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The bloody assault on the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, can only provoke the most profound revulsion. This was a dreadful terrorist atrocity that has claimed the lives of at least 12 innocent people.

Our first response must be to mourn the victims, four of whom were the magazine’s well-known cartoonists and two of them police officers. But this was more than a human tragedy. It was a calculated act of intimidation, an attack on the freedom of expression that is the pillar of any democratic society. It was designed to seed an insidious form of self-censorship. It must be roundly and defiantly condemned.

Nearly a decade has passed since a Danish newspaper first attracted the ire of Muslims by publishing cartoons that lampooned the Prophet Mohammed. What started with peaceful protests and consumer boycotts has steadily descended into violence. This is not the first time Charlie Hebdo has been attacked for publishing its own cartoons satirising Islam. Its offices were firebombed three years ago.

But Wednesday’s events mark a new and sinister step in the escalating conflict between faith and free expression. The sight of two masked men wielding AK-47s in the middle of a European capital, gunning down policemen and stalking the magazine’s offices in search of their victims, will understandably send a chill throughout the western world.

For the security services in France and across Europe, the attack will prompt many questions. It is unclear whether the assailants were on the radar of the French authorities and whether they were assisted by overseas militant groups.

Many of the recent jihadist attacks — in Sydney and Ottawa — have been conducted by “lone wolves”. The concerted nature of Wednesday’s assault — and also the attackers’ flight from the scene rather than resorting to siege and suicide tactics — suggests a less familiar modus operandi.

In the days ahead many will be watching the impact on French society. At a time of deep political and economic malaise, the anti-immigrant National Front led by Marine Le Pen may profit from a new burst of anti-Islamic feeling. The attack is a challenge to the state authorities who must now find the attackers and bring them to justice. But the broader challenge is for politicians and the public to cleave to France’s core secular values and express defiance without stoking the fires of blind revenge.

In any democratic society, there should always be room for a civilised debate about taste and propriety when it comes to the mockery of any religious faith. But what cannot be challenged is the fundamental right of all citizens to express themselves freely within the law. In an age marked by growth in religious belief and the increasing politicisation of faith, all religion must be open to opinion, analysis and lampoonery.

In the last quarter century there have been many attempts to use intimidation to silence satire and dissent. The Iranian regime set the precedent when it issued a fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie in response to his book The Satanic Verses. North Korea has just used cyber violence to prevent the distribution of an unflattering film about its leader Kim Jong Un.

Now we have the appalling spectacle in Paris. The response of the free world to this must be unwavering. Charlie Hebdo may be a very different publication to our own, but the courage of its journalists — and their right to publish — cannot be placed in doubt. A free press is worth nothing if its practitioners do not feel free to speak.


Letter in response to this editorial:

Charlie Hebdo outrage shows we must stand up for freedom / From Gregory Shenkman

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