"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

On Charlie Hebdo

It’s almost impossible to know where to start to write about the Charlie Hebdo atrocity. The blood spilt in this tragedy has already been overtaken by ink and pixels with commentary from every quarter and political viewpoint. It is particularly unfortunate that the personality of “Charlie” the magazine has almost occluded the real people that have sadly lost their lives, especially since many of us who have adopted #JeSuisCharlie (myself included) have never read it. But it’s inevitable since this attack, aimed directly at the most treasured values of liberal democracy, has ramifications far beyond the limited circulation of one Parisian publication.
Charlie Hebdo post attack cover
Free speech, freedom of the press and the right of artists in all media to criticise and ridicule sacred cows are the foundations of a truly free society. It does not matter if, as some suggest, Charlie Hebdo was over provocative or even racist in its portrayal of Islamism. Even if the humour is not to everyone’s taste it is worthy of protection because as soon as we allow that some sections of our communities are never to be offended all useful debate about society will be effectively shut down. In particular we cannot protect religious sensibilities as they are often the quickest to take offence at the slightest of provocation and although I prefer to avoid slippery slope arguments the situations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia should be salutary enough to deter us from pursuing that path.
Nearly a week on from this tragedy, as the remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo are about to release a defiant new issue with an unprecedented three million copy print run expected to be in demand worldwide, the mainstream media are still grappling with how to deal with the “problem” of reporting the story without re-publishing the images which sparked the attack. But I see no moral dilemma here. In any news story I would expect a newspaper or website to publish relevant illustrative photographs or images. Short of graphic depictions of bloody slaughter or gross obscenity pertinent images would normally accompany the narrative and there is no doubt in my mind that should be the case with this story. I understand that newspapers may not want to endanger themselves or their staff but if ever there was a case for holding a journalistic line, even if that meant rival publications colluding to gain safety in numbers, this was it.
In the event if the Jihadists aim was to suppress caricatures of Mohammed being circulated they were obviously unaware of the Streisand effect since Charlie Hebdo’s images of the prophet have now become ubiquitous on social media and will also appear prominently in the next edition.
I have no sympathy with the idea that re-publishing such images will further alienate and offend mainstream Muslim opinion: Muslims are not the intended target. However, the ideology that underpins attempts to suppress our freedom of expression is fair game and it is difficult to imagine how this could be effectively satirised without using the speech or images it aims to censor. Satire entails mockery and defiance of power; Islamism aims to be powerful so it is the islamist’s fault their shibboleths are in the firing line.
Very few people would want to gratuitously give offence to a section of our community, most of us aim to be polite and at least tolerant of the foibles of our neighbours. But tolerance is a two way street and in a pluralistic society it is beholden on mainstream Islam not to go looking for offense where it is not intended or to attempt to inflict its taboos on other worldviews. If, as Anjem Choudary says, “Muslims don’t believe in the concept of freedom of expression” they are at liberty to live their lives that way but must accept that liberal democracies do believe in it passionately and so will sometimes be exposed to views that conflict with their beliefs. Although, while it may be a theological truth I suspect that most Muslims in the west are much happier with freedom of expression than Choudary suggests. Islam is not the monolith of consistent belief and practice it is sometimes assumed to be and my hope now is that liberal minded Muslims will use this opportunity to seize their religion back from the fundamentalists and the fascism of the Islamists


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