Je suis Charlie

The reverberations from the atrocity in Paris that took the lives of staff working at the French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, followed by further killings at a nearby Jewish supermarket, all at the hands of Muslim extremists, continues to be experienced across the world and raises many questions, with all and sundry offering their opinions. The aftermath saw many acts of defiance from those determined not to give into the extremists by maintaining silence, epitomised by the “Je suis Charlie” demonstrations that followed.

This is a slogan adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression after the 7 January 2015 massacre in which 12 people were killed at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. It identifies a speaker or supporter with those who were killed at the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and by extension, a supporter of freedom of speech and resistance to armed threats. Some journalists embraced the expression as a rallying cry for the freedom of self-expression“.

Liberty, equality, fraternity“, is the national motto of France, and the French are also renowned as the masters of satire, in this case through the use of cartoons. At best, this is done in order to expose, ridicule and challenge ideas and practices that need to be subject to such scrutiny, and those who engage in this art form deem their actions as being justifiable for a free society as well as being a powerful means for making a point. I also picked up something from a related article to the effect that: the best satire “challenges human pretension and presumption and reminds us of our limits and our fallibility” and therefore should be welcomed, but much satire today, including some of which emanates from Charlie Hebdo, does not do this and such people merely insult for the sake of it.

For some, including those moderate Muslims that would readily condemn these acts of terror, treating the prophet Mohammed in such a disrespectful way, as Charlie Hebdo was seen as doing through its cartoons portraying the prophet, was unacceptable, but as has turned out a small minority will go a lot further. The same might be said for the Christians but such is the society we live in and the nature of the extremists in those two religions, it is often easier to get away with it with the Christians than with the Muslims and insults against Christianity, just as scathing, often go unreported.

It is noteworthy that Pope Francis has commented that free speech should have its limits, especially if when exercised it is used merely to insult. The contrary view is that freedom of speech is an essential part of national life and must be jealously guarded, given how many in the past have played the ultimate price, and in many countries still do, for speaking as they found, although ironically it is often the liberal elite that espouses the values of tolerance but at the same time pours scorn on the dogmatist, e.g. Evangelical Christians, when putting forward their views. It is also said by allowing freedom of speech we are better placed to withstand tyranny and injustice.

Two negative effects of this widespread acts of defiance against those who threaten free speech are that the spotlight is being placed more on minority Muslim communities living in France and elsewhere, in a negative way, but the corollary is attacks by Muslims on non-Muslims as a reaction to the reaction have increased as seen in recent attacks on churches in Niger. This has got me thinking once again where does the balance lie? While, like anyone else, I don’t like being attacked verbally or in any other way come to that and, more importantly, I feel like that concerning my family, friends and members of my religion, I recognise this may be the price we have to pay for living in a free country, and is one of the main ways to ensure intelligent debate on those matters that affect us.

I recall some time back vigorously resisting a move to make it an offence to insult others, given that the criteria for deciding what constitutes an insult is often a subjective one. The law was and to an extent still is such that open air preachers exercising their freedom to preach can fall foul if some take offence to what they say. As a preacher of the gospel myself, I know all too well how people can take umbrage at my words if they feel they are being “got at”, but it seems to me that provided one’s motives are not malevolent this ought to be allowed. Yet when it comes to libel and speech designed to stir up hatred, the consensus seems to be that the law should offer protection to those who are the victims, and with this I agree.

I have no doubt that the debate as to what extent we should allow free speech will long continue and what is decided will much depend on who is ruling at that time and place. Other than offering a view that free speech should be allowed where reasonably possible, being mindful that different people will have different views as to what constitutes reasonable, I would like to offer a better way based on the example of Jesus. Jesus was put to death because what he said offended others but what he did say needed to be said. It was both true and was said in love. While I doubt we can legislate for “love thy neighbour“, loving in this way is what we all should be doing. As much as I sympathise with the protestors, Je ne suis pas Charlie.

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