#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.