The recent ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign got me thinking about a great many things, freedom of speech, terrorism and the way our society treats minority groups. When I first saw this campaign I felt uneasy but couldn’t work out why. I, probably like many of us, had never heard of Charlie Hebdo, so I looked up some of their cartoons online, I would encourage you to do the same and to make up your own mind. Now, I want to make this really clear at the outset. I totally agree with our rights to freedom of speech. I believe freedom of speech is sacred and should most certainly be defended, and I would be the first person to do so if I felt it was necessary. However, there is a very fine line between freedom of speech and bullying. Sadly, I feel that we need to admit there are many guilty of the later in western countries at present. I’d like to try and explain what I mean a little further in this article, you may disagree with me; that is your right, if you are lucky enough to live in a country like mine.
So, I feel that I need to say a couple of things before I really get started. I want to make this really clear so no one can twist my words around, which you will probably do anyway. In no way am I implying that anyone who reacts violently to being antagonised is free of guilt, nor am I implying that those who do the antagonising have ‘brought it upon themselves’. I believe that NO ONE deserves to be killed for an idea, in fact, NO ONE deserves to be killed. Not for any reason. I am staunchly opposed to capital punishment, even for the most heinous of crimes. In my mind, killing another human being is wrong. The one exception to that might be self-defence, and we could get caught up in a whole lot of ‘what ifs’ there, so let’s not. What I am taking about is making the decision, a calculated decision to kill someone. It’s wrong.
However, in our legal system, (I live in Australia by the way), when a crime is committed the courts will consider a whole range of factors in passing judgement on the accused. One of those factors is whether or not the person was provoked. Provocation, in and of itself, certainly does not excuse the crime, but in many instances the defendant will receive a lesser sentence, or be treated more favourably if they have been provoked. I think it is important for judges to look at these factors when determining guilt. Crimes are rarely straightforward and we should look more compassionately on a convict if they have been ganged up on, bullied or, for whatever reason, felt threatened.
In light of this, we need to consider our own behaviour in the recent terrorist attacks. As I’ve said, not to excuse the acts, but to question why they have happened and how we should respond. I know that some people will try to take what I’m saying here out of context but as a person who is not a Muslim, but has Muslim friends, I feel deeply offended by some of the cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohamad published in the Charlie Hebdo magazines. I think the west has lost an understanding of what is sacred, and I think that we have failed to recognise a serious cultural difference between western society and many other societies. Those who disagree with me will no doubt be saying, ‘but we make fun of Christianity too.’ But I don’t think it’s the same thing. I don’t believe we should make fun of any religion, or anyone’s beliefs. But in the west, we have a culture of satire and even encourage poking fun at authority figures. This is different in other cultures, which don’t have a history of satire, and let’s face it, most people in the west nowadays aren’t that religious, whereas, in many Muslim countries religious life is inseparable from daily life, business and law.
In Islam, it is considered wrong to show ANY depiction of the prophet Mohammed, in some instances any depiction of a person is also considered inappropriate. Not only are the cartoons offensive to Muslims because of this, but to see Mohammad involved in degrading sexual acts is highly offensive. What we need now is not more aggravation, but compassion. Rather than throwing salt in the wound by continuing to ‘exercise our freedom of speech’, let us say, ‘I’m sorry, I realise that I have offended you, and more on’. Wouldn’t that be the mature response? I believe in compassion, tolerance and peace. I don’t believe in antagonising others, or in deliberately offending them. I think in this matter we should all say, enough is enough. I also think this principle should apply to all religions, I believe in equality.
The other difference between westerners attacking Christianity and Islam is that most Christians are in the majority in western countries, while Muslims are in the minority. And while I’m all for treating everyone equally, I can also see how an attack will feel more threatening when you are a minority group. I think that compassion says that we shouldn’t pick on the little guy. In Australia we have a culture of attacking the big fella, we call it the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ we like to cut people down to size. I think that satirising politicians, authority figures and famous people can serve a valuable and important function in a society, it keeps them honest. I think bringing people who have got a bit too full of themselves back down to earth can be a good thing. But I definitely don’t agree with bullying. And when you pick on the little guy all the time, that’s what it is.
I believe in getting behind the underdog. And right now, I think there are a lot of Muslims living in the west who are feeling a bit disenfranchised by satirical cartoons, being attacked on public transport or from being excluded. We need to get behind them and stick up for them, not because we agree or disagree with their religious belief (which by the way, DOES NOT preach hate and murder, there are some people in the world interpreting it that way, but Islam is very opposed to violence, just wanted to clarify that one!). The issue though is not their beliefs, we should defend Muslims who live next door to us because it’s but because it’s the right thing to do. So let’s agree not to publish offensive images of their prophet, let’s treat everyone with the respect they deserve. Why do we need to keep opening a raw wound? It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t believe in.
I believe that if a principal is true for the school yard it is true for society at large also. If I had students in my class who were picking on the only Muslim kid and drawing silly images of him or something he held dear, I’d tell them to stop. I’d explain that it is not nice to be disrespectful. I say this to journalists now, be nice, apologise for being mean and promise not to do it anymore. I’d also say to the kid being picked on, try to ignore them, don’t take it to heart, you will encounter mean people your whole life. But no one should just have to put up with this either. If it continued I might give one or both of them a detention, I might put them on suspension. I’d consider all of the issues that had led to the fight/name calling/mean notes/Instagram messages and would tell them all not to behave that way again. I accept that bullying happens, and yes, there is something in saying we need to develop a bit of resilience, but I don’t think that bullying is ok, nor should we ignore it when we see it.
I don’t believe this is something the government can solve for us, I certainly don’t want to see laws that will see our rights to freedom of speech whittled away, but we all need to think compassionately about our actions. What are the benefits verse the harm? I would say the benefits are very few, what do we prove by attacking a minority group? That we are superior to them? That we are better than them? I think not. What could we gain by showing respect and compassion to all people? A great deal. And truthfully, I think there are far better causes that need our voice than making fun of another person’s religion. Imagine if Charlie Hebdo dedicated its time to satirical cartoons of people who commit domestic violence, those who abuse children or con-artist who take advantage of the elderly. If we are going to achieve true multi-cultural society and a peaceful global world, we need to show respect and kindness to everyone.
But maybe there are some countries that don’t really want to be multi-cultural. Perhaps this is the real problem. We are letting ancient bigotry, racism, xenophobia and fear of ‘the other’ attack and unravel the fragile fabric of our society. Strong communities are what we need now, more than ever. We can’t make a strong society by attacking ourselves, by being suspicious of foreignness. There will always be people we don’t agree with, always be people who do the wrong things, always be people we dislike, but they could be a Christian, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist as easily as a Muslim. My mum always taught me this: You don’t have to like everyone, but you have to treat them with respect. We will never have peace while we continue to antagonise and make fun of things people believe in.
This cuts both ways, though. Terrorism is also a form of bullying, so is calling westerners infidels and evil, so there’s room to move on both sides, but someone has to be the first to deescalate the tension. Why shouldn’t it be you, Charlie Hebdo?