What do we dare to hope for in the early days of 2016 as the winter cold finally begins to bite and the last vestiges of holiday tinsel are consigned to the Christmas trunk or loft space?
For me, one of the most sombre events from the opening weeks of this year has been the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in which the 17 people who died, including the editor and eight other cartoonists based at the satirical magazine. Since then another 130 people have died in the French capital following another wave of attacks by Islamist extremists in November. This anniversary has therefore re-opened fresh and painful memories of that recent atrocity.
The memorial of the Charlie Hebdo massacre was a muted and sombre affair compared to the defiant and boisterous rallies that followed the first attack. Then, it was estimated that one and half million people joined world leaders in reclaiming the streets of Paris as ‘Je Suis Charlie’ become a global rallying cry.
I remember at the time feeling deeply ambivalent as the response to the shootings emerged. My sense of outrage and deep misgiving that religiously-inspired nihilists were attacking freedom of expression and the right to ridicule political and religious authoritarianism and reactionary moralism was tinged with other misgivings. Some of the satire and relentless targeting of authority seemed equally nihilistic and surprisingly humourless. The portrayal of religious minorities was in many people’s opinion (including mine) offensively racist in its ugly and stereotypical portrayal of Jewish and Muslim identities in particular. It seemed as though the intellectual and political legacy of the Enlightenment (and in particular the French Revolution) had been reduced to the ‘right’ to be gratuitously offensive and to use its power of free speech as an expression of old-fashioned cultural supremacy.
One year on from the attacks and Charlie Hebdo magazine has chosen to commemorate the events with another highly provocative cartoon on the front of a special anniversary edition. The cartoon depicts a God-type figure, (white beard, bulging eyes and sandals), with a Kalashnikov slung round his shoulder looking over his shoulder and blood spattered on his white tunic. The caption reads ‘One year on, the killer is still at large’.
Religious leaders, for example Pope Francis, have criticised the cover for “failing to acknowledge or respect believers’ faith in God, regardless of their religion”. I feel this response misses the deeper point. Whilst the image is deeply uncomfortable it reminds us all of the current indisputable link between globalised religion and global terrorism which no-one should be shy away from acknowledging. It forces me, as a person of religious belief, to confront the many injustices wrought in the name of religion and to pledge myself to the cause of uniting a progressive and tolerant religion with a progressive and tolerant secularity.
For me the cartoon is more upsetting and troubling for other reasons. One of the 17 people murdered by the jihadists was a Muslim policeman. Ahmed Merabet attempted to stop the gunmen as they left the building but was wounded before he could return fire, and then was brutally shot in the head whilst he lay injured on the ground. There was a brief ‘Je suis Ahmed’ meme following the shooting, and his bravery in giving his life protecting those who continuously lampooned and pilloried his religion has been acknowledged by the French State. But in the public consciousness it has been all but drowned out by the overwhelming ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign, which unwittingly and unhelpfully reinforces the sense that France appears more concerned to preserve a rigid policy of laïcité than acknowledge that times have changed.
I can’t help thinking how much more powerful and healing it would have been if Charlie Hebdo had put a picture of Ahmed Merabet on its front cover, and acknowledged him as a hero of the French Republic, who along with the cartoonists and satirists payed the ultimately price for the right to free expression and free speech. Instead of picking at old wounds and continuing to drive wedges between the French establishment and its own people, such a cover would have signalled a willingness to move into a new public space based on generosity of spirit and true liberalism (i.e. a willingness to accept genuine diversity of identity and expression).
This would have represented an extraordinary leap of moral and intellectual courage on the part of the Charlie Hebdo team, taking them way beyond the confines of their own self-imposed ideology. It could have been a real game-changer, celebrating a common humanity and a true spirit of égalité, liberté and fraternité for which France would once again have become a European, and indeed, global beacon.
Of course, it is my contention that if our wish for 2016 is a safer, kinder, more flourishing civil society – a genuinely ‘civil’ civil society – then all of us, not just those at Charlie Hebdo, will need to rise to the challenge of exercising a ‘leap of faith’ into a new intellectual and moral space beyond our comfortable and assumed mindsets.
The intense pressures of globalisation – increased diversity, growing inequality, more scarcity and insecurity – require us all to reach out and find a new political middle-ground. This new political space is no longer primarily driven by ideological and tribal loyalties. Rather, I sense, it is driven by the search for new spaces of ethical engagement, where we can join others who also want deeper and more sustaining forms of political and civic expression. Our beliefs and worldviews inspire us to search out new spaces of hospitality, compassion and solidarity.
It is not that our beliefs and visions for a better world (whether they are religiously or non-religiously derived) become any the less important. This is no grey, lowest common-denominator politically-correct blandness. It’s just that we choose not to let our own beliefs seek power or dominance over others.
Happy New Year!
Chris Baker is Director of Research at William Temple Foundation.
Watch: ‘Globalised Religion in an Era of Uncertainty‘ – a public lecture by Chris Baker
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