Thursday, 15 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

I'm sorry if this doesn't accord with fashionable liberal sentiment but I thought those cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo were an unnecessary and offensive provocation. The thing is this: Islam is much more than a religion. It's a matter of identity.

I can't help but remember my parents who came over to England from Ireland in the middle of the twentieth century and encountered widespread hostility. (And they looked exactly like the rest of the population.) My mother described encountering signs in lodging houses that read 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs.' So they sought refuge in the only place that welcomed them: their religion.

I recall, also, how when that religion was attacked by someone like the Ulster Unionist politician and notable rabble rouser, Ian Paisley, who would sometimes appear on the TV news mocking the Pope, calling him 'Red Socks' and various other silly names, they were very upset, not because they worshipped the Pope but because they felt it as another blow to their dignity.

Religion is very personal to a lot of people and it's about a lot more than just a belief in the supernatural. It's also about community and about trying to find a place for yourself in the world. That's not always easy, particularly when you are poor or when you find yourself in a mainstream culture that seems to look down on you, to regard you as a second-class citizen, or perhaps not even a citizen at all.

None of this means that you should go around attacking people, obviously. But I find this huge media circus involving all sorts of dubious people suddenly standing up for free speech very uncomfortable. Moreover, I strongly suspect that being an Arab in France means being considered an outsider and I don't think the cartoons were hugely different from outright racism by a privileged middle-class intellectual elite.

I do not believe the right to free speech is absolute. Yes, that's what I said. I do not believe the right to free speech is absolute. For example, I don't think you should go round being homophobic, misogynistic or racist. Because it's bad manners and because those groups have been marginalised in the past. Similarly, I don't think you should go round Arab-baiting, even if unspeakable things are being done in the name of Islam.


DEZMOND said...

absolutely agree with you!

Derek Thompson said...

I think the key issue is intention. I have (inadvertently) offended people of various political and religious persuasions in the past just by questioning their values - i.e. what are they - or by professing to hold a different belief.

I think the bigger media storm may be about something else. In a multicultural society we not only need to embrace different traditions, and those very differences, we also the freedom to have dialogue, to question and to challenge. I think we've failed to do that in the west and the pen waving, rightly or wrongly, is a reaction to that.