Sunday, 18 January 2015

Je Suis Moi-même

So far January has been a callous month. It has brought endless rain, a sprinkle of snow followed by brutal hail, terrifying winds and excessive violence.

I have found myself barely able to speak about the events in Paris ten days ago.
Even less able to comment on Nigeria - stunned by the lack of official comment.
Large sections of the British media appeared to move, lock stock and barrel to Paris for days on end to bring us every nuance of what they wanted us to know of events in France. Nigeria, it seems, only merited a bit of a mention by comparison.

And now everyone has hoisted a Je Suis banner of one sort or another.
It's not hard to do, hoist a banner. I would hoist one too, if it was simply about showing sympathy - my heart goes out to those who have lost their beloveds in Paris and Nigeria, as it does to the victims of Syria - victims everywhere.

But what actually happened in Paris last week?

Yes, I believe in freedom of speech. I believe, too, in not kowtowing to terrorism.
But while we're shouting about freedom of speech, where are the parallel core values that render it a human right?

Personally, I don't mind what people believe in, however dingbat their ideas might seem to me (or mine to them, for that matter). Someone's dingbat belief probably gets them through each day.
It's where freedom to say what you think (and thus to believe what you want) becomes the freedom to harm that's the problem. And how do you measure or quantify these things?

Being the complex creatures that we are, we can all wax lyrical on a thousand ways wherein we differ from the next person, but ultimately it's how we deal with difference that matters.

If I'm honest, I'm not that bothered about what cartoonists depict or journalists write, they are looking for maximum impact, after all. I daresay I'm pretty average in feeling ambivalent. I have the choice - I can read it/buy it or ignore it/tear it up - it's up to me.
I'm pretty average in other ways too: middle-aged (my kids might say old) middle-class, from the west, well fed and well educated. Not surprisingly I'm pretty happy to live and let live - it's easy for me. My biggest gripes in life are the weather and the government. I'm not going to go out and kill over either of them.

It's not like that for everyone, we are all different. Especially the young, who are passionate, hot-headed and know that they can change the world. Throw in underprivileged, marginalised and disaffected and you have created a bomb, just waiting to be detonated by something. When there is nothing else, an extreme belief system might be just the thing to make their lives worth dying for. Hello fundamentalism.

I have nothing against 'belief', and what people believe is entirely up to them, but I'm not keen on 'religion' which seems to me largely a tool for manipulating unwieldy masses. And any kind of fundamentalism makes me back away in haste. I once read the words 'we all make God in our own image', and I find them to be more true, the older I get - never more so than with fundamentalists of any faith. Marx is often misquoted, but what he actually said lies at the heart of the matter: Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. 
In today's world, I would happily replace the word 'religion' there with 'fundamentalism', and the very fact of being a fundamentalist seems to impose it's own obligatory jehad - literally, a crusade for an idea - not exclusively a Muslim concept by any means. People who knock on your door and try to convert you are on just as much of a jehad as any terrorist.

Amongst much interesting comment, there was  one article this week that left an impression on me. It pointed out that by forcing murderous distortions of Islam on the world, Muslim fundamentalists make violence their religion, 'a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace' By its very nature, this is 'an 'identity theft' of the Muslim faith'. 

The article also quoted Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian newspaper columnist, who is Muslim, who tweeted: 'I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.' Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah)

Which brings me back to the core values that need to underpin all our freedoms. The core values, that at the start, underpinned most religions.
Yes, I believe in freedom of speech.
But what happened to respect for others, for their beliefs and personal choices?
Where is the line drawn between freedom of speech and causing harm - on either side of the line.
As another good article, Five Days On intimated, it is about personal responsibility - in this instance, self-censorship. Perhaps this is a facile question, but why is it necessary to prove that we have freedom of speech by ridiculing and humiliating any culture or faith? Isn't that just a form of bullying, dressed up in suavely sophisticated clothes? It doesn't just provoke fundamentalists to acts of terrorism, it carves deep and painful fissures in the tentative bonds that grow - oh so slowly - between all the multi-ethnic communities in our increasingly homogenised world.

In the end, if we can't control ourselves and decide what constitutes a freedom of speech that does not cause harm and allows everyone to live in dignity, we leave the way open for governments and their military to control us, which they willingly do - with greater surveillance, new laws and tighter reins, none of which are ever rescinded. And let's not beat about the bush here - it seems a symptom of the human condition that those in power will always seek security in office via the old adage, divide and rule. They may have marched in Paris, they may profess to want unity, but unity doesn't serve them, and the ways of all political parties have become too tangled to allow for any single truth - so while, in the public gaze, governments train their hoses to put out the fires, in the background they are often busy fanning the flames. Politically the convolutions are endless, and nothing is what it seems; so we are told what they want us to hear and left to puzzle over the all too frequent anomalies afterwards.

Who can say with any real confidence what actually happened in Paris last week, and why?
More and more, we are taught to live in fear - something we have learned from America, and taken to our hearts.
All of which causes more 'distress' as Marx phrased it, which ultimately leads to more protest, more radicalisation and more problems - the endless vicious circle.

As Jim Wallace said in the Sojourners article, the only way to change fundamentalism is from within.
That's for the leaders and followers of all religions to address.
But everyone needs to address what the humane parameters of freedom of speech encompass, and what we can expect in return for our ability to express everything we think.


  1. I don't condone violence in the name of any religion but "je ne suis pas charlie".

  2. Excellent, well balanced blog. You have put into words what many of us are feeling. Thank you.


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