Wednesday 21 January 2015

So What If It Is An Insult?

The staff of Charlie Hebdo showed courage and integrity, by continuing to publish after their colleagues were murdered last week; as did many ordinary people in France and elsewhere, who came out to march in solidarity with the victims.

Otherwise, the reaction has been as depressing as it was predictable.

(Charlie Hebdo cartoon of Muhammad is below the fold.)

The Charlie Hebdo cover immediately following the attacks, with a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad.

Politicians mumble platitudes about standing up for free speech, while looking for new ways to restrict our freedom. The Prime Minister suggests a ban on encryption, a totally insane and unworkable policy.

Pope Francis said plainly that anyone who insults religious beliefs should expect violent retribution. He deserves credit for honesty, but I agree with Polly Toynbee's evaluation:

No, it’s not normal to punch someone who insults you; the pope’s Christ certainly didn’t think so. Verbal provocation is never an excuse for violence – that’s the wife-beater’s defence.

Meanwhile, we have hand-wringing from liberal pundits about protecting Muslim sensitivities. At the end of an otherwise intelligent piece, Jonathan Freedland says:

... it is not just racist or hostile depictions of the prophet that insult ordinary, mosque-going Muslims but any depiction at all. [...] We just have to accept that most Muslims – not just extremists – experience such representations as an insult. 

Fine. I accept it. Mainstream, ordinary, peaceful Muslims say depictions of Muhammad, such as the Charlie Hebdo cover above, are perceived by them as an insult. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity.

So what?

I try to be polite in my everyday life. I wouldn't wear a T-shirt displaying that cover to visit a mosque; or even to walk down the street, except perhaps on a protest march. If a Muslim visits me, I would not leave the offending magazine on the coffee table. As an atheist, I think Islam and all other religions are mistaken; but I do not try to de-convert every religious person I meet. This is a simple matter of courtesy.

Many British and French Muslims face racism, discrimination, and economic disadvantage. Criticising a minority group's religion can easily turn into bullying, and we have a responsibility to discourage bigotry. As such, we should think carefully before speaking against a minority religion such as Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism.

However, courtesy only takes you so far. Sometimes it is necessary to be rude, even offensive, in order to make an important point.

The point here is, I wish to express my solidarity with the people murdered in France last week. They were killed for exercising the right to say, draw, and write whatever we feel like. This right protects everyone, including Muslims.

Furthermore, Muslims are not the only ones subject to offensive and insulting remarks.

For instance, it is part of ordinary, mainstream, respectable Christian belief that all non-Christians are destined for hell after they die. It is not usually mentioned in polite society, but in theory, Christians believe I deserve eternal torture at the hands of a just and loving god. I find that highly insulting; but Christians are free to offend me, and I am free to say I am offended.

There are other examples. Opponents of gay marriage have claimed it will weaken heterosexual marriage. I am a straight married person and I love my wife very dearly. I am personally insulted at the suggestion that enabling gay people to get married somehow diminishes our relationship. Again, apart from ranting about it on my blog, I am content to live and let live.

Nigel Farage and other members of UKIP insult immigrants like myself on a daily basis. It makes me very angry and I will not hesitate to say so; but no matter how distasteful their views, Farage and his friends should not fear violent retaliation for expressing them.

This is the reaction of a responsible citizen in a democracy. If Muslims choose to write articles or hold marches about the insult they perceive in the latest Charlie Hebdo cover, that is fine. If society at large understands depictions of Muhammad to be impolite, that is also fine. What is not fine is suggesting anyone should be punished for depicting Muhammad. Freedom of speech is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to insult.

The Americans have long understood this. The US Constitution is far from perfect, but the First Amendment deserves respect. It has allowed people of all faiths and none to flourish in the USA. Whether Mormon or Muslim, Rastafarian or Pastafarian, people can worship (or not) as they choose. They are free to say everyone else is destined for hell, and their neighbours are free to say they are wrong.

HL Mencken had it absolutely right when he wrote:

We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
People may find Muslim beliefs wrong, incomprehensible, even threatening. They are free to say so, just as Muslims are free to say their religion is the only true one. It must begin and end there, with words and pictures. It is the only way for us to live together in peace and freedom; and I believe it is worth causing some offence to uphold that principle.

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