Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and the Values of the East and the West

Are the values of the West better that the values of the East? If you ask a Fox News correspondent then I am pretty sure you will get a very quick reply that the west is morally superior in every way. 
Personally, I can never really understand how any comparison between the 'East' and the 'West' is meaningful. The term 'east' covers whole continents and more countries and societies with many different social and cultural groups. The west does too. A term like Muslim also covers vast numbers of people in many countries and includes some of the poorest people in the world as well as some of richest.
 A few years ago Steven Hawking said that the people of earth should be afraid if aliens ever discovering earth as there is a good chance they could be hostile. I was at a friend's house and I asked her daughter (who was about 11) whether she thought aliens would be friendly or hostile. Rather than giving me a one word answer she went into a detailed thesis about how there would probably be different factions on the alien planet and different societies. Some would be friendly towards the earth and some might not. Some might even see the earth as an ally for them against people on their own planet whom they were in conflict with. I was really impressed. This girl was able to show a degree of nuance and complexity absent from many day to day conversations which I have with intelligent adults about cultural issues in our world. She really understood that trying to make judgements about large swathes of people as though they were a homogenous group was silly, especially when we know nothing about them. This has not stopped commentators, who are atheists, speaking about how they think Muslims will feel about the cartoons or what they think their religion is about.
I know very little about Islam. My default assumption is that anyone who is a Priest, Imam, or leader of any religion is a peaceful person unless they give me evidence to the contrary. However, I would not presume to tell people that Islam, Christianity or any other religion is a religion of peace. Making such statements is presumptuous (since I do not have permission to speak for them)and also a bit patronising or condescending. I would be very irritated if I had to sit through English people on tv beaming sublimely and telling viewers how peaceful and caring Scottish people were. Any established religion has commentators much better qualified to make these statements than I or any atheist politician can. Going forward from that –even if we do have a Muslim scholar on tv, no  individual theologian is going to be able to speak for a whole faith. Even the Pope can only speak for Catholics, and even then only practicing ones. Yet in the UK we have left wing atheists on websites such as Counterfire presuming to speak for the world's Muslims.
Getting back to East v West bit. Let's suppose for a minute we actually could agree on what constituted the east and what constituted the west and that we could decide what we thought a better society would look like. Which geographical and cultural block would win?
The answer, for me anyway, is that it ought not to matter as I would want to make my own life choices wherever I lived. Not everyone can take this for granted. I am thankful that I live in a time period and a place where the answer doesn't matter. I can live my life, more or less as I want to. I can take bits of philosophy for the Greeks, some mindfulness from Buddhism, some dance music from the DJs of Istanbul, some Bollywood from India, some cool comic books from France, some Cajun food from USA etc etc. This is not about being rich, it is about being free. Free to make decisions for myself. Free to make choices. Free to choose the ideas and philosophies I want to without anyone telling me I am a non-believer, an apostate or a dissident. Free from being imprisoned or executed or executed for having ideas that run counter to the state. 
This freedom is incredibly liberating but most of us take it for granted. A number of years ago, before the Berlin Wall came down I had a taxi ride in New York. The driver had escaped from a soviet bloc country. Naively, I asked him about what he thought about the propaganda which western countries pumped out about the Soviet Union and whether he thought it was an unfair representation. He laughed asked me if I had ever heard of anyone who had tried to escape in the other direction. He had a hard life as a taxi driver, and he showed me his gun which he kept under his seat but he loved being in control of his own life and living it as he wanted to.
Some say that freedom protects the privileges of the rich and that poor people don't have freedom. This is nonsense. If poor people don't have clean water then the compassionate thing to do is help them to drill a well. You don't tell them that they shouldn't worry about water because clean water is for the rich and unless you were very punitive you wouldn't make the rich drink dirty water in the name of equality.
 The most oppressed people in the world need freedom the most. People like those detained in Guantanamo Bay with no rights and no voice or the islanders who were evicted from their homes to make way for the American Base at Diego Garcia. People in the UK whose lives are ruined by practices such as Female Genital Mutilation or forced marriage. People in other countries who are threatened with flogging or execution for blasphemy. People who are punished for being victims of rape.People in this country who are abused by gangs of men. These are the people who most need to be freed from coercion and oppression and to have their voices heard. Telling them that freedom is a luxury which protects the privileged of the rich or that free speech is a custom of individualist western cultures is wrong. It is an acceptance of their oppression. Many of the people I described are Muslims. They need people who care about their plight to speak up for them. These people need to speak truth to power. Sometimes that power is sometimes the USA or other rich countries.  Sometimes it is people of their own faith or people who claim to speak for their faith. They need UK citizens and UK authorities who are willing to recognise and call out abuse and coercion, not people who think all the evils of the world are rooted in capitalism or who are afraid to question or risk offending cultural sensitivities
Many people come to the UK to flee religious, political or cultural oppression. Some asylum seekers have been tortured because they have dared to speak up against an oppressive regime. Some have had to flee because they are gay or transgendered. These people are attracted to the UK because they believe that this country will protect them and let them live their lives the way they want to. We should welcome these people and make sure we can live up to their expectations. We need to stand up to tyranny and bullying for their sakes.
Central to all of our freedoms is freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This is what allows us all to live our lives as we want to and for many groups in society it has been hard fought and hard won. There would be no freedom to be gay, for example, if our society had not stood up to conservative Christians and repealed the laws on homosexuality. We would have no real freedom of religion if we had not repealed laws against blasphemy. We would not have any gender equality if brave women had not confronted patriarchy and the social, political and religious institutions which supported it. In the United States, women’s suffrage was opposed by Christian groups of a number of denominations  for many years. Religious conservatism has often been in opposition to progressive causes and people. For many people in the world it still is In some  places women, gay people and others face all forms of oppression including execution by hanging or stoning with these practices often being justified by religion. It is beyond me why people who would normally champion women’s rights are now apologists for religious fundamentalist terrorists  who would trample the rights of women given half a chance.
One would think that nobody in this country would doubt  the value of freedom of speech and that people would not flinch from defending against bullies and terrorists. Sadly, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings this has not been the case. A number of commentators of the UK left including Will Self have questioned the centrality of free speech to our society. I have seen words such as 'provocation' used to describe the actions of satirists as though ridiculing an idea or a belief is a legitimate reason for murder. Would the same people have thought that the parodies in Spitting Image were justification for Mrs Thatcher sending in the SAS to the tv studios to shoot the production team? 
I have also have seen terms such as 'free speech absolutists' and 'free speech fetishists' used to describe people who value the exchange of ideas. This is shameful. Ridiculing religion or religious ideas is not racism any more than it is racism to parody a political idea or movement.Charlie Hebdoe operates within French laws, which are similar to ours. Thinking that religious followers cannot cope with challenges to their beliefs, or shouldn't be expected to do is patronising. Many Christians though the film The Life of Brian was disrespectful and hateful towards Christianity and in Glasgow they gave it an 18 rating. But nobody said it had to be banned and nobody was murdered for producing it or acting in it. 
Nick Clegg  showed a rare moment of courage and backbone this week when he spoke up for free speech as a right without any qualifications, buts or apologies. In a short statement he showed that he really understood what free speech means. While others have condemned the terrorists, few in the UK have said much about free speech and why it is absolutely central to a diverse and multi- cultural society. Debate and the sharing and challenging of ideas is what helps us to understand each other. It allows people to express their culture or distance themselves from it, or find and adopt new ideas. It is not something you can be fundamentalist about - it is either something you have or something what he you don't have.
The Charlie Hebdo events have not tarnished my views of Muslims or Islam. My default position is still that religious people are trying to make the world better even though I don't personally desire what they have to offer. In fact, the two real heroes of the Charlie Hebdo situation were both Muslims. One was Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim police officer shot dead in Paris. The other was Lassana Bathily  who saved lives by hiding customers in the shop's cold room, while the hostage taker walked into the kosher supermarket in Vincennes. Please sign the petition in to have him given the Legion of Honour :
I haven't changed my view that multi-culturalism is good thing either. However, we should not reintroduce blasphemy laws, either by design or default. We certainly can't allow restrictions in free speech to be defined and policed by terrorists.
 Having said all that however, my view of some elements of the British left and the British intelligencia is severely damaged. They have abandoned the principles which are required for everything else they claim to stand for. The left has lost its moral compass in its failure to stand uo to terrorist bullies.
If you have freedom to choose your own values, have your own thoughts and express your own ideas then nobody needs to guarantee you any other freedoms. They all flow from these basic central freedoms. Most importantly if you don't have free speech and free expression the you can never truly have any other freedom.
And if you have any comments please make them here especially of you found this article interesting and please share it on social media. We only have so long on this planet. Use it wisely by standing up for values that are worth standing up for.
Je suis Charlie!
 Je suis Ahmed!
Je suis Lassantha!
Vive la liberte!