Samuel Paty in Paris, Simone Barreto Silva, Nadine Devillers, Vincent Loquès and one as yet unnamed victim in Nice, and four dead in Vienna, not to mention those seriously injured. The casualties of three devastating Islamist terror attacks within the last three weeks. Following Paty’s murder, the demonstrations of solidarity in France stood in stark contrast to Britain where, despite initial press coverage, there have been few statements of support, twitter hashtags or public condemnations of the brutal murder of a teacher for simply doing his job. Or of people attending church. Or of two elderly people taking an evening walk, a young man passing by, and a waitress who could not have known quite how final her last work shift before lockdown would be.
The what-aboutery from some in Britain has been astounding. ‘Macron is no friend of free speech!’ some cry. ‘What about the situation in the Middle East and the discriminatory rules against Muslim culture!’ cry others. “It’s complicated, we need to understand what lies behind it,’ say others, keen to signal their adherence to dogmatic progressive values, and thereby implying that anyone vocally condemning the attacks and attackers must somehow be ignorant. They do not realise how patronising such a position is: as if allMuslims in France are as estranged from core Enlightenment values as the what aboutists themselves. How little must they think of our Muslim brothers and sisters, to imply that they, or any other religious or ethnic minority, are capable of responding to civic controversy only with barbarism. The DDU rejects this patronizing characterisation and believes in the political equality of all citizens and our capacity to respond to civic disagreements by creating solidarity.
At the DDU we understand very well that the issue at stake is whether we believe in democracy, republican or otherwise. The democratic commitment to political, intellectual, religious and cultural pluralism is more than rhetorical; more than fine-sounding statements to be wheeled out when expedient. The moral values underpinning such a commitment – values of freedom, equality and tolerance don’t belong to any one country; and, sadly, their irrational rejection also extends beyond national borders.
Macron may indeed be a technocrat whose commitment to liberté, egalité and fraternité are less than consistent; it is no surprise to find hypocrisy in politics. And yes, understanding complexities of world politics, internal security and cultural policies of western states is essential and welcome. But at the end of the day, ‘understanding’ does not relieve anyone of the responsibility to condemn the brutal, performative murder of innocent citizens by those committed to a version of Islam that abhors our cherished values of free speech and democracy.
It is true that the attack on these values, which are common to liberty-seeking people everywhere, is not coming only from Islamist extremism and its supporters. In Britain our own political, cultural and academic class has become estranged from the intellectual and moral traditions that have shaped secular, culturally liberal, democratic societies. In the name of tolerance, we have allowed our society to devalue the principles that make tolerance substantive and meaningful.
For example, in 2010, London based RE teacher Gary Smith was brutally attacked by four Muslim youths who, like the murderers of Samuel Paty, were offended that he had taught about Islam without himself being Muslim. Following the RE National Curriculum, as Monsieur Paty followed the French Civics Curriculum, made Mr. Smith guilty of cultural and religious appropriation in the eyes of his attackers. Acting on their feelings of offence, they meted out their grisly version of justice, un-tempered by even a minimal commitment to the humanistic ethical value of compassion or the rational ideal of social solidarity.
While Judge John Hand QC issued an explicit comment , “If you think that people around you in society present an insult or threat to God then you will not hesitate in attacking again in the way that you have acted.” Detective Inspector Des McHugh, perhaps under more conflicting pressures than a more socially insulated judge, could not bring himself to name the illiberal, anti-Enlightenment attitudes exemplified by the attack. His public comment to the press was only: “This was an extremely violent incident and unusual at this time of day.” 
Perhaps fearful of causing offence to a ‘protected group’ under the aegis of the recently introduced Equality Act, the Detective Inspector’s comment speaks to an ethical paralysis in Britain’s public culture that creates fertile ground for resentments to fester. This situation is likely to exacerbate any existing divisions, which cannot be helpful for anyone wishing to overcome inequalities of any kind, including those based on ethnicities or religion.
We at Don’t Divide Us condemn all ideological attempts to reject the fundamental moral universalism that unites us – the only lane worth being in is the human lane and it is expansive enough to encompass our local differences. We reject all ideological attempts to blur the line between offensive words and criminal deeds, and the cowardice of those who suggest a moral equivalence between the two. And we support the right of freedom of speech – including speech that offends. By tolerating offence, we can question, ridicule, debate, think about, and learn more about each other and ourselves. Offence can be generative of new and better ideas and ways of doing things. Historically, political, social and cultural progress has often been announced through offending some established norm – as testified to by the lives of Galileo, the Suffragettes or Van Gogh. Protecting heterodox thought from violent, censorious extremism is essential if we are to improve the conditions of society for all people.
Photo credit: Pierre Herman, unsplash.com