What journalist could have heard the news about Charlie Hebdo last week and not felt the following emotions? Shock, empathy, and a reminder that we choose a profession that doesn’t make us popular.
These journalists weren’t in a war zone, or at least not a literal one, they were in an office having an editorial meeting, the same thing done the world over. But because of what they published, the war zone came to them.
I was torn between writing an immediate piece, or letting the dust settle and thinking more about the issues.
And indeed, there are a number of issues in what is a very complex situation, that are now coming up in discussion.
Let’s start with what should be an easy one.
Defence of the right to free speech
Free speech is a misnomer to say the least. One of the components of my journalistic training was law, we had to pass qualifying exams of which law was one before we could go on to take our final journalism exam.
One of the reasons for learning law was to learn exactly what you couldn’t write. It may be OK for national tabloids to risk libel cases but your average provincial newspaper isn’t too keen on it. So defamation was a big one. Court rules, what you can and can’t say in court. Privilege. (That’s legal, privilege, not the social type of privilege enjoyed by rich white men for example.) And, at the time, although now superseded, we learned about blasphemy (referring to Christianity of course) and racism. That’s quite a list. Ten years after I started we were also more careful about how we referred to women who chaired meetings. Society changes albeit slowly, and so do our words, our views, and our values.
So, the obvious discussion item here is: Should Charlie Hebdo have initially published—and then continued to publish after receiving threats and direct action—satirical and blasphemous cartoons about Islam?
And, to what extent are western media being balanced and respectful, or, intimidated and manipulated by not reproducing the cartoons when they report the news story? How is the reader expected to make up their own mind with this rigidly imposed self-censorship by important media?
The secular state
France is a secular country, the one that comes first to mind when thinking of Europe. There is no state religion and individuals are free to practise a religion of their choice or no religion. Religion in theory, has no place in public life.
Yet who can forget the headscarf saga that continued for years? Even a couple of years ago, a Sikh was expelled from school for wearing a turban, and the law banning obvious religious clothing has led to a rise in Islamic secondary schools in France.
The UK is described by wiki as being ambiguous in its split between church and state. Religion is still embodied in the constitution via the Queen, but in practice the country is secular.
[Please note, for anyone unaware, America is described as a secular state, in spite of the statements by many Christians that it is a Christian country.]
In the UK we had our version of the headscarf debate with Shabina Begum, a schoolgirl in Luton.
In the 2011 census, the Muslim population of Luton was around 25% (up from 15% in 2001). At Shabina’s school, four out of the six parent governors were Muslim, three of the local education authority governors were Muslim, and the Chair of the Luton Council of Mosques was a community governor.
The school uniform offered trousers and skirts, and on top of that, a uniform based on the shalwar kameez with optional headscarf. No tough French rules here, Brits trying to be multi-cultural and inclusive and all that.
Ms Begum wore the shalwar kameez for two years and then demanded to wear a jilbab, a long gown regarded as a more appropriate or stricter (depending on your POV) form of dress that was compliant with Islamic dress under Sharia law. Because, don’t you know, the shalwar kameez was tight fitting and had short sleeves—shock, horror—seductive flesh on display, the shape of a female body implied.
And then began a nice circus, no doubt at vast cost to the British taxpayer. Begum and her supporters issued a judicial review, under of course, the European Human Rights Act.
She lost the case in the High Court, but won at the Court of Appeal, courtesy of Cherie Booth. The school appealed and this went to the House of Lords.
The Law Lords looked at two aspects:
A person’s right to hold a religious belief was absolute (couldn’t be interfered with)
A person’s right to manifest it was qualifiable (that right could be interfered with)
Three out of five Law Lords said her rights hadn’t been interfered with while the other two thought they had. But they all agreed that the interference was justifiable, and one of those grounds was to protect the rights of other female students who might be pressured into adopting a more extreme form of Islamic/Sharia dress.
And the bottom line for all of this comes down to should/could/can religious beliefs trump constitutional law?
Does/should religion get special treatment in a secular society? Not just equal treatment, but special treatment? At what point will Sharia law start to gain sway in non-Islamic countries and Muslims will be exempt from secular law of the state? Or has it started in Britain, France, Germany?
On Sharia law, and an increase in Muslim populations, there is an interesting circular that reappears every now and again, allegedly based on a book published in 2010. I’ve added the link to Snopes.
Presumably one could reasonably produce a similar projection based on Christianity, showing the ultimate measures that would be taken by a Christian state. Wouldn’t look much different to me.
Increasing calls for Europe to resist Islamification
One of the clear problems arising from increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe is the rise of right wing politics and the perceived marginalisation of Muslim communities. Boháček has an interesting (short) paper on this on academia.edu, looking at The Impacts of Muslim Immigration on European Politics.
It’s worth a read to look at the different strands: tightening of immigration policies, lack of integration, unemployment, discrimination, cultural differences, and the resultant radicalisation of both Islam in Europe and reactionary politics in the individual countries, especially Britain and France.
On the ground, away from academia, we can see the rising fortunes of the French National Front (again) and the emergence of the UKIP in response to some of these problems.
And the Guardian looks at the background of the three men who carried out the murders, which bears out some of Boháček’s theories.
So whose fault is it?
Those greedy colonialists, that’s who
I read a blog post recently which mentioned the impact of colonialism on Islam, and the author was ripped to shreds by another commenter for her liberal, soft, guilt-ridden apologetic views. I paraphrase, but you get the idea.
Yet, in Boháček’s paper, he mentions the significant change that occurred when Europeans gained the knowledge (and presumably money) to surpass the Middle East economically, technologically and therefore militarily, which was the start of western colonialism.
Western ideals of liberalism and democracy, human rights, equality of citizens (well, unless you are a woman of course) separation of church and state, led to new values across the western—colonial—world.
Living in a previously Moorish part of Europe, Andalucía and Gibraltar, it’s impossible to forget the heritage left by the caliphates and Islamic rule. And the vicious way Los Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, drove out Muslims and Jews and instituted the Auto-da-fé.
They didn’t exactly do a lot for PR with followers of Islam.
No, no, it’s the radical and strict orthodox Muslims, that’s who
This is the opposing point of view, oft touted by fundamental Christians, who deny that Islam is a religion of peace and that Islam has been seeking to conquer and rule non-Muslim countries for the past 1500 years and western civilisation is just rolling over waving their legs in the air.
Here’s a Telegraph article that lays the blame squarely on jihadists.
And the other big issue – should Obama have gone to Paris?
Well it’s nothing to do with America is it, so hell, who cares?
It’s just an attack on western values (not just European ones) and civilisation, and some of those countries in Europe are the first ones rung by America if the US wants a little support in
invading here, there and everywhere helping restore human rights and freedom to countries with oil tyrants and despots.
The indisputable facts from last week’s incidents are:
Twelve people were killed as part of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, one of whom, with bitter irony, was Muslim, defending the right to free speech
A policewoman was killed on Thursday
A police officer on the investigation committed suicide on Thursday
Four hostages were killed
A jogger shot on Wednesday night, and badly injured, is thought to have been another of Coulibaly’s victims
The three murderers/assassins/criminals were killed. The three had criminal records and had known jihad links
A German newspaper that reprinted a Mohammed cartoon was firebombed early Sunday morning
Other than that, who can clearly state the cause, or the way to prevent future attacks? Certainly not me.
I am left with some conclusions of my own.
Religion is dangerous and used for evil means. That’s nothing new, I worked it out at university. But, while the majority of religious people may be relatively law-abiding and not sign up to murder people in the name of religion, some do.
Religious groups get financial deals (eg tax breaks in various countries, and in the UK 26 seats in the House of Lords), and special treatment. It is increasingly unacceptable to offend someone on the grounds of religion. Why is someone’s belief in a fictitious (TM) entity more important than my personal beliefs? Imagine the fuss if someone had been given a non-kosher or non-halal meal in hospital compared with me complaining about the non-vegan meals I received in hospital (I didn’t complain). Offend someone’s religious beliefs – black marks. Give the wrong meal to a cranky vegan? Unimportant.
Religion gets the kid gloves treatment, and that’s partly also because it is blurred with racism. The majority of Muslims are not white Europeans/Australians/Canadians/Americans. Sure there are some white converts, often young and from other religions. Check out youtube. Depressing in the extreme. Same old story, something lacking, minimum social life, sense of exclusion, ripe for religion.
But why does religion get singled out as a priority for dispensation, respect and tolerance that it doesn’t afford non-believers? Charlie is already getting criticised from non-Muslims for its offensive brand of satire.
And, it’s good to see religion joining forces:
In a statement released yesterday headlined “Muslims are right to be angry”, Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, accused Charlie Hebdo of “intolerance” and its journalists’ “disgusting record” of playing a role in causing their own death.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights is an influential group in the United States, with a multi-million dollar budget and assets, as well as membership numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Can you imagine if Charlie had published anti-feminist cartoons, and those few of us who are feminist had even complained, let alone firebombed the office or killed twelve people because we were offended?
Would anyone have stood up for women or said, Charlie was asking for it by insulting women? which is what is being said now regarding the continued depiction of Mohammed and Islam. One quote in the first Guardian article I quoted above said that was similar to saying women wearing short skirts are asking for it. (Called victim-blaming if you don’t know.)
Or would anyone have said that we should all be less offensive towards women? Because there is as much offence churned out against women every day as there is against Islam.
And, women make up approx 50% of the population. And, what affects women, affects their children and men. Yes honestly, it does.
A report in the NYTimes yesterday looks at some studies that prove women need to keep their mouths shut. Or if they don’t it won’t help them at work. Men, on the other hand, can talk as much as they want. Because, you know, they are just so much smarter.
But if the greater enlightened gender of our species lets us open our mouths or contribute, apparently, better results ensue. Surely not? The studies must be flawed. Popular article though, currently the one most emailed forward. It’s a good insight into the daily discrimination that persists for women and yet, it’s denied, it doesn’t exist. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples is how the number of women musicians hired to orchestras goes up when blind auditions are held. Can’t see whether it’s a man or a woman? Have to decide on skill and ability not gender?
Which brings me onto my last article from CNN, neatly combining terrorism and gender equality.
Even terrorists have fears. And the prospect of gender equality appears to rank high on their list of worst nightmares.
The logic, for them, is simple. Empowered women would never accept the brutal ideology espoused by terrorist leaders as the rule of their land.
Which then, leads me to my nice simplistic proposal:
Stop giving religion special constitutional status. That’s right. It’s no more important than believing in the tooth fairy. And the tooth fairy does a fair swap. If you want to go to your local club to chat about teeth fairies that’s fine, just don’t make everyone else put their teeth under the pillow if they don’t want. We can’t all be bought for sixpence.
Support gender equality, and no, men and women do NOT currently have equal rights. Discrimination continues, blatantly in many societies, less obvious to the casual observer in others. Giving women equality would achieve far more than supporting hocus pocus.