Je suis Charlie was the rallying call that resounded in France following the murderous attacks in Paris in January this year. The French made a clear statement when four million people took to the streets: “we will not be cowed by these attacks on our right to free speech, nous sommes Charlie, we are free people.”
I, in common with most of you, had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks.
I now know that it’s a left wing, anti-religious, anti-racist, in fact anti-almost-everything satirical weekly publication. Its cartoons are hard hitting and spare no blushes; some made me laugh while almost all were very close to the knuckle.
At the heart of the French response was the declaration that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on our fundamental right to free speech. By implication, the vicious satire of Charlie Hebdo spoke for everyone who believes in free speech, which makes me uneasy.
Free speech is a great gift from the time when Europe broke free from absolutism. It enabled public debate that fermented revolutions in Britain, America and France. It broke the bonds of the Christian theocracy that dominated Europe. It generated ideas and innovation that expanded knowledge and science.
It was the bridge that enabled Europeans to move from the Inquisition condemning Galileo for heresy to the age of scientific and philosophical enlightenment under the likes of Descartes and Newton. It is now one of the four pillars of a democratic state.
Free speech is a principle intended to generate debate with the application tempered by legislation relating to harm, offence, hate, lawlessness. In reality none of us truly practise free speech because we are aware of the potential for an emotional backlash.
Satire is the tool of free speech. Its object is to ridicule the vices, follies, abuses and short comings of individuals, corporations, governments, or society with the intent of shaming it into improvement. The great Frenchman Voltaire was renowned for his brilliantly funny and popular diatribes aimed at the great and corrupt. In modern times the British television programme “Spitting Images” cut to the heart of Mrs Thatcher’s politics.
The problem with satire is that it is supposed to cause offence. It is designed to reflect the uncomplimentary view that others have of the target. It works brilliantly when the audience is in tune with the joke and can enjoy the offence it causes to the target, but when it is misunderstood by the audience it becomes insulting, demeaning or humiliating.
This leads to a perceived attack on self-esteem which in turn can engender an emotional response, often leading to a violent reproach. Satire, like dynamite, is a tool that should be handled carefully.
All the more so when it is targeted against religious belief. True religious belief must be strongly held. The need for faith is paramount which makes religious belief one of our most deeply held values. Attacking religious beliefs will inevitably cause deep offence among believers.
We are used to this in the West. We went through our own religious reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment that ushered in the age of reason and science. We understand that everything should be challenged, whether it causes offence or not, to drive change and innovation. We value free speech and the debate it enables, however offensive, as a means of keeping our society fresh.
Conversely, free speech and open debate is forbidden in many parts of the World. The Islamic religion has yet to go through its own reformation. Arab nations remain deeply suspicious of the West. It is, therefore, unsurprising that our use of satire is easily promoted as a deliberate insult against their religion.
All of this provides ammunition for the murderous revisionists who seek to turn back the clock in the name of Islam. The cartoons of the central spiritual characters of Islam simply pour petrol on the flames of conflict, and for that reason Charlie Hebdo does not speak for me and many others – I am not Charlie.
The irony is that satire can open up debate and in doing so play a role in helping to defeat the revisionists’ repressive and repulsive ideology that fuelled the attacks in Paris. But it needs to have the right target and right audience.
Satirists must deliver material that will enable the moderate Muslims to support their reformation. That means material designed to ridicule and mock those that prosper under repression – the absolute rulers, the theocracies and their associated clergy, the secret and religious police, and the hypocrites – those that preach and practise one thing in their own country but another when abroard. There is no shortage of targets to entertain and amuse.
At the same time satirists must avoid attacking the central spiritual characters of Islam. These characters cannot defend themselves or change their words. Ridculing them serves no purpose, does no good and risks alienating the very group who will eventually drive change.
If the deaths at Charlie Hebdo are to mean anything, they should mean this:
- We must assist the repressed to start their own open debate and develop free speech.
- Satirists can do this by providing material to the moderates that targets the extremists at the heart of repressive regimes, while avoiding the emotive spiritual nerve that will alienate moderate believers en mass.
I doubt that I will ever be a reader of Charlie Hebdo but if that happens, I might become Charlie.