The killing of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo is a watershed moment for me. Until now I had tended to believe that in the current of flare up of tensions between Islam and the West the important thing was to avoid fanning the flames of an already volatile situation.
Islam, I told myself, had emerged in societies where the tradition of anti-authoritarian rhetoric that we rightly pride ourselves for in the West had never had chance to flourish.
Insulting Islam, therefore, was not the same as insulting Christianity which has had to accept (albeit very reluctantly) attacks on its dogma, hypocrisies and abuses as a part of life so long as it wants to continue to play a role in the modern secular West.
You had to be extra sensitive. You had to treat Islam the way you might treat an elderly relative, toning down your language in their presence, accepting there were certain modern ideas they might find unpalatable.
On top of this I didn’t want to be associated with all those right-wing reactionaries with their scare-mongering about Islamofacism and their claptrap about Europe being turned into a caliphate.
But then Charlie Hebdo happened and I realised I had it wrong.
I realised that I had taken for granted something very essential about my life in the secular West that the cartoonists and writers who died in the hail of bullets this week had not.
Namely, that the value of freedom of expression that we see as central to our western culture is not innate. It exists only because people in the past have been prepared to lay down their lives for it, and it will quickly evaporate unless we continue to fight for it now.
If you live in the West you should be prepared to have your ideas challenged, picked apart, held up to ridicule if necessary. There are no exceptions to this. This is western culture.
You might be offended, that’s your right. But it’s also my right to cause offense if I so choose. This is one of the key reasons western culture has succeeded so well and theocratic societies have not.
The results may be messy, tasteless, tactless, puerile, even hurtful. But free and open debate is also what allows progress. You might, for example, find Russell Brand and Nigel Farage hard to take but the fact that British political life can accommodate two so very different visions is a sign of the strength of our democracy not the opposite, as many have suggested.
Islamist extremists may call the West the Great Satan but the digital landscape where they make their Stone Age pronouncements wouldn’t even exist if we hadn’t done such a thorough job of kicking totalitarian religious orthodoxy to the curb. There would be no smart phone without Galileo and Voltaire.
Believe what you want. Believe in God, the big bang, lizard overlords, unicorns. I defend anyone’s right to have their beliefs. But first and foremost I defend my right to say what I like about them. To live any other way is to abandon principles that have helped create the most free and open society the world has ever known.