Following the publication of 5 million Charlie Hebdo magazines today, again depicting the Prophet… and the arrest of a French comedian for exercising his freedom of speech, it’s time to question where our belief in insulting others comes from
It’s a shame that the first thing most people seem to say when discussing the Charlie Hebdo controversy is ‘freedom of speech’ this and ‘freedom of expression’ that. Yes, we all cherish these universal principles, we all agree they should be upheld and defended, there’s no debate about that. But there is something even more fundamental that has seemed to escape us. And it’s this: what ever happened to common human decency? Why should it follow that, just because our law has granted us freedom to say what we want and express it how we want (well, it doesn’t really, we can’t get away with saying certain things about Jews, black people or the queen) we can then take it upon ourselves to mock and insult others? This is nothing but abuse in the name of freedom of speech.
Just like the three shooters murdered under the guise of Islam, so do many liberal secularists use freedom of speech to justify their own form of bigotry and sanctimony. Just like the Paris murderers were radicalised by the war on terror – which led to countless Muslims being killed, raped and tortured by our enlightened western, liberal, democratic system – so, too, were the cartoonists radicalised by our rabid secular, increasingly atheistic, nihilistic modern world. Yes, the Paris attackers committed an evil act. But the cartoonists were pushing, perhaps unconsciously, a dangerous and extreme worldview: complete moral relativism and nihilism. According to their logic, nobody is beyond the pale of insult or mockery.
Do we really want our society to be one of mockery and insult? Those defending the publication of the cartoons clearly do. This is a dangerous path we are paving. Unless we unite in stamping out insulting and mocking others, we are advancing a society of anarchy. The defence of being able to mock and insult others is a symptom of how far we’re regressing.
Just like people think ideas, such as religions, should be subject to ridicule and mockery, what if someone claimed that they want to ridicule and mock the ‘idea’ of being overweight and then took it upon themselves to hurl abuse at such people? Most of us wouldn’t even think of doing such a thing. Our human decency won’t let us. But there are so many inherent contradictions in this whole debate, it ends up becoming a nonsense.
We instinctively know what the boundaries are, and, generally, we don’t cross them. But for some reason, we decide, whimsically, hypocritically and in a somewhat arrogant, Orientalist way, our boundaries for Islam.
Yes, criticise the Prophet Muhammad, write polemics about him, disagree with things he has done, challenge Muslims, but not in the form of disgraceful, pornographic cartoons. (What is Charlie Hebdo’s obsession with pornographic images anyway?) These cartoons not only put people in danger from extremists who can’t handle it (note: this is not a justification), it’s also hurtful to ordinary Muslims who have done nothing hurtful to deserve such abuse.
The cartoons don’t actually reveal anything about the Prophet – in fact, they aren’t him, nor do they look like him (he’s actually described as being very handsome according to historical accounts) they just reveal the callousness and arrogance of individuals who insult people for a living.
“The great claim of satire is that it punctures pretensions and brings the powerful down to earth,” writes Anne Norton in a piece called Defend free speech not bigotry. “But Charlie Hebdo’s attacks on Muslims didn’t mock the powerful; they mocked a religious minority still not entirely welcome in France, one that is subject to assaults on their mosques and cemeteries, and to discrimination in the law. Charlie Hebdo has been defended as an equal-opportunity offender. Mocking religion in a largely secular culture is hardly a heroic stance for atheist leftists to take.”
Anyone who has studied the Prophet’s life – and by this, we do not mean watching the news or reading the odd piece about him here and there by liberals – will testify to his high moral uprightness and intense compassion for all human beings, animals and nature. (At this point, it’s probably best to turn of the comments as the Islamophobes will start picking out isolated, decontextualised passages where they cite a few incidents of the Prophet acting in ways they don’t like.)
Now is the time for people to really gain some knowledge about Islam. Not a shallow, surface understanding, but a good enough grasp so that we can navigate our way through these issues which keep popping into the news, without resorting to platitudes like “Islam is violent” or “Islam is all about peace”. Islam is clearly a misunderstood religion, especially among its own followers, and in a time of heightened suspicion and anti-Muslim hatred, we owe it to ourselves to learn about the second biggest faith in the world, one that is growing in many parts of the world and is constantly in the headlines. “In theory we have the means of knowing and the motivation to learn about Islam, but in my experience, knowledge of the religion is pitiful,” Roger Hardy, the BBC’s former Islamic affairs analyst told me a few years back.
There will always be a minority of extremists in the world but if we create a society in which anything goes, where we are free to mock and insult others as we see fit, isn’t that even more dangerous? Europe, having moved away from the idea of God and religion after the scientific revolution, has slowly been moving towards towards greater moral relativism which has produced magazines like Charlie Hebdo.
These cartoonists don’t believe in God and religion, so they feel absolved from Ultimate responsibility. Hence, this whole argument is one of religion, or in the cartoonist’s case, a lack of religion. If you believe in the right to mock and insult the Prophet, then you are putting your middle finger up to mutual respect and understanding, and to a more harmonious world.