Member’s debate: Charlie Hebdo
7 January 2016
Presiding Officer, I thank Christian Allard for securing the debate and for an excellent speech and I thank all the members who contributed to what has been a very thoughtful reflection on the horrific attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.
A total of 17 people were killed in three days of attacks a year ago that also targeted a Jewish supermarket and police. Since the attacks in January there have been a number of other incidents, in February, April, June and August, and finally the murder of 129 people in November.
Charlie Hebdo’s offices had already been firebombed in 2011 and other magazines in Europe had also been threatened. But the attack in Paris in January last year shocked the world.
Solidarity with France
Within hours of the shootings, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie went viral, rallying millions behind the plight of free speech and opposition to brutal killings. The horrific crimes prompted an unprecedented showing of solidarity, with demonstrations and vigils held around the world.
On 11 January about 2 million people, including more than 40 world leaders, met in Paris for a rally of national unity, and about 3.7 million people joined demonstrations across France.
Here in Scotland the First Minister spoke to the French Consul General after the attacks, and wrote to President Hollande to convey Scotland’s condolences to and solidarity with the French people. She made a statement during First Minister’s Question Time, and flags flew at half-mast on Scottish Government premises, and here at Parliament. Rallies were held in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. I signed the book of condolence at the French Consulate, and attended and spoke at an event organised by the French Community outside the French Consulate in Edinburgh.
With today’s debate we signal that we continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of France, united in our condemnation of the atrocities. We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life. But at the same time we are absolutely steadfast in our defence of the fundamental freedoms that we all cherish so much.
The attacks were intended to spread terror and to drive a wedge into communities and societies. However, the response has achieved the opposite to what the terrorists intended to.
In the aftermath of the attacks the Scottish Government has been clear that we stand together with the Muslim communities in expressing our condemnation.
Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks the Scottish Arab Federation issued a statement in which they publicly declared their condemnation of the terrorist act. They highlighted that the vast majority of Muslims are horrified and sickened by the attacks, and that Islam as a religion advocates tolerance and freedom of belief. Furthermore they point to the fact that Muslims and other ethnic minority groups are very concerned about the rise of resentment against immigrants in many European countries. Let me quote from the final section of the Scottish Arab Federation’s statement:
In order to eradicate terrorism, the fight against it must not be confined to security and military measures, but should include political, socio-economic, ideological and cultural factors. Mutual understanding is essential to build confidence and avoid unreasonable behaviour. Constructive communication helps to overcome prejudice and slanted media reporting; and establishing dialogue through robust channels will go a long way towards defusing tension and maintaining a peaceful and calm existence for all.
I think the debate today has echoed many of those sentiments. A peaceful and calm existence for all is a cornerstone of our diverse and multicultural society.
Terrorists want to undermine the values we share. They aim to damage community relations. It is clear that terrorism is about propagation of fear and provocation of hate as Christian Allard said. An important challenge for us is to work towards creating cohesive and resilient communities within which the terrorist messages will not resonate.
Freedom of expression and Human Rights
With today’s debate we reaffirm this Parliament’s commitment to a modern, inclusive Scotland which protects, respects and realises internationally recognised human rights principles.
The assault on the Charlie Hebdo offices was an act of terrorism, and also attack on the freedom of speech.
It was Benjamin Franklin who said that “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” The principle of freedom of expression is a centre piece of the European Convention of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It was a fundamental feature of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 in response to the conflict and catastrophe brought about by the dictatorships of the 1930s.
The power of caricature and satire has long been recognised. It was understood in ancient Greece and in Rome, and is still feared by tyrants and dictators. Amnesty International’s current Write for Rights campaign highlights the case of political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque – aka ‘Zunar’ – who is facing a long prison sentence in Malaysia for “seditious” cartoons.
Such cartoons exists to highlight injustice and to make the case for change through challenge and ridicule. It can sometimes be hurtful as well as thought-provoking. But in a modern democracy like Scotland there is more than ample room for legitimate commentary through the medium of cartoons and caricature. Those who seek to influence the views and opinions of others in our society need to accept that their own views are also open to challenge – a compliant, reverential media is not compatible with modern democracy. Democracies thrive in the face of challenge through freedom of expression. Elaine Murray talked about historical context of political satire and cartoons. Chic Brodie spoke eloquently about the modern context and relationship of democracy, satire and the power of the pen. Jamie McGrigor reminded us of the importance of the freedoms we value and how we can’t and shouldn’t take them for granted.
Of course, in a respectful, democratic society, where human rights are valued, there are also limits to the right to express views which challenge and provoke. Giving of gratuitous offence is not a right, and satirical attacks motivated by hatred and prejudice step over the line of what is acceptable. Indeed, international treaties including the ECHR recognise that the exercise of freedom of expression brings with it duties and responsibilities – not least of which is the obligation to respect the rights of others. That includes the right of other people to hold views with which we may ourselves fundamentally disagree.
In closing I want to refer to the motto which appears on the coat of arms of the City of Paris, which shows a ship at sea. The motto is fluctuat nec mergitur, which translates as She is shaken by the waves but does not sink. This century old motto had a surge in popularity and is used in social media as a symbol of Paris resistance in the face of terrorism.
Whilst we are all shaken by the terrible events in Paris, we continue to stand united with France in the fight against terrorism.