Supporting Cllr Chapman’s Motion on the Charlie Hebdo Attack

At the last full council, I seconded a Motion put down by Cllr Chris Chapman that called upon councillors and the Mayor to send our condolences to the Mayor of Paris and the people she represents in the aftermath of the diabolical attack on their city. I made the following speech in the Chamber:

“Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish to second Cllr Chapman’s motion.

It has been a difficult fortnight. When we discussed putting down this motion, I was confident that I had a lot to say. The raw emotion, the unadulterated outrage as we saw people literally erased for having the temerity to publish a picture. It was an act so over the top, so disproportionate that it would have been verging on the absurd had the result not been so tragic.

That people entirely unconnected to Charlie Hebdo should also lose their lives – including policeman, Ahmed Merabet and those taken hostage in the Kosher deli, shows that none of us should feel safe that this is a tyranny that might not one day touch us, including here in Tower Hamlets.

My horror was pure, it was an easy emotion to feel. As much hatred as those gunmen could pour out, we could all match in anger.

The debates that have followed have not been as pure. They have been difficult, tense, tetchy and blame-filled. They have covered all manner of topics from secularism to multiculturalism, freedom of speech to the right to take offence, the nature of Islam to Western foreign policy, and whether the powers we give the state protect or threaten us as individuals. All of these topics, I believe, have particular resonance to our lives here in Tower Hamlets, and perhaps like others, my unadulterated anger has given way to confusion about what our response should be as a society. The only conclusion I have reached is that such muddy debate is not something to fear, but something for which we must be incredibly grateful. It is in the shades of grey that we find common ground and shared values. It is when thought is pure and entrenched that we often face greatest danger.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s naively confident that history was over. The generations before my own had done the hard graft. They had won the rights, fought the wars, engaged in the tricky debate. We were on a plateau from where we could enjoy the fruits of their labour. It perhaps made us all complacent.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Paris, it is that this is far from the truth. Freedom is not guaranteed but something whose value each generation must weigh up and, if necessary, defend. But this fight won’t be comfortable with nice, clear answers. It asks of us at the very least to engage in awkward conversation when generalities, niceties and banalities would be so much easier.

We should not shy from such conversation as community representatives. We live in a borough producing a number of young people who are enticed by an alternative that in some ways seems to offer them easy answers. I hope that tonight, no matter what each of us has felt and thought over the past fortnight, on this we can all agree – that the messiness of life cannot be tidied up by gunning down opposition and assassinating those who challenge our world view. There are many conversations and debates to be had. But on that matter we must be crystal clear.

I ask, therefore, that we say to Paris in one voice that we feel her pain, unite in condemning the people who brought terror to her streets and put our arms around her grieving families.”

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