A good question: Etes-vous Charlie?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month, after protesters and politicians expressed solidarity with the cartoonists killed in Paris with the slogan “Je suis Charlie”, we ask: Are you Charlie?
Asking whether I am with Charlie Hebdo or with those who believe no one has the right to mock another’s religion is very similar to what Mr Bush said after 9/11: “You are with us or with the terrorists.” If I was to say I am with Charlie Hebdo, would that mean I have the right to be insulting, and if I said I am with those who do not have the right to mock another’s religion, would that mean that I am against freedom of expression?
I believe in freedom of speech, but I do not believe that I have the right to insult my audience. The culture of making fun of peoples’ sentimentalities seems to be fashionable in the western secular world. Can I be with Charlie Hebdo who intentionally went out to insult my emotions as a Muslim? Or can I be with those who believe no one has the right to mock another’s religion? The consequences, when we deride and scorn sentiments which are important to others, can be devastating, like the tragic reaction that we saw in Paris. Why is our leadership endorsing a kind of freedom of speech that can only result in further schism in our society, bringing on the “clash of civilisations” that Samuel Huntington wrote about?
Why is it that, when Charlie Hebdo used insulting images to represent a man who is held in high esteem by the Muslims, this was termed satire and free speech, yet, the same magazine was forced to sack its political cartoonist, Maurice Sinet, for “mocking” Sarkozy’s son’s relationship with a Jewish woman? Who defines what is hate speech and who defines what is freedom of expression? Can I also deny the Holocaust in Germany and call it freedom of speech?..
Anjum Anwar is dialogue development officer for Blackburn Cathedral
Non! When looking at the climate of public discourse in western countries in recent years, I find myself experiencing double vision. And the Charlie Hebdo attacks throw that disorientation into sharp relief.
On the one hand, advertising, TV and the internet are increasingly sexualised, and less and less squeamish about portraying violence and vileness. Political discourse in the US is a dialogue of the deaf founded upon principled disrespect, and European countries are only a couple of steps behind. To non-westerners, we present a spectacle of unbridled barbarism – an animal-like demeanour which the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo (and those depicting Christ or the Trinity were far worse than those depicting Muhammad) epitomised.
Yet on the other hand, anybody my sort of age (59, since you ask) is uneasily aware that the scope of free speech in western countries is greatly diminished since their youth. The suffocating hold of various “political correctnesses” (lazy term, I know – but take it as shorthand) has made it almost impossible even to describe our common problems, let alone to address them. And now the rise of Islamist radicalism is gagging us all, over a whole new range of topics, and narrowing yet further what can be said…
Meic Pearse is professor of history at Houghton College, New York. His books include Why the Rest Hate the West (IVP, 2004)
‘Defending freedom of speech is a spiritual obligation’
I am not a huge fan of satire. Admittedly, when it’s done well, I do laugh, but the difficulty with satire is that, by nature, it exaggerates and relies on caricature. So, while the avowed purpose of satire is to offer up a subject up for examination, it almost always invites ridicule as well. There is little room for conversation, nuance, or true bridge building, when an individual or a group of individuals is belittled.
That said, satire and many other forms of speech are protected, and rightly so, in France, in Britain, in the US, and in many other places around the world. And they are protected with good reason. Such protections guard against the highly subjective and, therefore, dangerous business of weighing every word we use and the intentions that shape our use of those words.
Protected speech is, then, not just about speech, but about freedom in all of its forms: The freedom to express ourselves; the freedom to make our choices; and, ultimately, the freedom to live, breathe, and thrive as human beings. The terrorist attacks on the offices of Charlie Hedbo in Paris, then, are without excuse, unacceptable, and deserving of swift justice…
Frederick Schmidt is associate professor of spiritual formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois
Every religion should be open to critique. But at what point does an intended offence to believers become counter-productive to the wider good of society? How many of us were offended by the portrayal of an adult Jesus in a nappy in Jerry Springer: The opera? How many of us heard the Muslim shopkeeper from Milton Keynes speak on Radio 4 about how he loved Allah more than his wife, mother and children and how he was so offended by the Charlie Hebdo cartoon?
Jesus’ words calling us to love our neighbour as ourself confront every believer with real questions. Consider the Islamic prohibition of artistic portrayals of Muhammad, which has been adhered to for centuries. Then think about the impact of the semi-naked portrayal of him in the cartoon. This was offensive to peace-loving Muslims – but so was the violence perpetrated by their extremist brothers.
Our blasphemy laws should be extended to cover all religions. Case law and judicial review, alongside statute, can protect balanced freedom of speech to offer properly-reasoned critique. Britain is a post-Christendom nation; we acknowledge our heritage, but we are now a multicultural not a Christian nation. Here, there are more Muslims in mosques on Friday, than Anglicans, Methodists and United Reformed in church on Sunday. To avoid violence by extremists of any faith, we must protect the rights of all to practice it freely and peaceably.
Dr Andrew Francis is a retired minister and author, who has lived in France and taught theology and philosophy
This is an extract from the March 2015 edition of Reform.