I wrote several articles following the atrocity committed by three gunmen in Paris last 7th January. They claimed to belong to Al Qaeda, and later, that organisation confirmed that this was the case. They killed journalists and cartoon artists of a satirical French weekly magazine called Charlie Hebdo because they depicted Mohammed in satirical cartoons as they also did with Christian churches and secular political institutions and personalities. They also killed two police officers, and have themselves been killed by the police.
The subject burned me out somewhat, because I failed to anticipate reactions in the comments, some of which implied that Christians should “do something” about the large numbers of Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America. Other comments have been more constructive, reflecting the essentially cynical (in the ancient meaning of this word), anarchist and pacifist message of the Christian Gospel. Unfortunately, with the removal of the postings in question, the comments are also deleted, but not before my having saved them all to my hard disk.
I will resume my thought a little, with some hindsight into the issues of Je suis Charlie and the media coverage of all the events. Our first reaction is one of revolt on learning that unarmed men at a meeting, about their normal business, were massacred by three men in what looked to be a highly organised operation made to look sloppy (having difficulty finding their way to the right office, leaving an ID card in the car, etc.). The murdered men were working for a satirical weekly inspired by the old French revolutionary tendency against the Church and the aristocracy. We find anarchists and free thinkers in many countries, sometimes influenced by Trotsky and others. Quite frankly, when we trace the history of dissidence against the Establishment, often on account of some travesty of justice committed by the latter, we find some measure of sympathy. It happened again during the Russian Revolution, the reaction against the Church and bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, and finally in the aftermath of World War II and the Occupation in France.
I am not Charlie, if you want to use this hackneyed expression, but I do have sympathy with the currents that flowed through society at about the time when I was a small boy and my brother was already a teenager – the late 1960’s. Apart from their hard-line atheism, I think I would have found points in common to discuss with these men who were shot to death the day after the Feast of the Epiphany.
I have read quite a few articles in this country between those who see this atrocity as an attack against freedom of expression, a restoration of the old blasphemy laws – or whether this killing was an “understandable” (though disapproved) reaction by Muslims against a terrible crime committed against their revered prophet. Some conservative Christians have expressed points of view with some similarities to the latter understanding. My own “feeling” (the degree of credence I give to some of the things I read) is to surmise that this attack may have had the intent of galvanising ordinary Muslim folk into terrorist and fanatical positions to justify an overt programme of persecution and warfare by certain western political tendencies. This would explain the cartoon at the head of this page depicting two terrorists killing the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and destroying a mosque with their gunfire as a consequence.
The question of freedom of expression is a difficult one, and is a matter of a great deal of controversy. French constitutional law upholds freedom of expression as a fundamental and absolute human right. At the same time, the exercise of this freedom is subject to the law in terms of its limits and public order. The main limits of this freedom are libel and insult, words and writings calling for hatred, suggestive of apologiae of crimes against humanity, anti-semitism, racism and homophobia (hatred or fear of homosexual people above and apart from a simple moral judgement of homosexual acts). All published writings – on the internet (including comments on a blog), in newspapers and in books – fall under these laws regulating the freedom of expression. Facebook and Twitter are also governed by these laws. We have to be careful of what we say, or better still purify our minds of hatred and prejudice. Laws limiting the freedom of the press go back a long way, and most refer to the Law of 29th July 1881. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have been more difficult to govern, because they are American services, and American law is more flexible in matters of the freedom of expression than France. Many things condemned in France are legal in the USA. The social networks are tending to comply with the more restrictive codes of laws such as that of France.
Humour and satire are dealt with entirely differently. Freedom of expression does not allow racism or anti-semitism, but it does not forbid satire and humour. Satire of the absurd and parody are allowed by the law. If the representation is an exaggeration or an alteration of the personality in question, satire, parody and jokes are allowed. There is a right to insolence and lack of respect. Cases do come up before judges, who often have to make fine distinctions.
In 2007, Charlie Hebdo had to answer for caricatures of Mohammed before a court of law. The court decided that this weekly could legally publish these drawings. Even though caricatures provoke, they form part of legitimate freedom of expression. Even though the drawings were found to be shocking to Muslims, the context would indicate that there was no deliberate intention to offend all Muslims and that the limits had not been exceeded. The law does not forbid us from mocking a religion, since France is a secular country and there are no laws against blasphemy. However, it does forbid calling for hatred against the believers of a religion or to defend crimes against humanity (the Holocaust for example).
That is for the position of French law. For the question of morality, would it have been better for Charlie Hebdo to self-censure? These were atheists, freethinkers and anarchists. Their consciences are not bound in the way we Christians are, but the attitude was clearly – my job is to draw a satirical cartoon about a personality or institution that is already absurd. It seems to be the very definition of humour as illustrated in the famous book by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, in which the monks of the abbey sought to suppress a justification of humour and laughter in a book by Aristotle. The quote is resumed in these few words – We shall now discuss the way comedy stimulates our delight in the ridiculous by using vulgar persons and taking pleasure from their defects. I do not know whether this is indeed a quote of Aristotle, as I have not checked. It seems a most apposite definition. I have even read the notion saying that were humour and satire to be outlawed, we would truly be in a totalitarian society – and that is even when we see caricatures of Christ, the Pope, priests and the Church in general.
There is also a question of perspective. Before the atrocity, this was a fairly marginal weekly read by people of a similar philosophical outlook to that of the journalists and artists who produced it. Until 7th January last, I had hardly heard of the existence of Charlie Hebdo, let alone bought a copy and read it. Now I am waiting for my copy of the “survivors’ edition” which is selling at something like five million copies.
After the atrocity, there was a deeply moving phenomenon of popular solidarity between millions of French people in peaceful demonstrations in Paris and other cities. The slogan Je suis Charlie was coined, and the movement was supported by the French government and most mainstream politicians. The incredible thing was this support by mainstream politics for a group of anarchists who were not afraid to mock anything or anyone they found to be absurd, including President Hollande himself. I give credence to the idea that this large number of people were defending something they believe to be precious, namely the freedom not to be subjected to Shariah law or any other kind of totalitarianism – and that the means to this end was to be non-violent.
An issue has emerged in the comment boxes, and it may well indicate what will happen despite the wishes of any of us – the idea according to which terrorism and violence are intrinsic to the Islamic religion and that all Muslims are complicit. If this is so, it would justify outlawing Islam as a dangerous cult and deporting all those who profess Islam as their religion. This seems to express the idea of many people of right-wing opinions, especially European nationalists and American neo-conservatives. This may be exactly what the radicals of ISIS, Al Qaeda and other groups want: war against them so that they can wage war against us – and conquer the western world. Are we deluded if we deny this thesis, preferring to believe that most Muslims living in the western world are to some extent influenced by secularism and Enlightenment values?
Do we Christians want to be ruled by American neo-conservatives and European nationalists? Would those groups and parties, if elected into power, repeat the history of the early twentieth century (without committing the error of Godwin’s Law)? Is Christianity able, simply by moral influence, to stem the danger of a major change of culture in the western world to that of strict Islam? None of these questions can be clearly answered. Is the present democratic (materialist, corrupt, indebted, you name it) system, with its own serious problems, something to defend with our lives? I too abhor nearly all of what passes for politics in Europe and North America, the hypocrisy of the “caviar lefties” whose ideology is not true socialism but state capitalism which is just as cynical (modern meaning) as private capitalism. I dread the turn to the “extreme right”, and it may well happen – UKIP in England, Le Pen in France and more sinister in some other countries. Are we on the brink of war?
I have been struck by those comments coming from a type of person one might associate with stereotypes of “red-necks”, southern Confederates and the Klu Klux Klan. I have seen men with a fascination for firearms and the idea of being prepared for being attacked by forces in America opposed to the principles of the Constitution and its various Amendments. I am not an American. I have fired rifles and pistols with live ammunition – to make holes in paper targets. Many boys like that idea. When I was in the CCF at school, our Lee Enflield .303 rifles were kept in a strongly locked room, chained to their racks and the bolts were kept in a safe. The ammunition was stored in another strong safe. We Europeans are not used to having our own arms, at least for anything other than target practice or hunting. Even the Swiss only ever use their arms in a strictly military context. I will not enter into this uniquely American controversy, but I will say I find it quite unhealthy. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The saying of Christ applies also to any weapon used for killing another human being. My intuition is that pacifism is the way, though the possibility of having to kill may one day be something we cannot avoid. May I never have to kill for as long as I live!
How long would many of those men last in a real war? I ask myself the question.
One very legitimate question is how far ordinary Muslims who are not themselves terrorists would go to oppose the extremist organisations in the name of respecting the native values of the country into which they have immigrated. It is also legitimate to debate about the continuation of mass immigration of people who will never integrate into the host country or become financially independent. Many of us, outside extreme political tendencies, are concerned about these points. Immigration is incredibly expensive to the taxpayer, and security is a real issue. If nothing is done about these problems by the proper authorities, then we really do have something to worry about. Maybe the only thing to do is to hole up in some remote hamlet in the west of Brittany! What makes all this agonising is knowing that Christianity is impotent and mainstream European political and economic life is going through a crisis that suggests very hard times ahead for us all. I really have the impression that mass immigration of Muslims will have dire results.
On the specific subject of Islam, we need to do some learning about religious traditions that are not our own. I understand Islam to be essentially a mixture of Judaism, Nestorian Christianity and a few bits and bobs borrowed from the ancient Arabian mystery religions. There are different strands of Islam like there are in Christianity, from the mystical Sufism to the Sunnites and Shites. There have been priests who have consecrated themselves to a ministry of understanding Islam and seeking to bring about enlightenment and humanism. Benedict XVI himself worked in this perspective with the Regensburg speech.
I resolve this year to acquire a foundation of knowledge of Islam. There was a Muslim student at Fribourg University where I was, and he had very interesting insights into our belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. There I could discern the distant Nestorian roots of Islam and the contacts Muhammed had with Christians. I think this is an urgent task for us all to be free of prejudice and stereotypes. There is also a suggestion that the more terrorists kill and outrage decent humanity, the more ordinary Muslims will take the courageous step of converting to Christianity. Many have done just that.
I think we need to discern very carefully whether Europe is about to be taken over and made into a Muslim caliphate or whether this is the apocalyptic thinking and irrationality of the prejudiced and the bigoted. The big problem is processing the information, because we don’t know who to believe. Is there a collusion between mainstream left-wing politics and ISIS / Al Qaeda? Why would there be? Is it not simply a tidy conspiracy theory with no basis in fact? Our minds are polluted by conspiracy theories and the search for simplistic solutions. That is how famines and very cold winters in the seventeenth century were blamed on old women practising herbal medicine and alchemy! Many were burned at the stake as witches.
These are just a few reflections provoked by the news and controversies on this blog. It is not a question of being right or wrong, but of seeking to understand. Finally, I will accept comments if they are written in a constructive and Christian spirit. I will reject comments especially if they offend against the law or call for hatred or warfare, etc.