He's concerned about that Charlie Hebdo think-piece, the one about how the Muslims are oppressing everyone by wandering around wearing headscarves and so on. Specifically, he's worried that
"...chilling of discussion around Islam encourages a climate of mutual apprehension and tension in European communities, where non-Muslims are implicitly told to keep their concerns to themselves while Muslims increasingly come to live in a kind of protective bubble of non-criticism or just non-discussion".
And I mean, he has a point here. It's certainly true that you can attract plenty of hysterical abuse, simply for speaking reasonably on various Islam-themed topics. I'll add that the same is true of sport journalists who get on the wrong side of football fans; critics who e.g. give superhero movies bad reviews and women who have the temerity to say things while being female.
Still, Brendan's describing an existing phenomenon here*, and the Hebdo case is very unusual in that it's one of very few involving the threat of actual violence, rather than just some twatty comments on social media.
It's worth noting though that the Hebdo piece didn't piss people off because it was telling us uncomfortable truths. It mainly annoyed people because it's yet another example of folk intentionally acting like stroppy, belligerent dicks, while theatrically complaining about how they're not allowed to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks. Basically much like The Spectator, but French.
And of course, folk have every right to act like stroppy, belligerent dicks if they so please, much as other people have every right to respond by calling them racists, or whatever.
Is it racist, to kick off on a mad ramble about how pissed off you are that the Muslims won't even let you buy a bacon roll in an imaginary bakery? Is it bigoted, to make illogical claims conflating headscarves and nailbombs?
Well maybe it is and maybe it isn't, and the distinction doesn't really matter much to me. The iron rule remains the same either way - you don't have to be racist to be an arsehole.
That being the case, the Hebdo piece looks to me like that very modern form of opinion journalism - the deliberately antagonising cry-wank.
All I did was deliberately go out of my way to annoy people, and now they're all annoyed because they are so very thin-skinned and unreasonable. Oh, woe!
And none of this is happening in a vaccuum. The French generally are a bit more... robust than we are, on such issues. Their public figures certainly aren't afraid to say precisely what they think. French intellectuals routinely announce that Everything Is Fucked because white people are too nice to the ethnics, and it's always seemed to me that there's a strong undercurrent in French thought that foreigners can never be French, mostly because of their wacky religious beliefs.
And let's remember that there is currently a cultural and political movement that is rocking like a hurricane in France, and that it isn't self-censorship or bashfulness in the face of fruity foreign fatwas. It's the fucking National Front.
While the hacks wail in terror about snotty Tweets, the actual real far-right is booming. Let's not insult Brendan, or any of the other howlers and chucklers, by assuming that they aren't aware of precisely the type of politics that is driving headscarf bans or pork-only school lunches.
I think that ultimately, what we're looking at here is deep confusion** about the difference between
- Intentionally being as dickish as possible, and
- Media types going out of their way to annoy people and then complaining about tyranny when people get annoyed.
Secularism itself involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.
I'll leave it up to you to decide whether e.g. boiling with resentment about the unavailability of imaginary ham sandwiches is an example of secularism, or just of people being as dickish as possible.
What I will say is that this confusion isn't at all cost-free. It's precisely this kind of nonsense that's brought us such unedifying occurrences as:
British soldiers kicking down doors in Helmand in order to liberate Afghan women from their husbands, fathers and brothers;
The French government freeing women from oppression by threatening them with arrest if they wear the wrong outfits, and French authorities giving schoolkids the choice between eating pork or fucking off, and
The British government trying to help oppressed Muslim women by deporting the ones that don't speak English.
It's not always easy to tell which is which, because there's a hell of a lot of overlap between the two sides and because both deploy similar levels of apocalyptic boo-hoo, but it can be done.
*As it happens, I often agree with Brendan on most free speech issues. I think it is problematic that many political and media types are afraid to speak their minds openly because they think they'll be branded racists. As I've argued in the past of characters including Nick Griffin, Nigel Farage and David Starkey, the best thing for everyone is to encourage cranks to be as frank as possible, and to let the public decide whether they're arseholes or not. I'm very confident about the public's judgement on that, at least.
**A deep confusion that is being intentionally sown by hacks including Brendan O'Neill, by the way.