As I imagine it has been for many people, it has been difficult this week not to be completely appalled and disturbed by the shocking events in Paris. It preys on the mind, the conscience. The thought of human beings going about their usual business, on a crisp sunny day, at an editorial meeting over coffee, then suddenly being massacred by masked gunmen in a bloodbath of sheer hatred, is horrific.
But while ‘freedom of speech’ is an essential tenet of Western thought, and something I believe in upholding (witness the worrying new Secrets Act by the Abe government in Japan that will curtail press and individual freedoms), at the same time I don’t believe in deliberately insulting religion in the name of satire.
Living in Japan, a country where I always feel that people are overly reverent towards figures of authority, far, far too unquestioning and obedient (sometimes almost terrifyingly so), I am instinctively drawn to the satirical, the lampooning of public figures in magazines such as Private Eye: the dressing down of the so many megalomaniac idiots across the globe who abuse positions of power ( I laughed so hard at Team America: World Police I can’t tell you, and would love to see The Interview, in which Kim Jong Un is assassinated by James Franco). Without freedom of press speech, and the wit of the best political commentators who keep things in intelligent line, the trespasses and transgressions of those who control us might go unpunished: the ability to criticize and vilify corrupt politicians and public figures keeps them healthily in check.
The same goes for leaders of groups such as The Islamic Front, for whom I have nothing but contempt for a multiple of reasons I am sure it is not necessary to elucidate here (we could start with one, though: were Shariah law to be instigated in the UK, the punishment for my sexual ‘trangressions’ would be being crushed under a toppling wall of bricks. Great. Fuck that).
At the same time, though, there is a big difference between mocking people in positions of authority, and purposefully desecrating religious images with the aim of outraging the religions’ followers. To me, doing that seems like an assault on religions, and thus even particular cultures or ethnic groups, themselves.
I myself am not religious, though I am always curious about different interpretations of the meaning of life, and think that spirituality and a questioning of what may lie beyond, are natural components of the human animal. Obviously, faiths do become perverted ; twisted by religious leaders for political aim or personal gain, and such people are ripe for mockery by such magazines as Charlie Hebdo. Paedophile Catholic priests, those who destroy the lives of children with their vile predations, deserve everything they get, as far I as am concerned. But does that mean that Christian images must also be defiled? Must we really see Jesus Christ or Mary, naked, on all fours, in a state of degraded submission? Doing so surely means a conscious effort on the part of the non-believing ‘satirist’ to upset Christians (for the sake of upsetting them, it seems, merely for the sake of childish mischief, a gleeful sense of naughtiness). And while this is something I can identify with to some extent, as I am a bit of a ‘provocateur’ myself, I do think there are limits.
If you know full well that the prophet Muhammed cannot be shown in the form of images, but then not only proceed to do so, but also in a pornographic context ( I have just looked at some of these images on the internet and found them shocking), then you are intentionally causing deep offense to millions, even billions of people (many of whom happen to be minorities in your country, a kind of underclass. Could the pictures not, then, be seen as an insidious form of racism?).
As much as I can understand that whole ‘fuck it, there are no holy cows, free speech is free speech and I will write whatever the hell I like’, ethos, I don’t see the benefit, nor even the humour, in printing deliberately ‘blasphemous’images that offend entire communities. It seems like an attack on those groups themselves, rather than the sadistic and cruel, psychopath leaders of the terrorist groups who pollute and destroy what originally can be quite beautiful systems of belief: blind, seething fools who absolutely deserve our derision and scorn and should be the targets of vicious cartoonists (can’t they find something better to do with their lives than shooting innocent people in supermarkets ? Such dickheads).
I hate these extremists. I detest what they stand for (though I do also understand, where their rage originates: just seeing one of those Abu Graib images in the newspaper this morning was enough to make me remember: it was also, incidentally, what makes the series Homeland so compelling, the intricate, and relatively balanced portrayal of both sides of the story). At the same time, I hate Islamophobia as I hate any form of racism or prejudice.
This may seem incidental, but when we stayed in Indonesia one summer ago, we were staying with a lovely extended Muslim family on the vanilla plantation in West Java, and every morning would wake up to the beautiful, plaintive and soul stirring singing from the mosques that rose up from the valley below. It touched me on some deep level, not merely some Eurocentric, exoticist, ‘Orientalism’. I felt something. We were connected. And then down in the village, when I asked to be shown around the local mosque, if it was possible, the imam not only let us do so, but also took us on a tour through the religious academy at back, where we were talking to the students who were staying there, and they were the sweetest, and most friendly, and unaffected people you could imagine. They were deeply religious, but also entirely open to us, curious about England, what we were doing in Japan, and I see no reason to offend them merely for the sake of offending. Surely respect for other belief systems and cultures is one of the central pillars of contemporary liberal multiculturalism?
What happened in Paris is dreadful: those journalists did not deserve to die, and like everyone else I feel for their families. I have a terrible sense of foreboding of what is going to happen, as it feels as if the world is coming apart (despite what I have written above, religion sure does have a lot to answer for (to put it mildly). It has been the cause of so much bloodshed and hatred it is mindboggling (why do Shiites and Sunnis kill each other the way they do? Catholics and Protestants? It is so damn moronic, and directly contradicts what the religion the adherents claim to be believing teaches. I am sure that in both in Christianity, and Islam, and in any other religion, killing and murder are not generally held up as ideals). Maybe, in fact, ‘multiculturalism’ just isn’t destined to work in Europe, although I passionately hope that it will. But to me, while most of the world is parading placards saying ‘Je Suis Charlie’, I am afraid I can’t quite do the same. What I read in the newspaper this morning sums up my opinion best, on the subject of whether newspapers should reprint the cartoons :
“Some websites and newspapers did print the Muhammed cartoons. But many, especially in the U.S and Britain, did not, saying they violated editorial policies against wilfully giving offense. The Associated Press has decided not to run the images, explaining, in part, that the international wire service ‘tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race or sexual orientation. While we run many photos that are politically or socially provocative, there are areas verging on hate speech and actions where we feel it is right to be cautious’.
To me this speaks of common sense and a more balanced way of looking at the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Must everything now become black and white? Must we all now stake out our positions so starkly, to continue to pour more gasoline on the fire?
I mourn what has happened. But I am not Charlie.