The price of free speech
That a meeting in Copenhagen entitled “Art, Blasphemy and the Freedom of Expression” should require armed guards and the frisking of attendees speaks volumes about the way in which post-Charlie Hebdo Europe has quietly but dramatically evolved. That such a meeting should also be subject to a gun attack is testimony to the growing continent-wide reach of the deadly virus of jihadist militancy.
But the violent weekend attacks at a cafe in Østerbro and a nearby synagogue, which claimed two innocent lives, will have been dreadfully familiar to Danish people who have put up with a decade of episodic jihadist violence since the publication in 2005 of cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammed in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Indeed Lars Vilks, the 68-year-old artist and cartoonist who is believed to have been the main target on Saturday, and who achieved notoriety in 2007 for depicting the Prophet as a dog, has had a $100,000 bounty on his head from an Al-Qaeda-linked group and lives under the protection of Swedish police. Two years ago, an American woman was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the US for plotting to kill him and in 2010 two brothers tried to burn down his house in southern Sweden. The following week, Vilks was head-butted while he was giving a university lecture.
The same year seven Muslims were arrested in Ireland over an alleged plot to assassinate the artist, while four men were accused of plotting to kill him at a Gothenburg art fair in September 2011, though they were later acquitted.
Vilks spoke to the Wall Street Journal about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and said that he refused to hide away. He added: “Police protection doesn’t offer a 100 per cent guarantee as we saw with Charlie Hebdo but it goes pretty far. I don’t have to lie awake at night listening for odd sounds”.
Police say they are convinced that the man they killed in an exchange of gunfire early Sunday morning was responsible for the latest attacks, but whether he was part of a formal or informal network is not yet clear. As brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi demonstrated in the Charlie Hebdo attack when they unleashed a wave of 17 deaths, open democratic societies are enormously vulnerable to the actions of small numbers of fanatics. And societies have to remain open if those fanatics are not to succeed. Security can be ramped up but it is inevitable that we will continue to be vulnerable to periodic attacks of this kind.
The jihadist movement also has to be shown that such actions are deeply counterproductive and will only stiffen the resolve of democratic societies to repudiate laws that curb freedom of expression or privilege certain religious beliefs. That is why, in solidarity with the Danish and the French people, the Government should reconsider its decision to delay putting our blasphemy law to constitutional referendum.