Writers have always run the risk of persecution and those who challenge beliefs run the greatest risk; from the Natural Scientists who wrote that the world was not flat, to Salman Rushdie, who had a death fatwa put on his head on February 14th 1989, after Satanic Verses was published. To this day I remember the violence, the book burning and the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran.
I was terrified for Rushdie, but he has survived for so long that most Westerners probably don’t realise that the fatwa upon him remains in force.
What happened in Paris this week is something new. Decisive, horrifying terrorism that saw twelve peaceable cartoonists, proponents of free speech, hunted like animals and shot.
Some might say that the cartoonists had warning (the office had already been fire bombed after an incendiary publication) and that they should have been more careful about what they wrote afterwards. Some might say that writers should simply not provoke religious extremists.
That is akin to a rape apologist suggesting that a woman in a short skirt is asking for it.
What if every Natural Scientist, for fear of retribution, had continued to maintain that the world was flat? Why haven’t extremists learned over centuries that you simply cannot silence ideas by killing writers?
The book has not been penned that has not offended someone, somewhere. Harry Potter offended the US Bible belt with its depiction of witchcraft, even Winnie the Pooh has been banned from schools in Poland due to his dubious sexuality and inappropriate dress.
Books by their nature are open to individual translation. No author can follow every copy of their book around the world explaining what they really meant to every reader. Anyone with a desire to do so can read something offensive into the most innocent of words. And sadly, many people want to find offense.
If the only literature that was published was unable to upset anyone, then the world would be a very dull place – with no sign of the written word anywhere.
Most people don’t pick up a gun when they are angered by the words of a writer (or their own interpretation of those words). But some do attack. Nowadays authors who trawl the internet, or have their own social media accounts can see exactly how and who their words have offended.
It’s bullying. I don’t like your words, so I will shoot you down, metaphorically or, as this week has shown us, literally.
But the crazy thing is that being a writer means, by definition, that you cannot be silenced. Ultimately you can take away the writer, but his legacy will live on. You cannot take away the written word.
For the cartoonists of France, who preferred to die standing, what can we do?
Well, we can read their work (I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before this week, but the actions of the terrorists have spread the publication’s message around the world), and we, as writers, can continue writing, unbowed by the bullies, unafraid that our words might cause offense (because inevitably they will, to someone, somewhere) and ultimately defiant in the face of those who would silence the tapping of our keyboards, with the rat a tat tat of machine gun fire.
Je suis Charlie