Elephant in the Room

“Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie Hebdo. Nous sommes tous Charlie.” Are we? Politicians, media types, the great and the good have jumped on the Charlie Hebdo bandwagon professing their love of liberty. Scripted blithe commitments to freedom of speech. It’s an assault on “British” as well as “French” values, whatever they may be. Slap yourself on the back.

Balls. Dominic Lawson of the Sunday Times punctures this myth:

The point about the Muhammed cartoons, however, is that almost none of those      expressing solidarity with Charlie Hebdo are willing to put their own lives at risk (or     those of their colleagues) on the line in the cause of religious satire. Not that I blame           them. As an editor I once overruled the decision of a page designer to illustrate a             review of a book on Islam with a picture of the prophet. I told my colleague I had no           doubt about its appropriateness on journalistic or historical grounds but “if we        publish that we’ll have nutters with hooks for hands storming the building”.

Freedom. So simple a word. It won’t be long before the politicians will be restricting your freedom in the name of freedom. For what is freedom?

As Isiah Berlin pointed out some time ago, “freedom for the pike means death to the carp.” Until 1991, men in Britain were free to do what they wished sexually with their wives’ bodies. In the economic sphere, even Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore former editor of the Daily Telegraph, concedes “for six or seven years now, voters in the West have realised that capitalism was disastrously captured by those who operated it, so it stopped benefiting the rest of us.” The beauty of the free market.

Freedom is not an absolute. Freedom’s frontier forever moves. Even reverses. Compared with thirty years ago uttering “cunt” will raise fewer eyebrows than “coon” in saloon bar society. And there is a tendency in the British press to support “freedom” until it runs contrary to popular opinion. Simon Jenkins captured this spirit beautifully:

The Foreign Office professed itself “deeply concerned” at the fate of Russia’s Pussy           Riot three, jailed for two years for “hooliganism” in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour      Cathedral. They had staged what, by all accounts, was an obscene publicity stunt,       videoing an anti-Putin song defamatory of the Virgin Mary in front of pious    worshippers. … If a rock group had invaded Westminster Abbey and gravely insulted       a religious or ethnic minority before the high altar, we all know ministers would howl       for “exemplary punishment” and judges would oblige.

In the UK we still have an established church led by the head of state. The former Labour government’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 had a clause classifying religious hatred as using “threatening, insulting and abusive language”. Fortunately a House of Lords amendment restricted the offence to “threatening language”. This conflation of race and religion is dangerous. You choose your religion, not your race.

While acknowledging that the Charlie Hebdo murders have much to do with France’s post-colonial legacy, matters of class and race, ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are a core part of French republican identity. Whereas in Britain, we have a prime minster who remarked in a toe-curling ass-kissing speech during Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK nearly five years ago: “faith is not a problem for legislators to solve but rather a part of our national conversation.”

Let’s start talking. What links the so-called extremists, be they Zionists in the Israeli government, or loonies acting in the name of Allah, is the idea that my god is better than your god. And the root of these perverse ideologies is faith, which by its nature is immune to rational criticism. Hence the need to mock such fairy tales. Here lies the elephant in the room, the enemy of Enlightenment: religion.


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