Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo...and why the terrorists are winning

I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that we were stunned by the events in Paris yesterday.

I have no wish to recall those events, which have been described in shocking detail elsewhere. Suffice to say that this was a co-ordinated attack on a journal that has, for the last decade, unapologetically persisted in publishing satirical cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed.

Charlie Hebdo is more than a French equivalent of Private Eye, although the comparison may be a good one. Both publications ridicule, mock, criticise and generally make fun of politicians, public figures, mainstream media and religion. But where Private Eye, in its quintessentially English way, rather uncontroversially pokes fun at the staid, sedate Church of England, Charlie dared to go much further.

While other publications have opted not to publish material that may be perceived as "provocative", Charlie has chosen to treat radical Islam in the same way it treats Catholicism and Judaism. Its targetting of the intolerance and hypocrisy of fundamentalist religion has, at times, manifested itself in depictions of Mohammed  - sometimes in pornographic or otherwise compromising poses. In 2011, Charlie "invited" the prophet Mohammed to be guest editor, which outraged radical Muslims and resulted in the publication's offices being firebombed.

Inevitably, there have been those who suggest that Charlie Hebdo's stance has been unnecessarily combative and has fuelled tensions. Such an analysis is questionable, but understandable: I will not deny that some of the cartoons have been in poor taste. Others would suggest that Charlie is simply highlighting, in its creative and no-holds-barred way, the nature of uncompromising radical fundamentalism. My own view is that Charlie Hebdo has sought to make radical followers of religion look rather silly - lampooning them all indiscriminately. The paper also featured a cartoon showing former Pope Benedict XVI in amorous embrace with a Vatican guard and an Orthodox Jew enjoying a kiss with a Nazi soldier. While deeply shocking, these cartoons have invariably pointed towards pertinent truths rather than simply mocking religion.

Charlie Hebdo has been making sardonic, and sometimes acerbic, examination of domestic and world events since being re-founded in 1992. It has depicted former President Sarkozy as a sick vampire, and has launched several attacks on the French far-right. The publication has been nothing other than consistent. In order to understand why the vicious attacks occurred, we need to ask the question: why is it acceptable for political ideology be challenged in this way, when different rules seem to apply to religion?

Why do the rights of religious people not to "be offended" trump the right of free speech? Free speech, if it is free at all, means the freedom to criticise all views - be they political, social, economic...or, yes, religious. That is not suggesting that it is always wise to ridicule and mock, especially if it demeans others or is tantamount to bullying, but the free press should be free to make such observations, criticisms and denouncements.

Today millions of us all over the world say that we stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. But do we? Where have we been for the last ten years? Have we been championing the right to freely ridicule radical Islam, including daring to depict Mohammed in cartoon form? Or have we instead been timidly urging caution, seeking to placate the demands of fundamentalists not to be offended?

Douglas Murray makes this point in The Spectator, pointing out that - in the aftermath of the 2005 protests against Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten for publishing cartoons featuring Mohammed - "Charlie Hebdo stood alone.  In the wake of the 2005 Danish cartoons affair no other major newspaper or magazine in Europe was willing to keep running depictions of Islam’s founder.  Of course they said they didn’t publish, or republish, because they didn’t want to cause offence, or because they thought the (wholly innocuous) depictions were wilfully ‘provocative’ and the like...People will come up with various excuses, but in truth they won’t publish because they are afraid."

And that is the reality. Fear has paralysed the media, and this paralysis shows that - in spite of bold assertions that terrorism will never win, or that our liberty will never be stolen - that the terrorists are in fact winning. In the recent past the fear induced by the creation of the al-Qaeda bogeyman allowed Western governments to do illiberal things in the name of counter-terrorism, thus underlying the degree to which terrorism was winning the war, framing anew our political discourses and social attitudes. Now, no-one dares to publish satire that does not subject itself to conforming to the demands of those whose attitudes it mocks - because of the potential reprisals. If that doesn't show the power of terrorism, I don't know what does.

By a frightening coincidence, as these attacks were being carried out I was having a telephone conversation to a moderate British muslim living in Lancashire. He told me that he is terrified by the number of young British muslims being attracted to Wahhabbism and similar intolerant expressions of Islam. He explained how the muslim community is becoming increasingly divided and fractured along the lines of those who accept radicalist perspectives and those who don't. And he feels it's the radicals who are winning - and not only in terms of winning over individuals and families, but in rapidly becoming the new "mainstream". Rigid, intolerant and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam barely a century old are (in his view) not only challenging the mainstream establishment but looking to leave it behind.

Oddly, during the discussion neither of us had any notion of what was happening across the Channel. But if radicalism is thriving, it must be challenged. As Murray makes clear, Charlie Hebdo essentially stood alone. If we are to truly "stand in solidarity" with those courageous journalists, then we will continue to stand up against institutional, political and religious intolerance wherever it manifests itself, whatever the tactics of intimidation used against us.

Two weeks ago, Newsweek published an article in which it argued that the Bible is so misunderstood it's a sin. It's a brilliant read if you're theologically-inclined, but for those who are not it is probably sufficient to explain that, in carefully considering the Bible through the lenses of historical purpose and theological scholarship, it boldly presented the case for debunking much of what is held to be "Christian" by Biblical literalists. The backlash from American Evangelicals has been both predictable in its inevitability and stunning in its viciousness.

True, the author did make some unfortunate generalisations - but to see Christian denominations using their power not so much to defend their position but to deny Newsweek's right to publish such articles makes me rather uncomfortable. It is intimidation...and it claims a protection for religion that is neither merited nor helpful. Right to religious belief is granted and accepted, but that does not mean that such belief cannot be challenged.

Following the 2011 attacks in Norway, Norwegian president Jens Stoltenberg said solutions lay in "more democracy, more openness, but not naivety". If we are to genuinely counter the threat of terrorism, we can no longer to pander to it and live in fear of it, but rather must use what opportunities we have to challenge the thinking behind it.

Do we really stand with the fallen Charlie Hebdo journalists? Will we take it upon ourselves to take forward their mission of exposing hypocrisy and challenging all kinds of authoritarianism and intolerance? Or are we instead appalled by the brutality while feeling that the publication brought its troubles upon itself by being unnecessarily provocative? Or perhaps we are simply awe-struck by their courage but unable to find the same within ourselves?

To say "Je suis Charlie" is indeed a very hard thing to do honestly. That's not intended as a criticism, but rather to underline quite how courageous Charlie Hebdo has been for the last decade, and how much we owe it.

To paraphrase Mr Stoltenberg we need more freedom, more openness, but not naivety.

We naturally need this from politicians and the media. But it should also come from religious leaders. Rather than simply reacting with outrage to the atrocities, how much more positive would it be if religious leaders of all faiths came together to make a statement along the lines of "we have our beliefs which we sincerely hold, but we would defend anyone's right to criticise or question those beliefs. Such criticism is a fundamental right in a democratic society. Any philosophy that suggests it is above criticism is essentially a danger to a free society."

Of course, it's unlikely to happen...because many of us are still not quite ready to stand with Charlie Hebdo.


NC said...

In my view, the fundamentalists seek to bring about the "clash of cultures" and they believe that they will win.

I agree with the jihadists on just one thing, and your article has confirmed it. That is that it will become clear that there is a dividing line, between fundamental religion and reason. We are being forced to decide which side we are on.

I am not ambiguous in my belief that religion - all religion, including the fluffy bunny ones, is the fertile soil in which this hideous extremism grows.

bjsalba said...

An elite rich is getting ever richer, the poor are getting ever poorer and the middle class is shrinking and getting poorer.

In such a world the young see no future so some will turn to violence. What else would you expect?

Andrew said...

There is a great deal more to the situation than a shrinking middle class and poorer members of society feelign disenfranchised.

This is not the first attack on Charlie Hebdo, and those who plead the loudest about their religious right not to be offended are not always the poorest members of society.

Anonymous said...

Jyllans Posten is Danish, not Dutch.

Andrew said...

Of course it is, thanks for the correction.