The facts of this incident are pretty well known by now.
Islamic State (IS) has claimed that it was behind the attack on a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in the US state of Texas.
It said that “two soldiers of the caliphate” carried out the attack at a conference centre near Dallas.
IS’s al-Bayan Radio news bulletin said the exhibition “was portraying negative pictures of the Prophet Muhammad”.
Both suspects were shot dead after opening fire at the contest on Sunday. It is believed to be the first time that IS has claimed to have carried out an attack in the US. Elton Simpson had talked about going to Somalia to fight with militant Islamists, and had been under surveillance since 2006. He had shared a flat in Arizona with the other alleged gunman, Nadir Soofi.
IS has made no secret of its ambition to spread its tentacles outside Syria and Iraq. In a statement the group stated:-
“We tell America that what is coming will be even bigger and more bitter, and that you will see the soldiers of the Islamic State do terrible things.”
This is obviously not the first jihadist attack to take place on the US mainland, but if Islamic State planned and directed it, then that would be a significant development.
In some ways, it was a failure. The attackers did not get near the actual event organisers or speakers and the two gunmen ended up being the only ones killed, shot down not by a SWAT team, but by a traffic policeman. What indignity!
But that would be to miss the point. For IS, the main objective is the generation of fear. The message they want to give Americans is: “You are never safe; we are constantly watching.This was just the beginning and there are more attacks to come.”
The organisation of this controversial contest is open to other considerations. Was it ill advised and deliberately provocative? Did this contest in any way further the concept of free expression and democracy? What exactly was the point apart from putting two fingers up to Islam?
I would clarify: I am no IS apologist and am extremely disturbed by the radical perverted form of Islam, and Sharia Law absolutely horrifies me.
In the UK we have a relatively new law which is actually quite restrictive. “Incitement to engender racial or religious hatred” is in fact a curtailing of liberty. I could not, for instance, stand on a street corner and proclaim “Death to all Muslims and Jews!” even if I were so disposed.
Similarly, when soldiers’ coffins were repatriated to the UK during the Iraq war, extremist Muslims who infiltrated the welcoming crowd were arrested for burning the British flag, because that too is gratuitously inflammatory, and contravenes the law.
However, this recent episode tests our tolerance and our right to free speech to the limit, because to many, self-censorship constitutes submission to a system of beliefs held by those who would most certainly not reciprocate that right.
For me endemic in the concept of the right to offend is the responsibility to exercise that right with restraint if there is no discernible productive purpose. And I see no productive purpose here. Satire and parody are deeply embedded in Western literature and art, and enjoy a rich tradition.
Swift, Voltaire, Pope, Dryden were masters of incisive satire, but each had a definite purpose and none was destructive just for the sake of it.
The recent Charlie – Hebdo incident in Paris quite rightly elicited worldwide condemnation, and brought people out in their hundreds of thousands to defend the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
That the brutal and beyond cruel Islamic State would execute anyone remotely criticising their world view is unquestionable. That they would wish to terrorise, brutalise and radicalise is also indisputable.
However our values offer a counter narrative: the right to offend is not tantamount to an obligation to offend.