On January 7th, the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine were brutally attacked by two murderers who claimed they were Muslim. I watched, like everyone else as this horror unfolded. I felt the outrage that someone, anyone could think that people should be killed for exercising the right to free speech.
The surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo became the pride of France as they stood up in their grief and their fear and published their magazine in response. Artists around the world united in support, and people around the world looked on and understood one simple truth – freedom of speech matters.
In the UK, we have the opposite. The University of Southampton was planning to hold a conference, not a conference denigrating Islam or Judaism or Christianity, not a conference on the right to insult or question authority, but a conference on the role of international law in in one of the most stubborn, intractable conflicts in the world.
Israel and its supporters have historically been fearful of international law, and for obvious reasons. Israel is currently violating more UN resolutions than any other state on Earth and is actively wiping another country off the map with the support and backing of the United States. The organisers of the conference were, quite predictably, subjected to a dedicated, organised smear campaign by the pro-Israel lobby.
Last night, and in spite of a legal obligation to uphold the freedom of speech, the university withdrew its permission for the conference to take place. The Vice Chancellor of the university has met behind closed doors with pro-Israel lobbyists and concluded that for health and safety reasons, the conference cannot go ahead. One can only imagine why the conference organisers were excluded from these meetings.
The survivors of the attack on Charlie Hebdo stood defiantly in support of free speech, even after their dear friends and colleagues were slaughtered. The University of Southampton has abandoned a commitment to free speech after a little gentle pressure was applied. Frankly, it’s pathetic.
I will not share or support your cowardice. I will not understand it. I will not forgive it. But I will remember it.
And when free speech is attacked or subverted, I will remember that which matters most – #JeSuisCharlie