From the chants of the #JeSuisCharlie marchers to the cant of Abbott’s charlies the word is “freedom”

It is the stuff of history. On Sunday, 11 January, 1.5 million people filled the streets of Paris – 3.7 million marched nationally – in a show of solidarity and defiance following the three days of jihadist terror that traumatised the French capital and horrified the world.

Paris has a long history of mass rallies and on Sunday its denizens came out in force, in tribute to the 17 dead, unbowed in the face of terror, united in their embrace of the democratic and social values they hold sacred – and which the jihadists repudiate.

Along the procession could be heard the ardent cries of “Freedom! Equality! Brotherhood!”, the spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, and tearful expressions of pride in “the Republic” – this was a nation celebrating its past and girding itself for whatever lies ahead.

The attack on the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 dead, shocked because of its cold-blooded depravity and the ease with which the executions were carried out. But for the French, there was also a principle at stake: freedom of expression, a value as old as the revolution itself.

Charlie Hebdo was struck because it had dared – pointedly dared – to run satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, raising the ire of radical Islamists who took their bloody revenge on Wednesday 7 January. (There are no taboos at Charlie Hebdo; it spares no religion, no public official, from its biting satire.)

The immediate international response of horror and solidarity on social media was to adopt the hashtag “Je Suis Charlie” – “I am Charlie” – with 5 million tweets carrying #JeSuisCharlie in three days. The Western world became as one in defence of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

On Wednesday 14 January, exactly one week after the Charlie Hebdo slayings, the surviving members of the magazine produced a defiant edition of the magazine featuring, of course, the Prophet Muhammed on the cover, weeping, holding a Je Suis Charlie sign under the banner heading “All is forgiven”.

In deference to the worldwide show of support for Charlie Hebdo and its ideals, 3 million copies of the post-massacre issue were printed, compared to the usual 60,000.

The sting in the tail of the Charlie Hebdo rally that wended its way through Paris – led by 40 world leaders – is that the spirited show of unity masked a hard truth that in the light of day must now be confronted: France is a nation torn. The Paris march, and others throughout the country, was an affirmation of France’s resolve to overcome its internal divisions to fight the dark forces of Islamic fundamentalism. That now remains to be seen.

World leaders march for freedom of the press

It is a great shame that in this cathartic moment of national mourning – but also a rousing show of defiance – that the values underpinning the march were mocked by the presence of world leaders who were abusers or fell well short of the values and virtues that the marchers were defending.

For Australians, it was a point of particular affront that among the leaders defending freedom of the press was Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in whose gaols Australian journalist Peter Greste (along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues) has languished for over a year.

Reporters Without Borders expressed outrage at the presence of “predators of press freedom”, singling out leaders from Egypt, Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, “countries where journalists and bloggers are systematically persecuted”.

American author and journalist Jeremy Scahill was scathing of the “circus of hypocrisy”:

“[E]very single one of those heads of state or representatives of governments there have waged their own wars against journalists.

“Blasphemy is considered a crime in Ireland. You had multiple African and Arab leaders whose own countries right now have scores of journalists in prison. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel has targeted for killing numerous journalists who have reported on the Palestinian side, have kidnapped, abducted, jailed journalists,” he told public broadcast news program Democracy Now!

Australia’s fervent expression of solidarity with France and its defence of the values of free speech – Australia was represented at the march by Senate President Stephen Parry – has had some unintended political consequences on the home front.

Liberal senators Cory Bernardi and Dean Smith (who is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights) have taken advantage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo to renew calls to change Australia’s race-hate laws, specifically Section 18C which makes it unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate a person or group on the basis of race, colour, ethnicity or national origin.

The 18C saga began almost a year ago. The Abbott government’s plans to repeal the section came unstuck after the political storm created by the unintentionally provocative statement by Attorney-General George Brandis: “People do have a right to be bigots, you know. In a free country people do have rights to say things that other people find offensive or insulting or bigoted.”

It could easily have been a statement made in defence of Charlie Hebdo, but it was in March 2014.

What should have been an important debate on the competing demands of free speech and community cohesion was cut short because the politics became too hot for the Abbott government.

Tony Abbott’s “leadership call”

Tony Abbott explained that he had made a “leadership call” to overrule his Attorney-General, which should not be confused with Tony Abbott demonstrating leadership on the issue. His was a political call, not a matter of principle.

Instead of an emphatic prime ministerial affirmation of values and principle, Abbott replaced Brandis’ contentious language with his own mealy-mouthed offering: “I want the communities of our country to be our friend not our critic. I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia.”

Politicians choosing to avoid difficult discussions make life momentarily easier for themselves, but sidelining an issue should not be mistaken for settling an issue.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was just what proponents of changes to 18C needed to prosecute their case for freedom of expression with unrestrained vigour.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson, who seems to think he is an elected politician, bought into the issue by gleefully pointing out that under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Charlie Hebdo could not be published in Australia – or would be subject to continual challenge and/or censorship.

Bernardi would have been aware of all those #JeSuisCharlie tweets and he pounced on this obvious contradiction:

“I find it extraordinary that people will support Charlie Hebdo in France being able to publish what they want, to lampoon and to mock and satirise who they want, and yet many of the same people are happy for us to restrict what we can publish…because we might cause offence in this country.”

It was not the federal government but Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane who sought to curb the enthusiasm for revisiting 18C, insisting that support for Charlie Hebdo and Section 18C are not incompatible:

“There is complete and unfettered freedom to discuss and debate matters of religion, religious identity, religious belief and religious practise. There is in any case wide protection for anything that is artistic work or fair comment on matters of public interest, provided that it is done reasonably and in good faith.”

The renewed push for the dumping of 18C is taking place in a vacuum of Tony Abbott’s making. With a private senator’s bill co-sponsored by Bernardi set to revive the 18C divisions, the onus will once more fall on Abbott to show leadership – on this issue specifically and more generally in assuaging the concerns of Australia’s Muslim population in the wake of both the Sydney Siege and the Paris terror attacks.

In the absence of the necessary leadership, Australia finds itself mired in a highly partisan “debate” about free expression at a time when members of the Muslim community feel their voice goes increasingly unheard.

Opportunistic tosh

Dean Smith has cynically co-opted events in Paris to seek Senate support for changes to 18C. “As a tribute and defiant rebuttal [to events in Paris] we should change our laws to allow for greater freedom of speech, expression and opinion,” he wrote in The Australian.

Such opportunistic tosh is offensive and if anything qualifies Smith for the Charlie Hebdo treatment.

At some basic level there is bipartisan support in Australia for the principals of freedom of expression and freedom of the press, but that ends at the door of 18C: Labor is against watering down the section, and the government is choosing not to pursue its preferred option.

Rather than start this debate from scratch, let’s accept that the finer detail of Australia’s freedom of expression laws should be left not to politicians, but to a law reform commission. And if we are to revisit the issue of freedom of expression, why not a discussion on whether Australia should have a bill of rights?

As for France, the true test starts now. It must now confront the many realities of a nation with huge challenges ahead.

Although much of the focus in Paris has fallen on the horrors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there was also the murder of four French Jews killed by a third jihadist at a kosher supermarket.

Anti-Semitism on the rise

This will have been a chilling development for France’s 550,000 Jews – especially as rising anti-Semitism was already a problem in France, without having the additional burden of being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered France’s Jews – and Europe’s Jews – safe haven in Israel:

“To all the Jews of France and all the Jews of Europe, I wish to say: the state of Israel is not only the place to which you pray, the state of Israel is also your home. Any Jew who wants to immigrate to Israel will be received with open arms.”

Netanyahu’s offer may well resonate with some. In 2013, 7,000 French Jews migrated to Israel, according to the Jewish Agency, and the year before that 3,400. But the idea that Jews must flee their own country will surely not sit well with most. It seems extraordinary that Europe’s Jews are even today having to make such contemplations.

France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to reassure Jewish citizens: “France without the Jews of France is not France.” In the Sunday marches, many held placards declaring “Je Suis Juif”,or “I am Jewish”, in solidarity. The government has also heightened military and police security at Jewish schools and synagogues – an act of support but which must also be unnerving.

In addition to its Jewish citizens feeling under siege, France has the challenge of reassuring the nation’s 5 to 6 million Muslims that they are embraced as citizens of the Republic: but France has a long way to go in convincing even second and third-generation French Muslims let alone recent arrivals of this.

Anti-Muslim racism, entrenched social disadvantage, long-term unemployment – including a 25% youth unemployment rate – and decrepit housing estates make for a colossal challenge. Already, since last week’s jihadist attacks, there have been several incidents of violence against Muslims and mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe.

Rather than treating the events of Charlie Hebdo as a political opportunity to make it easier to express extreme views – and given a less than convincing case that the Act presently contains unreasonable curbs on freedom of expression – some of Australia’s more colourful politicians might want to concentrate on how to make Australia’s vibrant and cohesive multicultural society an even more prominent beacon of what is possible in an enlightened democracy.

Liberté, egalité, fraternité

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One thought on “From the chants of the #JeSuisCharlie marchers to the cant of Abbott’s charlies the word is “freedom”

  1. Brilliant article Leo. Although I don’t believe we should be pursuing a Bill of Rights. Not that I don’t believe in it, but there is no way there will be bi-partisan support for it. Gareth Evans tried it back in the 80’s and had to give up. And Labor were very much in the ascendancy politically. Let’s concentrate on helping people get work and provide meaning in their life. You mentioned the unemployment rate amongst youth. This is the biggest danger, not only in Australia but around the world.

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