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Are we Charlie?

Friday, January 16, 2015

The murder of journalists in the Paris office of French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, by people who believed they were doing God’s work, has forced us to contemplate something we might not have: should we support the right to publish material reprehensible in itself and offensive to some? Or should we respect sincere, deeply held and, to the people who hold them, unquestionably holy beliefs?

For me, the answer is pellucid: freedom of expression, however drastic, is always more important than respect for belief, however strongly and widely held, and supposedly divinely ordained. In 1663, the Roman Catholic church forced Galileo, under threat of torture to recant the truth that the Earth orbited the sun. The Spanish Inquisition, that great and holy instrument of enforcing respect for belief was set up in 1478 and disbanded in 1834, the year slavery was abolished; that was 356 years of respect for religious views that were usually simply wrong. Liberal, progressive, secular societies—the best hope for the advancement of the common man—must err on the side of protecting the right to publish even a diatribe as distasteful as Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

But is it so very important to draw a cartoon of the Prophet when to do so would hurt millions of Muslims, and to not draw the cartoon would hurt no one at all?

Well, would not drawing a cartoon of the Prophet really hurt no one? Or would it at hurt us all by setting an artificial, arbitrary limit on the spirit of scientific or general enquiry? Is choosing not to draw a capitulation, not only without a fight, but without a thought? Should we respect belief even at the cost of the quest for knowledge? Should respect for belief preclude discussion about the belief itself?

Why is a belief unquestionable? If progress is possible only through change, and change is only possible through challenging the status quo, whatever that might be, why should any belief be declared beyond questioning? Is the belief declared unquestionable precisely because it could easily be questioned, indeed, refuted, if it were not declared sacrosanct?

Which beliefs are to be declared unquestionable? Are all beliefs equally sacred? Does the Scientologist belief in the bridge to total freedom carry as much weight as the Muslim and Jewish beliefs that God dislikes bacon? What happens when beliefs 

contradict one another as, say, the Wiccan belief in female supremacy and the Muslim one of female subordination? Which belief is to prevail? The holier one? Who says which belief is holier? Do we give more or less credence to older or newer beliefs?

Who declares a belief to be unquestionable, the society in which the belief arose, or the society into which the belief was imported? Within whichever group is responsible for declaring beliefs holy, which subgroup actually assesses which beliefs? Is it the holy men of any or every religion? Do people bound by them have to agree that beliefs are unquestionable, or are they merely to accept them?

​Can belief be democratic or must it be imposed from on high? Whose height? Are all beliefs holy to their believers sacred? Or only the beliefs of faiths big, powerful or violent enough to make themselves heard? Should we prosecute Rastafarians for smoking ganja and decline to prosecute people who burn down embassies because, back in their home countries, a cartoon appeared?

Does freedom of expression include the freedom to offend? Can people not express their opposition to a belief without disrespecting it? Is it okay to mock beliefs that a large number of people hold sacred? Or a small number? If more, or fewer, people believe, does that make the belief more, or less, sacred?

Which is more important: the right to criticism, including mockery, or the right to respect for belief, however bizarre or unreasonable? Is there a civic duty to mock a bizarre belief? Is there a holy duty to do it? Was Martin Luther Charlie Hebdo?

And, moving to the specific belief in question, ie, the Muslim belief that no one should produce an image of the Prophet for any purpose whatever:

Is drawing the Prophet wrong in itself? Is a flattering drawing haram? Is a drawing intended to praise and honour the Prophet haram? Is a drawing of the Prophet, such as the one on the cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo, intended as a statement that the human spirit will not be cowed by the threat of violence, really a belligerent provocation of a billion Muslims?

Is a belief to be given paramountcy because it is declared holy by its believers, no matter how it is viewed by anyone else, including people wishing to challenge it? Is it a sensible belief? Is it a silly belief? Is it an anachronistic belief? Is an assessment of the belief allowed? Is assessment of matters a good or a bad thing? 

Is there any difference between Muslims being outraged by a drawing of the Prophet and the crowd in the stoning scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian being outraged at the intoning of the name “Yahweh”? Do we wish to emphasise adherence to belief? Or questioning of same? 

Which is more important to our species, belief or knowledge? Does someone’s sensitivities matter more than someone else’s sense of humour? Can there be freedom of expression if it is not allowed to hurt anyone’s feelings? If, as seems likely, both cannot peacefully coexist, do we want democracy or theocracy? 

BC Pires believes he will have another drink and head down to the movies.


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