On 10 July 2013, two days after 51 demonstrators were killed and another 435 were injured in protests against the military coup in Egypt, Charlie Hebdo published a front cover showing an Egyptian Muslim dying in a hail of bullets, despite holding a copy of the Qur’an to his chest. Yes, that was the punch line: his religion could do nothing to save him from his fate (as the provocative caption made clear).
Call me a cynic, but I suspect that if a satirist had published a cartoon mocking the victims of Wednesday’s atrocity the following day, there would have been an outcry and widespread condemnation. And rightly so.
For all the regurgitation of words the grossly anti-Semitic Voltaire did not actually utter – “I may not agree with you, but defend your right to say it” – it all seems to be a rather vacuous platitude, for where was this vast outpouring of solidarity for those Egyptians massacred while exercising their curtailed right to freedom of expression in the face of a military coup?
Far from defending their right to say what we did not agree with, Europe’s bravest satirical magazine published a cartoon lampooning the dead, while our esteemed former prime minister decided to stand shoulder to shoulder with the General.
The truth is, nobody really believes in those words wrongly attributed to Voltaire. We choose when to defend free speech and when to curtail it. And if fifty people are massacred whilst defending beliefs we dislike, it is no business of ours – though we retain the right to laugh at them if we so choose.
Everybody decries the killing of innocents – what occurred on Wednesday has been rightly condemned – but there is no need to lionise the satirists as defenders of free speech, to celebrate their vulgar work. They chose when to defend it and when to mock those who died fighting for theirs.