The story of the Charlie Hebdo shootings is one of vicious cruelty inflicted on the innocent and defenceless, yet it’s also a reflection of the world we live in, of cultural fault-lines that may at any time give way to seismic events of the type we saw last week. Our goal must be to resolve these tensions and move back from the extremities. So, my question is this: is this goal best served by publishing a drawing of The Prophet (peace be upon Him) naked, on all fours, genitals bared ?
I’ve no religious axe to grind here. I think that religion is probably just a passing phase on humanity’s path from outright barbarism to some kind of true enlightenment (hopefully). So maybe I’m allowed to ask, to whisper amid the roar of righteous indignation, where’s the empathy with our fellow citizens, our muslim friends?
Satirical journalism, and journalism in general, is a noble activity with a noble history. But that doesn’t ennoble everything the press puts out. There are many shameful examples of misery being heaped on innocent citizens for no benefit, other than to the circulations of the publications concerned or the satisfaction of their salacious readers.
Likewise, freedom of speech is a noble concept. But, like all freedoms, it must be exercised responsibly and with awareness of the likely consequences. That’s why it’s limited by the same laws that defend it: defamation, libel, slander, incitement to racial hatred, these are all legal curbs on our absolute freedom of speech.
There is an argument put about that if we don’t exercise our freedoms we may lose them. That may be true in some situations but certainly not all. Not so long ago, homosexuality was illegal, as was attempted suicide. I doubt whether the freedoms achieved through recent legislation would be threatened if I, or anybody else, or, indeed, everybody else, were to refrain from practising homosexuality or committing suicide.
Here, writing before the shootings, is Jean-François Bouthors in the regional daily Ouest France: “claiming to defend the freedom of expression by in turn engaging in a game of contempt, sarcasm and stigmatisation is very wrong“. Prior to the killings, opinion in France had been divided. There is a Gallic tradition of lampooning established institutions, but many, including senior politicians, had been urging moderation for some time, agreeing with Le Figaro that publishing such cartoons is “as easy as it is irresponsible“.
So was the publication of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo justified? What was the objective and was it achieved? There’s no doubt that many of our enlightened attitudes owe their existence in part to courageous journalism over the centuries, to the readiness to speak out and point the critical finger at entrenched interests.
But there’s a fine line that it’s best not to cross. Generally, that line is defined within the law. As a matter of fact, that is the line that the editors of Charlie Hebdo have generally followed. They were, in fact, taken to court by a group of muslim organisations and acquitted. During the case, the magazine received support in the court from key figures, including François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.
Let’s pause here to consider how the support of key establishment figures, followed by the acquittal, would have amplified the sense of insult and isolation already felt by those who brought the case. Almost as if the traditional dynamic had been reversed, that it was the magazine that was part of the establishment and that the satirists were those with the entrenched interests.
Besides, the law itself is a blunt tool, an umbrella that places limits on how badly people may misbehave, but cannot possibly decide, in every situation, the precise point at which our actions become unacceptable. That’s left up to individual citizens to decide.
Imagine, if you will, the Muslim community in this country, or in France, massed together and facing us, the non-muslims, across a chasm of misunderstanding. Then picture, in your mind’s eye, the front ranks on either side, the hot-heads, the bigots, the downright criminally insane. Further back on either side stand the silent, decent majority.
Now consider what will happen if some nasty person in our front rank starts chucking stones. Never mind the motives for doing so. They know, we all know, that they will cause offence and pain. They know, we all know, that they will cause offence and pain.
What happens next? Let me tell you. The front rank on the muslim side are already offended. They are career offendees. Our culture, our very existence, offends them. They are, as it were, fundamentally fucked up. The occasional stone isn’t going to change their attitude one way or the other.
No, those stones sail right past the loonies and land squarely amongst the majority of decent, non-radical, law-abiding muslims. Many, as they get on quietly with their sober, serious lives, must look on much of our inane, in-your-face culture with bewilderment. Their leaders are, for the most part, wise and tolerant in their utterances. They are, of course, aware that the colonial powers, France, Britain and the US, have carved up their world and crapped on it. They may not be mad keen on booze, big brother or bullfighting. But they’re (usually) not shouting about any of this.
These are the very people on whom the future peace of the world depends. That’s not hyperbole, it’s fact. Peace is impossible until we get on terms with the majority of muslims and isolate the nutters.
If we are distressed at recent events, spare a thought for the majority of decent muslims. On top of the sadness at the senseless loss of life, which we all feel, they have the anguish of it being perpetrated, at least at some level, and in the eyes of many, by people of their own kind. And underlying all this is the tension between their natural desire to be kind and tolerant and the hurtful, gratuitous barbs aimed at that which they hold most sacred.
Of all the nobler human qualities, the one that marks us off from all the other animals, and is, perhaps, the finest of all, is the capacity for empathy, that ability to see the other person’s point of view. It is, in the long run, our only hope for the future.
The Charlie Hebdo killings are horrible beyond words. It’s just possible, please God, The Prophet (peace be upon Him), and anybody else who can help, that they will turn out to have been the lowest point in our path towards mutual tolerance. But this hasn’t been a parable about good and evil. It’s been about criminality and a society that needs a long, hard, self-critical look at itself. This tidal wave of righteous indignation shouldn’t be too righteous.