I mentioned last week an important and disturbing court case in France. The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is being sued by the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of French Islamic Organisations for allegedly inciting racial hatred. The charge relates to the magazine's reprinting caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Agnès Poirier has a fine piece in this week's New Statesman on the background to the case and on the issues it raises. I am militantly in agreement with her:
The problem with religious fundamentalism is the same as it has always been, except our attitudes have turned upside-down. Secularists in France used to shout louder than anyone, but these days they lack vigour, apparently riddled with self-doubt. Is it fear? Religious radicals have, in inverse proportion, become more assured as they have managed to shake the universal foundations of society, and started to negotiate specific rights and legal exemptions to which their "difference" entitles them. But what difference, and where will it end?
We have to stop mistaking healthy criticism of religion for racism, and must not let discussion of immigration and security elbow out the more important debate on secularism and citizenship.
Agnès notes the shift in terms of this debate since 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa requiring the murder of Salman Rushdie for writing a novel. There has long been a stronger tradition in France than in the UK of the defence of artistic freedom against religious censorship, and this was reflected in the stand taken in the Rushdie affair by President Mitterrand as compared with Mrs Thatcher and Sir Geoffrey Howe (then Foreign Secretary). To a certain extent, the feebleness of British political and media comment on the Danish cartoons affair last year reprised this inglorious precedent (I argued this here).
But something has changed since then, in the way that Agnès describes. Take, for example, the entry from that most valuable of political records, the Diaries of Tony Benn, for 15 February 1989. (Benn has a habit of not understanding the significance of the events he describes and almost invariably coming to the wrong conclusion about them; but as a chronicler of politics he is unmatched, while the family details he records, such as his loneliness after his wife's death, are often very moving.) Benn describes a debate on the Rushdie case held at a meeting of the Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs. Some of the responses he records, while easy to mock for the clichés they're couched in, are unexceptionable statements of radical politics: "Mildred Gordon [a former Trotskyite who had become an MP in her 60s] said all fundamentalists and all established Churches were enemies of the workers and the people." But then we come to Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham, who liked to present himself (mistakenly) as one of Britain's first black MPs:
Bernie Grant kept interrupting, saying that the whites wanted to impose their values on the world. The House of Commons should not attack other cultures. He didn't agree with the Muslims in Iran, but he supported their right to live their own lives. Burning books was not a big issue for blacks, he maintained.
I won't labour this point, as Grant's views don't require a commentary. (Earlier in the discussion, according to Benn's unintentionally funny account: "Bernie said that Rushdie knew what he was doing and that they'd cut off people's hands for years in the Muslim world. He appeared to be criticising Rushdie.") But the victory in fact has gone to Grant. The pitiful, racist remarks he made to a small group of MPs in a fringe parliamentary organisation in 1989 are now common, even dominant, assumptions in large parts of the Left. How we got there, and what we do about it, are some of the most intractable issues in politics.