Satire and religion: a history of violence

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“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Satire has been defined as the literary genre in which “vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement”; the most important role of satire is overwhelmingly to provoke and promote discourse. Often used as a yardstick with which to measure the extent of freedom within a given society due to its heavy reliance upon the protection afforded by freedom of expression, the commentaries found within satirical pieces are in their nature controversial; their success judged by the discourse they generate. Subsequently, the relationship between satirists and members of religious communities has long been characterised by a dichotomy between freedom of expression and protection from blasphemous or derision. Tensions between the two groups have allowed such disputes to escalate from a war of words to one of physical violence, both historically and in modern society; a phenomenon encapsulated by the events within France over the past four days.

The violent response, both in a metaphorical and literal sense, as has been witnessed within France is not without precedent. The publication of Rushdie’s Satanic verses in 1988, deemed as blasphemous and sacrilegious by certain members of the Muslim community led to a fatwa being issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini- supreme leader of Iran- ordering the author’s death. The fatwa retained the backing of the Iranian government until 1998 and despite losing governmental support, has yet to be rescinded. Rushdie issued an apology in the wake of the outrage for any offence caused, however in 2005, he gave a pertinent statement on the subject of freedom; “the moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”

Charlie Hebdo, a notably controversial French satirical weekly newspaper was resurrected in its current form in 1992. Noted for its left-wing stance and strong anti-religious sentiment, the newspaper has encountered a violent backlash for over a decade surrounding its representation of Islam, both from within the Muslim community and from external commentators. Prior to the events which began on the 7th of January, the newspaper had been subjected to criticism, legal action, threats of physical violence and the fulfilment of such threats since the start of the 21st century. In 2006, in the wake of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, Charlie Hebdo faced criticism for it’s decision to reprint twelve cartoons depicting Muhammad- leading to charges being brought (though later dismissed) against the paper for inciting racial hatred. In 2011, the offices of the newspaper were firebombed in anticipation of the publication of an issue titled Charia Hebdo- controversially declared to have been guest-edited by Muhammad. As a further consequence, editor Stéphane Charbonnier was placed on the 2013 Al-Qaeda most wanted list; alongside fellow critics and satirists.

On 7 January 2015, at approximately 11:30 CET, two gunmen opened fire during an editorial meeting at the newspaper’s office whilst shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Twelve people, including including two police officers were shot dead; eleven more were injured. After exiting the scene, the gunmen have been described by witnesses as declaring “we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad, we killed Charlie Hebdo”.

The violent death of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in 2004 at the hands of Mohammed Bouyeri served as a shocking example of the extent to which freedom of speech must be both safeguarded and made safe. But in the same vein as the emergence of criticisms of the Charlie Hebdo narrative, which have emerged so soon after the events, van Gogh’s death was described as “a sensational climax to a lifetime’s public performance, stabbed and shot by a bearded fundamentalist, a message from the killer pinned by a dagger to his chest, Theo van Gogh became a martyr to free expression”.

Charbonnier’s long-term partner Jeannette Bougrab stated in response to his death “I always knew he was going to die like Theo Van Gogh. I begged him to leave France but he wouldn’t. He never had children because he knew he was going to die… He defended secularism. He defended the spirit of Voltaire. I admired him before I fell in love with him and I loved him because of the way he was, because he was brave. He thought that life was a small thing when he was defending his ideals.”

Indeed, it is in situations like these that the pertinence of Voltaire’s statement “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” is truly apparent. To defend freedom of speech and with it liberty in general, there can be no compromise. Those who hold a negative opinion of the views expressed by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, must not forget that the ability and determination to tolerate even the most intolerable of views constitutes the true measure of a society’s commitment to preserving freedom.

Critics of such incendiary pieces are right to point out that with freedom of speech comes responsibility; freedom of expression must be universal and thus one cannot expect to be exempt from any criticism their views may attract. This freedom to respond, however, can never be extended to the freedom to respond with violence, acts of terrorism and murder.

Whilst people have taken to social media to proclaim their support or criticism of Hebdo, this event should not be harnessed as a mere case study in the debate over freedom of speech and expression. This is not about the newspaper’s content. To argue as such is to imply there could be a situation in which the attacks would be justifiable. This is about the horrific murder of twelve people who regardless of their views, did not deserve their fate. #JeSuisCharlie

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