and Westerners throughout the Middle East that followed the 2006 publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper depicting the Prophet Mohammed?
At the time, the reaction of some in Europe was to back these deliberately provocative images and speak up for freedom of expression. But many others retreated in fear, urging self-censorship to appease those whose sensibilities had been offended. Since then, most of Europe – governments and civil society – have only been going in one direction – in retreat – in the face of those who want to limit freedom and the values which underpin it. This has predictably strengthened rather than sapped the will of those who want to put their particular beliefs above those of society as a whole.
One of the basic problems that has confronted Europe in dealing with the threat posed by Islamist extremists, has been its failure to articulate what exactly are ‘European values’ or at least the values embodied by individual European countries.
A few weeks ago, I tuned in to listen to BBC Radio’s ‘Any Questions’ programme. For those unfamiliar, it consists of a changing panel of politicians and commentators of differing ideological stripes responding to topical issues raised by members of the audience. (If you want to hear the relevant section follow this link and begin listening at approximately 33:40).
‘Can the panel define British values?’ asked one questioner. This followed a report by education inspectors on a number of independent Muslim schools in East London which stated that the teaching on offer was ‘failing to promote British values’. The report cited one secondary school, where the pupils were unable to tell inspectors which was more important: sharia or English law.
I was expecting that the responses of the ‘Any Questions’ panel would reflect diverse make up of its participants; a patrician Conservative MP, a radical left-wing former Mayor of London, a Guardian columnist, and a centrist parliamentarian from the Liberal Democrat Party. What followed though was a stream of inanities from all the panellists and agreement that such values were either inexpressible or didn’t exist. The Guardian commentator, Polly Tonybee, revealingly said that – to her – the whole concept of British values suggested, ‘we have this thing called tolerance that nobody else has, or that we have this respect for freedom and democracy that nobody else has.’ Any expression of such values she believed, implied superiority and was therefore somehow unworthy.
This muddled, misguided and apologetic failure of a definition highlights where and how Europe has got it wrong.
Sadly this thinking isn’t confined to the opinion pages of the Guardian newspaper. Governments in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and elsewhere worry that in defining their values, they will be labelled chauvinist and racist. They have abstained on the notion of national pride thus handing it to right-wing bigots. Consequently we have seen the Le Pens and their ilk gaining more and more traction throughout Europe. For the same reason there is also self-denial from these governments that there is a real problem of extremism and radicalism within sections of the Muslim community in the UK, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and elsewhere.
It is the responsibility of society as a whole – including Muslim communities – to address this phenomenon. This extremism cannot also be dismissed as an errant weed – it is more than that, and has an appeal wider than politicians in Europe and community leaders throughout the Continent are willing to admit.
Viewing Europe from afar it looks like it is under siege, and that its ancient battlements are unprepared for the challenges of the present. I only hope that this latest outrage demonstrates that Europe must assert proudly and unapologetically, the supremacy of freedom, tolerance and democracy as the cornerstones of its existence.