Opinionista Justin McCarthy 9 January 2015

The Charlie Hebdo atrocity: It’s about intolerance

As a vocal proponent of free speech I found myself compulsively drawn to the horrific cold-blooded murder of 12 innocent people and injury to another 11 at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday. The very notion of visiting a violent death on innocent people for their views, no matter how offensive, is anathema to most, as is some of the reaction to it. Religion, and more specifically, Islam, is not the ‘problem’ here, extremism is. The irony is that Islam is just as much a victim.

Let me be clear at the outset: what the three gunmen and their funders and supporters did on Wednesday is wantonly barbaric. Only a deeply disturbed or maniacally brainwashed human could be capable of such atrocity. Their motivation appears to be obvious, but there is nothing approaching justifiable motivation in this abhorrent act of extreme violence. It is militant extremism bred by myopic thuggery, not religious belief. It is the type of behaviour associated with unrestrained savagery, the kind that makes the so-called civilised world recoil in horror. And rightly so.

It is a dreadfully over-simplistic assumption to equate this action to a mainstream monotheistic religion, despite the perpetrators’ declared allegiances. Literalist Sharia practice, assuming the murderers are followers thereof, is not mainstream Islam, it is a form of extremism that uses dogma, violence and terror to propagate a narrow and uncompromising version of self-serving domination. It serves no religious end; instead it exists primarily to satiate the rampant egos of its proponents. In many respects it’s no different to the forms of extremism typical of tyrants. The principles are the same, whether a disciple of Sharia extremism, Charles Taylor, Idi Amin, Bashaar Al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, Robert Mugabe or any other power obsessed despot. The only difference is that tyrants don’t need to justify their actions through scripture.

There is simply no justification whatsoever, under any circumstances, for this savagery. It is a savagery all too frequently associated with Islam and propagated in its name. There are around 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, yet it’s the tiny minority of radical fundamentalists that define the faith in the non-Islamic world. For that the fundamentalists have only themselves to blame or congratulate, depending on how you look at it. Moderate Muslims the world over can feel justified that extremists have hijacked their faith, because Islam is as much a victim of their demagoguery as is free speech. History is littered with thousands of examples of brutal atrocities enacted in the name of religious beliefs. It is all too easy to point to the scriptures and cry foul, but the Christian Bible is not short of its own literal barbarisms – murder, incest and intolerance alike. Very few (if any) murders today are enacted in the name of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, but that doesn’t make them better or worse than Islam.

As an atheist I have a reasonably neutral perspective on mainstream religion, unfettered by personal religious judgements. I’m also a libertarian, which compels me to refrain from judging the belief systems others choose to adopt, be it Islam, Scientology or the Green Spaghetti Monster. Each to his own, live and let live, and so on. Which is precisely why silencing voices, whether through intimidation, force, fear or the threat of any of these, is an abomination. It’s also precisely why such silencing is an abomination to billions of followers of all manner of faiths that respect their neighbour’s freedom of choice. So is the soft peddling justification by some that the cartoonists had it coming to them. Satire, lampooning, ridicule, disrespect and offense are deliberate attempts to call truth to power – whether that power be leaders in government, religion or private enterprise, or abusive spouses and schoolyard bullies. It’s sacrosanct in some cultures, banished in others. Some regard it a measure of a society’s level of civilisation. Napoleon once complained that the English caricaturist James Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down”.

What matters in this case is that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of French law, yet the perpetrators of this atrocity most likely enjoyed the benefits of this law and the secular society that embraces their faith and allows them to practice it without intimidation. They are the citizens of France, and if captured and convicted might very well benefit from a progressive legal system rather than lose their heads. While we’re on the subject of irony it’s telling to observe that Muslims find security in countries like France precisely because of precepts such as freedom of speech, freedom to believe and the enforcement of tolerance through public and legal protection. By attacking these freedoms they have attacked the continued tolerance of Islam. These are not the actions of disciples spreading religious belief; they are evil zealots spreading hatred and fear.

Many argue that the cartoons are deeply offensive. I agree with them in the same way that I agree that Brett Murray’s ‘The Spear’ or Zapiro’s ‘Lady Justice’ may cause offense. By all means take offense, but go no further than that. Silencing dissent in any form is a sure sign of immaturity and intolerance. Offense is in the eye of the beholder, and even though Charlie Hebdo is an antagonistic publication serving the interests of a small minority (judging by its reported 60,000 weekly print run), this is simply no justification for intimidation or fear mongering, let alone violence. The publication may have broken Sharia law but France isn’t governed by that law and those who take offence have no right to claim violation of any rights whatsoever.

Who are these people who dare to brutally impose their version of right and wrong on law-abiding citizens? They’re the product of extreme intolerance, of despicable selfishness, of gargantuan egos and of unbridled barbarism. If the measure of a person’s level of civility is their ability to tolerate opposing views without resorting to silencing those views then these killers are uncivilised beasts deserving of no mercy, pity or redemption by any definition. DM


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