It has happened. I more or less knew it would, but I had hoped that a bit of common sense would prevail.
Charlie Hebdo have published an edition of their magazine with a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed on the front cover.
My heart sinks. It is one of the most stupid, crass and insensitive things they could have done – but there has been an awful inevitability about it. It has been like a car crash happening in slow motion. You know it’s coming, you know it is going to hurt and there is nothing you can do about it.
A few days ago I blogged about why I am not Charlie. I am even less Charlie now after this.
Let me explain why.
Publishing an image of Mohammed is not just offensive to Muslims. It is prohibited in Islam. So when Charlie Hebdo publish a cartoon, they are not just attacking the small number of extremists who resort to violence. They are also offending the 1.8 billion followers of Islam. One quarter of the world’s population.
When I blogged “I am not Charlie”, some people agreed with me and some disagreed. Here are some of the arguments:
- It’s no big deal; it’s only a cartoon; any religion should tolerate being mocked; I don’t mind it.
This was a biggie. Some people tried to play down the importance of the image. To them it was a bit of harmless fun. What’s the problem?
The flaw in this line of thinking is that all faiths are different. They all have different rules and standards. Most forms of Christianity are highly visual. Churches are full of images from the Old and New Testaments. For many Christians the symbol of their faith is the crucifix. In some branches of Christianity, this is a plain cross. In others, the image includes a suffering Jesus. Catholicism, in particular, puts a strong emphasis on life-like images of Jesus including the wounds he suffered on the cross.
Islam places more emphasis on the written word than on images. This includes restrictions on images of people and images and especially of Mohammed.
This can mean that it is hard for people from a visual faith to understand a faith with a different point of view about religious imagery. Unless we are Muslim, it is hard to know how offensive this is for them.
Let’s imagine instead that Charlie Hebdo had published a picture that non-Muslims would find offensive. What if they had published some child pornography?
Or a picture of someone being murdered or tortured?
Or an offensive picture of you or someone close to you?
What if they had published a satirical piece mocking the victims of the Paris shootings?
Does that still seem like free speech?
Ah but it’s not the same, some will argue. Those things would be unacceptable. Publishing a cartoon of Mohammed is a different matter, isn’t it?
And that’s the problem. The people who are arguing that it’s no big deal are only seeing it only from their own perspective.
- It’s all about freedom of speech
No, it isn’t. Freedom of speech does not mean that you can say anything that you want. Every nation that believes in freedom of speech also has laws around tolerance and respect. We protect individuals by having laws on libel and slander. We restrict language that might lead to discrimination or race hate.
A few days after the Paris shootings, my newspaper printed this letter:
For a decade or more we have been subject to the dictates of political correctness, against our saying or doing anything that might cause offence.
Now, in the light of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, we are told that the freedom to offend is fundamental and to be defended.
Just what are we supposed to do?
I have read that letter several times. I can’t decide whether the person who wrote it is being sarcastic or pointing to the real issue here. If we justify Charlie Hebdo on the principle of free speech then we might as well forget everything that we have done around equality and the prevention of discrimination. An unlimited freedom to offend would blast us back to the stone age.
By all means publish a satirical magazine. Criticise Governments, individuals, organisations. Poke fun at extremists. Point out the hypocrisy of a nation that believes in freedom but has banned the burqa.
But there are limits. And attacking an entire faith for no purpose is one of them.
- The shootings are unjustified
There seems to be some weird logic going on here. Because the shootings were such an atrocity, some people are assuming that Charlie Hebdo must have been right to publish the cartoons in the first place.
It is almost as if the shootings were so wrong that the cartoons must have been right.
Some people are saying that we cannot criticise the cartoons, because that would mean that we are giving in to terrorists. We must not get into a situation where we are afraid to say anything that might be seen as a criticism of extremists.
These are all understandable human reactions. We have been shocked by the atrocities. We want to do something, to show sympathy, to stand up for those who were unjustly killed.
But that does not mean that Charlie Hebdo were right to publish the cartoons in the first place. It does not mean that they are right now.
We need to have the courage to say that the terrorists were wrong to take lives. But Charlie Hebdo were also wrong to publish images of Mohammed. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the people who are blindly chanting “Je suis Charlie” will gradually come round to the growing realisation of what they are signing up for.
So, no, I am still not Charlie. I will support the victims, I will sympathise with the people of Paris, I will support the police who were harmed doing their jobs.
But I will not support people who promote racial hatred, whether they do it with a pen or a gun.
One last thought. I have often wondered how people become radicalised. How does an ordinary man or woman get such strong feelings of hatred for the Western world that they are prepared to commit atrocities?
I strongly suspect that the extremists would show them things like the front cover of Charlie Hebdo. They would presumably say that this is symptomatic of a culture that does not respect their beliefs.
The “I am Charlie” movement could turn out to be a huge recruitment drive for radicalism – on both sides of the argument.