“Je ne suis pas Charlie”
As an expression of unity it is both admirable and remarkable to see so many people from such diverse backgrounds all uniting around a simple slogan “Je suis Charlie.” Of course, the events that led to it were awful and traumatic for the whole of France. The deaths of 17 people at the hands of Muslim terrorists were a real shock to the National, even global psyche. But are we really all Charlie?
The more I have thought and read about the reaction to those terrorist attacks in northern Paris the less comfortable I have become, to the extent that I am now convinced that I am not, nor could I ever be, Charlie.
There is no subtlety in polarisation
This started, for me, with the realisation that we are not all Charlie. Not only are we not those killed or affected by this terrorist outrage, but we also do not share most of their views. The problem is there is no subtlety, or even room for nuance, when views become polarised.
The understandable desire for solidarity can quickly turn to demands for group think that make it hard to maintain important differences. Polarisation reduces our understanding of the issue to black and white – you are either with us or you are against us – instead of allowing people to mourn and be angry while also being sympathetic to complexities that are being overlooked.
Murder is not an acceptable response for anything, yet it is also an exercise of freedom of expression to say that you are offended at the way satire like Charlie Hebdo’s characterises something you hold dear – like your faith, your identity, your race or ethnicity.
There is no virtue in giving offence
History is full of very brave journalists who have lived and died defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression. Real change has been brought about by people challenging accepted worldviews. Many of these are Christian journalists who are fighting with every stroke of the pen and click of the key to express their culture challenging, world changing faith in societies that are closed to the gospel. This is something to be cherished and celebrated, and it is a value in our society that is worth dying for. However, there is no virtue in giving offence. Insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is little more than childish.
We have freedom of expression, but it is regulated by laws preventing inciting hatred and spreading discrimination. Freedom of expression is also, largely, self limited by matters of taste and decency. Some have criticised the BBC recently because it has stood by an editorial decision not to publish any images of Mohammed. I think there probably is sufficient public interest to warrant publishing them – as many other news organisations have done – but I respect and appreciate the BBC’s decision not to.
Challenging extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. In my opinion, what Charlie Hebdo did was not free speech but an abuse of free speech.
There is no tolerance in secular liberalism
Much is written about the evils of ‘radical Islam’ – our government even has a development plan for schools to prevent such radicalisation – and rightly so. On the same day as the attack at Charlie Hebdo al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula killed 37 people in the Yemen. A few days later Muslim terrorists from Boko Haram massacred some 2,000 people in Baga and children as young as 10 were used to carry suicide bombs in Abuja, killing a further 19 people.
However, fundamentally, this is not a fight between good and evil but the clash of two aggressive, intolerant world views. The secular liberalism expressed by Charlie Hebdo, in its own way, is as radical and extreme as the Islamists that attacked them.
The problem is that each society has its own ‘untouchables’. In Islamic countries Mohammed or the Koran is ‘untouchable’. However, in Western ‘liberal’ countries we are not so tolerant when it comes to our ‘untouchables’. In fact, anyone who challenges the ‘untouchables’ of secular liberalism is condemned as extremist, right wing, homophobic, intolerant and bigoted. There is no tolerance in secular liberalism.
We have seen this in some of the press reaction to the events in Paris. The Sydney Herald ran an editorial calling for all religious schooling to be banned, because apparently there is a direct link between Islamic fundamentalists in Paris killing cartoonists and Anglicans teaching children in Sydney. The Scottish Herald ran a similar comment piece that made a link between Charlie Hebdo, the execution of an atheist 500 years ago in Scotland, and those who are opposed to euthanasia today. Apparently our politicians are “brave” because they resist the Churches’ stance on same sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia. And those of us who are ‘religious’ are all to be lumped together as a danger to society.
Some views are even more extreme. It is beyond parody that our political leaders will march in order to allow cartoonists to draw cartoons of Mohammed that portray him as a gay porn star, but that those who want to bring up their children with the view that being a gay porn star is not an ambition to be cherished, should be considered as child abusers.
So, I am not Charlie. I am Alistair.
I believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental right in our society and it is one that Christians need to strive to uphold before we no longer have the right to express our faith in a secular liberal world – but we need to enjoy our freedom in a way that promotes tolerance. We do not have the right to seek to offend simply to promote our own world view.
I believe that we have the right to be offended by the views and writings of others, and we should be able to express that offence – and I will stand with my Muslim, Jewish and Christian friends in condemning this secular liberal satire.
And I believe that to murder someone in the name of faith is utterly abhorrent – whether in Paris, Nigeria or anywhere in the world – and I will stand with anyone to denounce this.