Charlie Hebdo and Blasphemy: Pick Up Your Pen, Not Your Sword

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, January 7, 2015 in Paris, many opinions abound, and it becomes difficult to offer any unique insight of one’s own without being drowned out, or indeed, wondering if you should offer anything at all.

Opinions range from outright disgust and condemnation to stating that the cartoonists deserved it. But there also exists a slightly more insidious view:  that of condemning the killers and also condemning the cartoons. I have no doubt that people who say something along the lines of “While I condemn the killing, nobody should insult the Prophet” think they’re protecting all Muslims and their sensibilities. They’re also justifiably protecting themselves from reprisals. But perhaps this view deserves scrutiny in itself, and Tehmina Kazi does an excellent job of simply explaining some of the misconceptions that create such a position.

I would urge us, if we haven’t already, to think before acting, and to consider whether protecting rotten behavioural yardsticks such as blasphemy, even with the best of intentions, is the right thing to do. After all, lampooning religion isn’t done to upset the religious, but to challenge bad ideas.

Freedom of Expression is not Freedom from Criticism

Voltaire once said:

"What a fuss about an omelette," his attitude being that, "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Nick Clegg has a clear view of what this means in today’s world. He and I both remember supporting the campaign Reform Section 5.

And the words of Rowan Atkinson:

“The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas, even if they are sincerely held beliefs, is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.” We must hold to our hard-won liberties, and that includes our right to offer criticism of ideas, even if said criticism offends people.

Of course these cartoons were offensive, as is everything Charlie Hebdo does. But we should remember that their subject is satire, their context French, and attitudes and politics are markedly different in France. It’s an inherent part of free expression to criticise such things though, so have at it. We choose what to be offended by, and many people like Farouk Peru chose not to be offended but reflective. Even when people like Maajid Nawaz sent a tweet saying he wasn’t offended by Jesus and Mo cartoons, death threats soon followed. And more importantly, so did criticism of such threatening attitudes from Abhishek Phadnis.

Like them or loathe them, capitulation to censorship demanded by aggressors stops a conversation before it can start. It silences Muslims and non-Muslims trying to challenge the religious far-right (a task during which they risk their lives) while eroding our liberty and shared community values, and can cause us to turn on one another.

Divide and Conquer

Perhaps the cartoons aren’t really the issue. Do we genuinely think that terrorists are offended by them, or are they trying to pit us against each other? Although the idea that people who blaspheme should be punished is rooted in particular interpretations of the Hadith, and so points to religious fanaticism, most Muslims are moral people who rightly ignore the violence in scripture. We should not give Islamists the satisfaction of seeing us turn on our fellow citizens. Retaliatory attacks against Muslims are not the answer. Remember that although not the initial target, a Muslim police officer named Ahmed Merabet was also killed.

Such attacks are liable to swell the ranks of extremists, allowing them to redouble their efforts, and tragically, may even alienate those with whom we share common cause. Be like Norway, who denied Anders Breivik a vicious public reaction he undoubtedly courted, when their Prime Minister said:

“We will answer hatred with love.”

Protest peacefully, and lay blame correctly--at the door of violent, far-right Islamists and their supporters. They don't represent all Muslims, but a specific literalist ideology, with particular dangerous beliefs which need to be addressed. Unite as a species. Don’t seek revenge or implement reactionary governmental policies. Laugh these dangerous ideas back into the dark ages, remembering that it isn’t only Islamists who have acted in this way in the past. But please don't blanket target people. We’re a stronger community than that.

Unintended Protection of Blasphemy and the Consequences

Next comes the part that people find most difficult because it means taking action, risking yourself as many people have, and making uncomfortable criticism of even our own beliefs. The problem is that being offended is thought to be the very believable reason that these attacks were carried out.

Are we willing anymore, as a collection of liberal societies, to accept that blasphemy taboos should be respected? Especially when blasphemy itself is theologically grey at best. Shouldn’t we condemn the idea of persecuting someone for “thought crime” in principle and act to oppose it?

Charlie Hebdo is not unique, and it certainly isn’t the first time blasphemy and offence have been used to justify violence: Charlie Hebdo firebombing, Danish cartoons, Jesus and Mo, Salman Rushdie, Infidel, Asia Bibi, Muhammad Asghar …the list is practically endless, and blasphemy charges affect people from all religions and none. The severity of the response varies, but in all cases, violence (state sanctioned or vigilantes), and threats of violence were perpetrated because of satire, blasphemy, or criticism. The idea that we must respect blasphemy so we don’t offend feelings has had its day, and comes at the expense of human suffering.

Being intimidated into censoring offensive material betrays every free thinking human being. This attitude shores up the views of the Islamists, who think their views should be immune from criticism. It’s exactly the reason why a group I work with was recently contacted by an individual in need of a plane ticket and legal advice to escape Pakistan--a country in which I have lived and worked. What was his crime? Alleged blasphemy. The view that we should condemn an atrocity but avoid directly confronting the ideas that motivated it also allows Saudi Arabia to condemn the Paris attack, but still give 50 lashes (of a total 1000) to Raif Badawi each Friday beginning January 9, 2015, for “offending Islam”. The fact that such heavy punishments are meted out in Islamic countries - literally flogging for blogging - means that Muslims and non-Muslims in the West are much better placed (safer in most cases) to offer such criticism, and improve the lives of those most at risk.

So the next time we wonder if insulating people from offence trumps protecting people from violence (when we can do both), look around the world and remember that it can have huge consequences. I send my condolences to the victims of the families involved and suggest we should learn from this. Nobody should die for satire, criticism or blasphemy. We should bring our communities together in positive, and peaceful opposition to the forces that might harm us and seek to divide us. Also think of Raif Badawi today and pick up your pen, not your sword.


Photo Credits: New York Daily News

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