On Charlie Hebdo Pope Francis is using the wife-beater’s defence
Oh yes, you can. You may not choose to. It may not be wise or polite or kind – but you can. And to show you can, without being gunned down, Charlie Hebdo has just gone on sale in the UK, in bolder outlets, proudly defiant with an image of Muhammad on the cover – though with a tear and a kindly thought: “All is forgiven.”
The pope pointed to his aide as he said “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
No, it’s not normal to punch someone who insults you; the pope’s Christ certainly didn’t think so. Verbal provocation is never an excuse for violence – that’s the wife-beater’s defence.
Is he saying we must respect any old cult: followers of Black Sabbath, Odin, Scientology, astrology? Or is it the size of a faith that earns it the right to gag mockery?
Whenever the faiths come together to protect their rights jointly, you should smell a rat. They don’t just believe very different things; their professions contradict one another. In real life, it’s Catholic against Protestant, Hindu against Muslim, except in the soup blender of Thought for the Day, where only gentle and similar voices preaching peace and understanding get a voice. Absent is the red-hot ferocity that fuels the Islamists of Isis as they slaughter Christians, or the proselytising Nichiren Bhuddists, or the extremists from Northern Ireland’s religious fringes. Religion is gentle only when it’s powerless, without secular influence.
Charlie Hebdo’s cover will no doubt offend some Muslims – and possibly provoke some. That’s the role of a satirical magazine: to stick two fingers up to propriety. It is a belch in the face of established taste and dignity. You can buy it or not, find it funny or not. Its previous circulation was small, but knowing anything can be said keeps the outer edges of free expression healthy.
The pope went on to say: “There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity … in freedom of expression there are limits.”
Yes, free speech always had limits – the old shouting fire in a theatre or inciting others to violent racial hatreds: those boundaries will be forever disputed. But there has been much ducking and diving over the last week, with a pretence those limits include a ban on offending religious sensitivity. That’s what the pope was proclaiming, demanding a special, anti-Voltairean status of protection for religious ideas – a respect never given to political or other ideas just as passionately held.
Today another 50 lashes with the cane rain down on Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia. “Je suis Raif” is starting to trend on social media as he faces 19 more weeks of flogging for writing his secularist blog Free Saudi Liberals. Governments that flocked to march in solidarity for free speech in Paris last Saturday have done little about this atrocity – far worse when inflicted by a state than by God-delirious terrorists acting as divine executioners. If all those leaders linking arms turned their backs on any dealings with Saudi Arabia, whose Wahbabist insanity has been sent out to infect parts of the Muslim world, they would make more than a gesture for free speech.
The right to make fun of popes, imams and prophets is fading fast as self-censorship for commercial, as much as self-preserving, instincts stops the presses.
The flurry of scandal over Oxford University Press stopping its children’s writers from referring to pigs or pork for fear of risking Middle East sales – or the Harper Collins atlases for export that mysteriously omit Israel for the same reason – show how easily freedom slips away unless scurrilous outriders like Charlie Hebdo can keep mocking church and mosque.