The whole Charlie Hebdo ‘incident’ (for want of a better word on which we can all agree) exposes a number of confusions about the way we live and how we see those who, through choice or background, are different to us. Should there be any limits on freedom of expression? To what extent should giving offence be seen as equal to taking offence? How much do those of us who live in a liberal and secular democracy understand about the preoccupations of those who do not? Above all, what do we all do next – apologise or dig in our heels?
Some say that the West now faces the same choice that it did in 1939, between appeasement and re-arming. The difference between good and evil seemed clear then and even clearer in retrospect. Today it seems rather less so. The world’s major religions, for so long dormant as influences in world events, are now again being used as a structure and justification for all manner of excesses. Islam needs to examine how it has enabled so much violence to have been committed in its name. Judaism has become increasingly associated with the state of Israel, so long struggled-for but now a fortress and virtual international pariah. As for Christianity, many of its values are part of the western democracies’ moral framework: much good it has recently done them in winning hearts and minds elsewhere in the world.
Many argue that the problems of the Middle East stem from the USA recruiting the Mujhaddin to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s; or the establishment of the state of Israel; or the arrogance of the European imperialists in the early 20th Century – take your pick but, either way, it’s all our fault.
The blame game can go a lot further back than that, though. How far? The Crusades? The first Islamic Caliphates? The destruction of the Temple in AD70? Further? The moment when Someone decided that Jerusalem would be a holy city to three religions, each of which had enough in common to give them excellent grounds for hating each other, might be a useful place to re-set the board and start rolling the dice again.
As a Western secular liberal it’s convenient to believe that it’s only religious adherents who have prejudices based on irrational beliefs. Our belief in what we call freedom may seem just as irrational to others. If it’s true that beliefs are only tested when they’re attacked, we can all expect a lot more conviction from everyone in the immediate future. Liberalism, like religions, thrives on persecution. It also insists that it is right, therefore that every strongly held view is quite simply wrong. Many residents of Afghanistan, for instance, have recently felt the wrath of outraged Western democracies all too keenly, just as they were forced to endure that of Communism in the 1980s and of Imperialism in the 19th century.
This may all seem a gloomy view. Moreover, what has it got to do with us? Possibly nothing. Life will go on. However, every day we have opportunities to change the world for the better if even on a local level. If we could only just agree on what the problems and the solutions are, life would be so much better wouldn’t it?
Actually, no, it wouldn’t. The diversity of religious and political beliefs, and the terrible applications of technology that make possible everything from an unpleasant tweet to Hiroshima, are the consequence of our own diversity, curiosity and passion for self-assertion. Mozart, Shakespeare and Leonardo were not greater intellects than Hitler, Stalin or Mao but operated their intellect in a different way according to the talents they were given, their upbringing and the circumstances of their age. All were pre-eminent at what they chose to do. Take away this desire and we’d all still be living in caves. You can’t have the nice bits without the nasty ones. These are extreme examples. If we take, for example, Richard Wagner and Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher, Karl Marx and Malcolm X, would we all agree so readily that this one was good and this one bad? As we’re constantly reminded, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Only humans can draw the distinction. We have no choice but to accept the consequences of this dilemma. It certainly isn’t going to go away.
We all have to do the best we can with what we’ve been given, wherever we happen to find ourselves. Be nice, be kind, be tolerant – all good advice. Above all, we need to look our fellow human beings in the eye and see them for what they are: each one a mass of contradictions, ambitions, frustrations and dreams; some understandable, some unrealistic, some downright alarming and several in direct conflict with our own. That goes for you, too. And me. All of us. Je suis Charlie is a fine slogan, but I’m not Charlie – je suis moi; et vous êtes vous. Vive la difference.
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