So here’s the thing.
I tend not to post very often, and certainly never about anything that actually matters, but sometimes there’s just things you need to say. And apparently I’m angry enough to feel like I need to say this.
I first heard about the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo when checking Twitter that morning. In the flurry of tweets on the issue, I saw someone had retweeted an old article from The Onion, called “No One Murdered Because Of This Image”. The article features a rather explicit image of Jesus, Moses, Buddha, and Ganesha involved in a four-way. The article noted that, after the image was published, “... no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened... not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way.” The article also states that “Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.”
I’d seen the article before, back when it was first published in 2012. I was offended by the image then, and I still am now, for multiple reasons. One of those is just for taste reasons; I really did not need to see Ganesha forcing his fist into Buddha’s rear. But also, I am a sincere, Bible-believing, conservative Christian, and the image of my Lord and Saviour portrayed in that manner is offensive.
And yet, on Friday morning, I posted a link to that Onion article to my Facebook page. (Admittedly I did remove the preview of the actual image from my page; when your Facebook friends include multiple church pastors, you tend to avoid posting explicit sexual images straight onto your Facebook feed, even if they are just cartoons.) I posted that article on my Facebook page because, as much as I may be offended by that type of content, I also whole-heartedly believe that living in a free society means recognising that other people have different views to my own, that those views may occasionally be expressed in ways that I may find offensive, and that part of being a mature adult in a modern society means that we accept this risk of offence as a fact of life. And I thought The Onion article was a nicely humorous way of making that point. (Leaving the image itself aside, the supporting article is very funny, and the image has to be deeply offensive for the joke to work.)
This morning I was listening to Radio New Zealand, and heard a piece about a multi-faith prayer vigil that was held at the Wellington Islamic Centre. Leaving aside the interesting issue of holding the vigil at a centre representing the faith that the perpetrators purported to represent while committing the attack, I was particularly troubled by some of the reportedcomments from one of the vigil’s participants.
“The Kilbirnie mosque's imam, Sheikh Mohammed Zewada, condemned the terror attacks, but
STOP RIGHT FUCKING THERE!
You do not get to condemn the terror attacks, and then follow up with a “but”. Let’s be precise about language here: the word “but” is used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned. In other words, using the word “but” lessens, diminishes, takes away from what you’ve already said. And when what you’ve already said is a condemnation of the murder of over a dozen people, you should not in any way be seeking to diminish that. And yes, I realise this particular sentence is the reporter’s summary of what you were saying, but the fact that you expressed anything that could be reasonably presented in this manner is a problem.
Anyway, back to the article:
“The Kilbirnie mosque's imam, Sheikh Mohammed Zewada, condemned the terror attacks, but called on people to show more respect for Islam.
“He said people should stop creating images of the prophet Muhammad, which is disrespectful.”
Read these two sentences together, and it’s pretty clear what is being said here. And it’s not something I think we want to be said in New Zealand. Sure, the killings were bad. But then, what the victims did that led to their deaths was also bad.
And here we come to the actual quote from the imam. “‘I totally disagree with what has happened in Paris. [But] freedom of expression does not mean I have the right to abuse other people or ridicule their faith,’ he said.”
See, here’s the thing. YES, IT FUCKING WELL DOES! It is inherent in “freedom of expression” that we do have the right to offend and to ridicule. Because if a person’s view is that someone else’s faith is ridiculous or offensive, and yet that person is constrained from expressing that view, their freedom of expression is absolutely constrained.
The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.” And sure, this right is not unconstrained. You can’t use your freedom of expression to bring actual harm to another person, you can’t yell Fire in a crowded room, you can’t issue death threats, you can’t access harmful images (such as those of children being abused). But beyond these constraints which are deemed reasonable in a free and democratic society, the State has no right to impose limits on how we exercise our freedom of expression. But that is what is being called for – where there is a clash between freedom of expression and freedom of religion, freedom of religion should take precedence.
(In the piece aired on the radio, it’s even clearer what the imam is calling for: “...we need to agree to set up some kind of law to put an end, or put some kind of regulation if I can say this word, to the freedom of expression to guarantee that this world shall live in peace and harmony.” That is unambiguous. He is expressly calling for a law change to prevent people from exercising their freedom of expression if it would offend another’s (more specifically, his) religion.)
Here’s the thing: in our society, it doesn’t just stop with the person saying the offensive thing. The person who is offended also has freedom of expression. They have the right to complain, to express their views. They can even organise a protest to peacefully (I emphasise the word “peacefully” – and placards calling for death do not count as peaceful protest) express en masse how offended they are. That’s something that the Christian community has been very good at in the past (although admittedly, I do think that the Christian community has got it wrong at times; I genuinely believe we were wrong to be so offended by Monty Python’s Life of Brian or The Last Temptation of Christ, the former being one of the great film comedies, and the latter being a film that I found deeply moving and thought-provoking as an exploration of the person of Christ and His sacrifice).
And after the expression of offence, who knows? Perhaps the person causing offence will see the strength of the community view, will understand better what they have done and will think better of it. Or perhaps they’ll just be delighted by the extra attention brought to the offence. (Admittedly, that’s usually what happens in this situation; things that might have been ignored draw crowds keen to understand the controversy – after all, how many people have now seen the Charlie Hebdo cartoons because of the attack? or saw The Interview to understand why North Korea was so offended?) But really, it doesn’t matter what the outcome is. Because the important thing is that EVERYONE has freedom of expression, and was able to choose to exercise it or not.