#CharlieHebdo: why religion can’t be a sacred cow

I write this with trepidation and I worry about giving offence: but as a secularist and leftist, I wanted to give my own perspective on the atrocities committed against Charlie Hebdo.

Like almost everyone else, my starting point is horror that so many people have been killed either for their cartoons or for guarding the people who drew them. Nothing can justify that.

I am also very uneasy about the degree of focus on whether or not we approve of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. I worry about blurring the lines between lampooning religions, belittling individual believers and attacking ethnic groups. And I worry that in the process, we give a set of ideas a free pass, many of which secular leftwingers would – and should – vehemently oppose.

Charlie and the Church: a very French dispute

I think a lot of anglophone commentators have taken Charlie Hebdo out of context. I’m not fluent in French – and I’m certainly not fluent in French satire – but I do know a bit about that context. Charlie Hebdo comes from the anticlerical radical left. We don’t really have an equivalent in the UK (disestablishmentarianism has, sad to say, not got much further since 1920), any more than we have France’s tradition of laïcité. Opposition to the influence of the Catholic clergy played a significant role in the French Revolution, and it was a leitmotif of the left in the Third Republic.

Charlie Hebdo is partly in that tradition. As a result, it’s fiercely anti-religion in all its forms. As you’ll see from a brief google, the magazine has been pretty ruthless to all the Abrahamic faiths: their front page with an angry bishop, imam and rabbi will give you some idea (‘Il faut voiler Charlie Hebdo’ means ‘We’ve got to veil Charlie Hebdo’). It is also, importantly, rooted in a) a specifically French set of stories and references and b) particular stories at any point in time. As a result of the murders, a small-circulation magazine of the French far left which operated within that context and for a French audience (who would get the context in a way that we wouldn’t) is now being scrutinised by people who don’t speak the language, don’t get the context and don’t remember the news stories.

Charlie Hebdo is deliberately outrageous: that’s half the point of the magazine. That means people will have been offended by some or many of their cartoons – often reasonably. I’m not saying that none of their cartoons crosses the line in the French context: I don’t know them well enough for that. (In fact, as with most satirical or outer-edge publications, I imagine they probably have.) But it’s interesting that SOS Racisme, France’s largest anti-racist organisation, refers to the paper as ‘our friends’. They also came out in support of Charlie Hebdo in 2012, when it published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Beliefs and believers: two different things

Really, I’m less concerned about the rights and wrongs of the magazine. What worries me is the way in which theologically-derived taboos, from all religions, can become accepted limits upon all of us. One very thoughtful piece gave me that impression: ‘This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do.’

Identity: fine. I have no quarrel with that. Beliefs? Sorry, but beliefs are ultimately opinions. However deeply-held, however central to how you see yourself, however ingrained by family and culture and community, they’re still opinions. (My sense of Britishness is central to my sense of self. But my support for the Union of 1707 is still an opinion and you have the right to attack it with all the rhetorical force at your disposal. The same goes for my sexuality as opposed to my views on equal marriage.) And opinions are fair game.

Once we start accepting that we can cordon people’s beliefs off from discussion, we get into dangerous territory. We get the kind of soft censorship that Martin Rowson talked about. We get people calling for ‘safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs’ (though the proposals were amended that time). It’s not just members of one religious group, either: remember the riots over Behtzi? (The play was cancelled: police ‘couldn’t guarantee their safety’.) Or when Christian groups tried to get Jerry Springer: The Opera judged as blasphemous?

Religion is not powerless

Ultimately, a major reason Charlie Hebdo got into hot water on a regular basis was that it aimed at religion without demur or restraint. They would, I think, say that it is precisely because they distinguish between the belief and the believers that they pull no punches. It is also true that Muslims in France, Britain and all of western Europe are a disproportionately marginalised and discriminated-against group. Attacking them is kicking down: agreed.

Religions, however, are powerful things, with millions of adherents around the globe. Many would die for their faith – and yes, a smaller number would sometimes kill for it. Of course, the vast majority of religious people would never dream of committing such atrocities. But taking aim at Islam when it enters the political realm is not, any more than taking aim at the Catholic Church or evangelical churches when they do the same, kicking down: it’s kicking up.

Nearer the mainstream, and in a British context, religions often seek to influence the public realm and often succeed. They have profound influence when it comes to faith schools, assisted dying (while not always giving full disclosure of their reasons), university seating and more besides. They have power, and power should always be scrutinised.

Religions aren’t just important parts of the identity of ethnic minorities, who are often discriminated against and badly treated. They’re a political presence; they’re a powerful social force; many of their believers campaign for their values in the public realm. They cannot be beyond criticism. And they certainly can’t be beyond reach of a cartoon.

2 thoughts on “#CharlieHebdo: why religion can’t be a sacred cow

  1. The situation is more complex than that; distinguishing between belief and believers is pretty much the same as distinguishing between homosexual orientation and practice – it is a false distinction and simply suggesting that the distinction should be drawn shows a major misunderstanding of how many people live faith. Similarly, faith is more than just a set of opinions, it is heritage, community, relationships and a way of life – not just something that you can take on and off any more than is race. That is not to say that expressing opposing views, questioning peoples’ beliefs and so on should not happen – but there is a difference between taking issue with something in rational, accurate and respectful discussion – in whatever medium – and presenting it in a way that undermines, belittles, demeans, caricatures, homogenises and effectively falsifies. An example – Richard Dawkins regularly criticises Christians for creationism without having the honesty to admit that the majority of Christians, even in the US which is more ‘fundamentalist’ are not creationists – but all Christians get tarred with the same brush. Similarly, as a female priest the number of times I get asked if I’m the vicar of Dibley or equivalent is ridiculous, even though I’m a great deal slimmer and different in so many ways. I’m not saying that satire doesn’t have its place – but it is not as high minded or neutral as some suggest and its effect on people of faith, who can see themselves caricatured on a regular basis, can be corrosive.

    1. Thanks very much for the comment.

      I suspect our difference over ‘faith’ is partly semantic. I define it to mean belief in a deity, religious tenet. What you describe is what I would refer to as things you do or participate in or value as a result of your faith. Substantively, though, I can’t agree that religion is as much ‘something you can’t take on and off’ as race.

      I do accept that many people would find losing their faith a deeply painful – possibly traumatising – experience, for all kinds of reasons. But in the end, people can and do reject religious belief (I know some militantly lapsed Catholics, for example). They can’t change the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation. You may not be able to ‘convince yourself otherwise’ when it comes to religion (or atheism, for that matter), but that’s a false comparison. We won’t agree on this: but to me, part of the reason faith is seen as so much part of people’s sense of self and ‘immovable’ is because it’s a non-rational thing. Non-rational instincts are important and deeply held by all of us, but their non-rationality is absolutely not a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

      I don’t think satire is necessarily high-minded or neutral. It can’t be neutral: it’s taking aim at something, by definition, so the most it could ever be is merciless in all directions. On high-mindedness: well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Its social function doesn’t require it to be. I wish I had the book to hand to check the quote, but John O’Farrell put it well in ‘Things Can Only Get Better’: ‘Showing royalty on the toilet is an important part of democracy, and not just a cheap botty gag.’ Laughter at power’s expense matters, whether it’s subtle or sordid: and the crux of my original piece is that religion is powerful – profoundly so, and (in my view) more so than its actual support justifies.

      I know different denominations, individuals and so on take different views on different issues: but we see serried ranks of bishops, imams and rabbis campaigning very frequently indeed. They are often on the same side – that of social conservatism. We would see mockery of any other group taking the same line as the vast majority of religious leaders on equal marriage as absolutely fair game, for instance. Why should it get a kinder hearing because it’s based on religious faith rather than secular argument?

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