The magazine often ridicules the likes of the Virgin Mary, the Prophet Muhammad, and that general crowd. There are those who think Muhammad, Mary, and religious icons in general, should be beyond such light hearted criticism. In 2011 some religiously minded souls firebombed the magazine's offices, the day after it rather wittily announced the Prophet Muhammad as its new Guest Editor.
It appears - that is all we can say yet - that today's fatal gun attack was carried out by Islamists, which is of course not at all the same thing as saying that it was done by Moslems. Your average crazed gunman shouting "Allahu Akbar" generally has about as much in common with his local Imam as Pope Frankie does with the most demented loon to attend one of Youth Defence's anti-abortion demos in Dublin last year. It could be said that the Catholic church's stance on abortion gives licence to the crazy fringe elements who go about the place with colour photos of aborted foetuses; as it could be argued that Moslem leaders who do not openly come out and say that a magazine such as Charlie Hebdo has every right to ridicule any aspect of any religion, including their own, are guilty of helping create an ambivalence on this issue which makes it easier for the crazies to pretend, to themselves and others, that they are in some way representative of Islam.
You are either for free speech or you are against it; it is, more or less, that simple. About Moslem leaders who unequivocally condemn the murders in Paris but go on to say that they do not believe that a magazine such as Charlie Hebdo should be allowed publish what it does, it can credibly be argued in mitigation that no organised religion - at least none I am aware of - has ever actively campaigned for the right of others to ridicule it.
Back in 1979 Malcolm Muggeridge and the gay Bishop of Southwark argued on national television against the right of the Python comedians to make the film, The Life of Brian, which ridiculed both Christianity, and perhaps more dangerously for members of Actors Equity, the Workers Revolutionary Party. The internet is awash with right wing Christians, and a few Jews, shouting about how the Paris events prove that Islam is fundamentally different to either Christianity or Judaism. Well, yes, different in the way that Mr Ceausescu was different to Fidel Castro. We'd all have chosen Stalinism of the more sultry Cuban variety, if the only alternative was its much uglier Romanian cousin. But it is a difference of degree rather than a fundamental one.
All religions are grand, as long as no one takes much of the stuff their Holy Books say at all seriously. In times less tolerant than 1979 British co-religionists of Mr Muggeridge and his flamey Bishop pal would have put John Cleese on a very hot fire; the French Catholic church was similarly tolerant until it was cut down to size between 1789 and 1793.
It is not a case though, for the most part, of the Christian and Jewish religions having learned to be more tolerant but of them being made to behave. Sometimes by legislation. Other times by sharper means. That said, I'm sure 'Hibernicus', administrator of the conservative online discussion board 'Irish Catholics' who in 2013 described my poem 'What The Virgin At Knock Would Say If She Could Speak' as "an atrocity" wouldn't want me shot to death with a Kalashnikov. He'd probably rather the traditional Spanish method of heretical me having hot metal shoved up my bum; something which, though I can't be sure, I don't think I'd like. The only thing that's stopping him is that his 'pro-life' friend Lucinda Creighton isn't Taoiseach yet. When she is, I'm sure Lucy will take the opportunity to add further legislative beef to Ireland's already potentially repressive 2009 blasphemy law.
We shouldn't be surprised when organised religions try to put themselves beyond ricidule; they have always done so. Nor should we be surprised when they hum and haw about free speech, and say things like "Of course we're against shooting cartoonists but..." There always is a "but" after which, if the question is pushed, there's usually some waffle about the victim, in this case Charlie Hebdo, having been deliberately provocative.
Far more serious than the equivocations of organised mysticism is the fact that similar noises are sure to be found on large parts of what these days passes for the radical left. The journalists and cartoonists shot dead this morning where murdered, not because of French foreign policy, but because they published things the gunmen (or women) did not like and because, unlike many in the media, they refused to be intimidated. So why then is the article about the massacre on the UK based Stop The War Coalition website headlined "Paris massacre: Lessons that need to be learned by our war-making governments". The article does offer "the profoundest condemnation" but apart from the Archbishop of Canterbury style sentence - "It should be possible to satirise or to criticise ideas without this being something that can result in death or injury." - talks hardly at all about the right to free expression which is, surely, the main issue here. This wasn't an attack on a French military base. The people shot this morning were cartoonists and journalists, not soldiers or politicians. And note the lack of anger in the sentence "It should be possible to satirise or to criticise ideas without this being something that can result in death or injury." It has the passion of a Human Resources manager saying things she/he doesn't really believe at a staff team-building session in a terrible hotel in Bridlington. And that's because, I suspect, the leaders of the Stop The War Coalition don't really believe in free speech. Or at least it's not a priority.
The tone of the article seems to indicate that they think of the murders in Paris this morning as an extremely misguided, counter productive act in the anti-imperialist struggle, rather than an attack on freedom of expression, a right they themselves exercise more than most. In the unlikey event that the British Home Office placed a gagging order on Stop The War Coalition convenor Ms Lindsey German, her supporters would suddenly have a lot to say about democracy. But not today, no; today most of the talk is about anti-imperialism and Islamophobia. For the record, and the little it's worth, if anyone uses today's events as an excuse to so much as push past a Moslem woman in a queue then I hope the French Police - and any else whose up for it - handle such racist opportunists roughly indeed.
The Irish Anti-War Movement and Galway Alliance Against War locally usually follow a line similiar to the UK Stop The War Coalition. Perhaps they'll prove me wrong this time. When they get around to commenting, maybe it'll be all about the free speech, which they're very much in favour of, don't you understand...
I sincerely doubt it. Because the prevailing political tendencies in those organisations are in favour of free speech only in the way that the late Erich Honecker was. If you're wholehearted enough in your hatred of American imperialism and Israel, then you'll be grand. The only time I have been physically assaulted because someone took exception to a poem of mine was when a self-delared 'peace activist' jumped from their car and shoved me up against the railings opposite Westside Shopping Centre. It was almost comical. The reaction of most of this person's fellow peace activists was that I should not have been shoved up against said railings but that I needed in future to choose my words, and those I targetted in my poems, more carefully.
I haven't taken their advice. Long before I ever heard the words Charlie Hebdo, I knew that many such peace activists have a troubled relationship with free speech. Like Priests or Imams, these people tend to take themselves immensely seriously. I suspect though that in quiet moments they privately realise that they are in fact quite silly and that, if the laughter started, the whole world might join in. If they held state power, which is admittedly a long way off, a magazine such as Charlie Hebdo would likely be banned or certainly censored. In the interests of the revolution, comrade, don't you understand.
Since my 2008 epiphany re: peace activists, I have published many poems on Harry's Place, a UK based current affairs blog, much hated by them. No doubt if a couple of masked gunmen decided one dark January morning to machine gun the majority of contributors to Harry's Place, in the supposed name of Allah or Matt Talbot or Marhall Applewhite or David Icke, the Stop The War Coalition would publish an article later that day talking mostly about Iraq. And Islamophobia. And why it's important we keep our hands off Syria. Not that mine have ever been on it. But nevermind. It'd almost be worth being shot to prove that it would be so.