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08/01/2015

They came for the Cartoonists

This is a quickly put together entry to the blog tonight, in response to the shootings in Paris.

I was unfamiliar with the French publication Charlie Hebdo until terrorists entered their offices yesterday, having shot dead in cold blood, amongst others, a police officer named after the very religious figure they were claiming to protect. They entered the building not on a frenzied rampage, but with what seems to be the cold, calculated intent of an assassin. They summoned their targets by name and sentenced each to death. In doing so, they became not God's righteous anger, rather Satan manifest.

As any regular reader of this blog will know, I consider myself a committed Christian. This is my first and foremost religious identity - although I would then qualify that with terms like Unitarian, Quaker, Non-Subscribing, Liberal, Progressive and Free. 

As a Christian, I accept Christ as a prime archetype and arbiter in my life - or at least I try to. I suppose, if I use evangelical-speak, I love Jesus. I love his teachings and example as found in the Bible and other non-canonical scripture, I love the works upon works that he has seeded over the centuries, I love - admittedly, on rare occasion - that mystical, immanent experience of Christ being somehow with me when I happen upon a 'thin place'. I am instinctively inclined, therefore, to feel defensive of Jesus because I have this attachment, one that is as much emotional (if not more so) as it is rational.

I have looked at a smattering of the Charlie Hebdo output and, I have to say, I greet some of it with a wry smile:
"Unhook me, I want to vote!"

"Bin Laden is alive!"

And some of it I look upon with disapproval - something like a frown, a roll of the eyes, a sigh and a huff:
“The true story of the baby Jesus... What your pastor never dared tell you is finally revealed in this new Gospel according to Riss [the cartoonist]. Because did you know that the Baby Jesus was a child of sin, scourge of dragons, sandpit faith-healer, child-killer, blinder of men, hyperactive child-king, tormentor of his teachers, and apprentice prophet?”


"Cardinal Vingt-Trois has three fathers..." (a response to opposition to gay marriage led by the Archbishop of Paris)

I realise this publication is deliberately trying to provoke a reaction, so even the most shocking images I can tolerate and feel no pressing need to respond to with out-and-out protest. However, in terms of deliberately provoking reaction, if publications or other forms of media and art do choose to engage in this strategy, they have to accept that the offended may respond more passionately than I.

After all, the right to provoke includes the right to respond. But this all must take place within a liberal democratic framework. So any response generally takes the form of letter writing, maybe a picket outside of the headquarters or venue from which the provocation is emanating, maybe a boycott of products - maybe, quite simply, a blunt exchange of words, a guttural shout with an accidental spray of spit lacking any of that middle-class etiquette we tend to insist upon, even when at our most heartfelt.

All of this falls under our shared right to freedom of expression. The same freedom of expression that allows Christians to worship in their churches, chapels and meetings houses. The same freedom of expression that allows Muslims to worship in their mosques. And so, as a lover of Jesus who wishes to express such love, I inevitably share the same platform as the apparently 'anti-Christian' cartoonists who wish to mock, undermine, misrepresent and slander Jesus.

This is why, on the drive to work this morning, quite casually tuning into BBC Radio 4's Today programme and hearing a reporter state this was a tension between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, I felt a sudden surge of indignation.

How have we backed ourselves into this corner? Why are we allowing this narrative to persist, that somehow one person's doodles can impede another person's faith - with the subtext following, admittedly in the shadows, that Charlie Hebdo brought this horror upon themselves? Do we really believe this, or are we trying to take a sophisticated, intellectual position to disguise our base fear in the face of a determined enemy?

And as we have seen with today's British media, we are running scaredUnlike our continental European neighbours, unlike some Australian publishers - not one major British outlet has published any of the Prophet Mohammed related cartoons. I understand this, I too feel scared. Having imagined a man in a balaclava tracking me down and bursting into my house, I initially refrained from publishing on this blog the ever-so insightful Charlie Hebdo cartoon where a soldier of the ISIS / Al-Qaeda death cult (a cult given a good debunking by Hussein Ibish on BookForum) is beheading the very prophet they claim to defend with the tagline,

"I'm the prophet, idiot!" 

"Die, infidel!"

Is this not the crux of the matter in one cartoon - that these movements in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan are much more about a desperately-corrupt attempt to exert power than any religious commitment. It is no wonder then that the major Western recruiting ground for the ISIL cause is said to be the gangs of downtrodden estates.

But this does not mean we can say ordinary, everyday Muslims have no responsibility - just as we non-muslims cannot wash our hands completely. David Aaronovitch writes in The Times today that a mix of Muslim pressure for blasphemy laws mixed with a more general misplaced interpretation of multiculturalism - and a fear for our personal safety and those we hold dear - has indirectly contributed to yesterday's crimes. The article itself is behind a paywall, as is all content for The Times, but here is a snippet:

"The problem is, you may think, that even though the vast majority of Muslims would no more kill a cartoonist than a Methodist would, they still don't quite get our freedom of speech. When they complain about insults and say they're angry about this or that being published and want it banned, then they create the permissive fluid in which the violent zealot swims.

So we need to be clear, for everyone's sake, and at the moment we are anything but. This is this deal for living together. The same tolerance that allows Muslims or Methodists freedom to practice and espouse their religion is the same tolerance that allows their religion or any aspect of it to be ridiculed. Take away one part of the deal and the other part falls too. You live here, that's what you agree to. You don't like it, go somewhere else.

The countries of Europe need the same glacial clarity that governs free speech in America. There shall be no law (or action) that abridges the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of people peaceably to assemble and to petition for redress.

And there's something else we need to do. A reason why Charlie Hebdo could be singled out for attack is because the rest of us have been cowards. There should, of course, be satires on Islam as on Christianity as on capitalism as on Russell Brand. But there aren't. Part of this is because of a misplaced decency ("why make people feel uncomfortable?") but most of it is fear."

In this sense, Huffington Post columnist Adam Wagner is right - we are not all Charlie.

I do not wish for people to go around gratuitously hurting the feelings of my Muslim neighbours. But New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sets a challenge which cannot be ignored when he argues that - as a citizen of a liberal democracy, as someone who cherishes my own right to a particular form of expression - I do have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with the man or woman I call blasphemer

We're all blasphemers now.


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