Freedom of the press?

Tom Sutcliffe reflects on some of the unpalatable truths that must be faced in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks

The assassination of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and journalists (and of security guards and police, one of them Muslim, and French Jewish shoppers) precipitated an extraordinary and memorable secular liturgy. I wanted to write about the obsession with so-called authenticity in classical music and in a candle-lit corner of re London theatre – but that can wait a month. On a January Sunday in Paris liberty, brotherhood, and equality were being asserted by a mob of world leaders demonstrating solidarity with the French, because of what was billed as an attack on one of the supposed pillars of the post-revolutionary French state – liberty to publish which in the USA is called the Fourth Estate.

Unnecessary provocation

But there were a number of unpalatable truths obscured by the responses to those killings which were precipitated by what people of faith must surely regard as unnecessary and unreasonable provocation. Of course it is horrifying and sad that the Muslim assassins saw themselves as taking desirable and appropriate revenge for the blatant insults to God and to the prophet Mohammed they had observed in various caricatures and satirical suggestions published in Charlie Hebdo over the years. But it is hypocritical to pretend that freedom to publish is an absolute: right across Europe that freedom is curtailed in all sorts of ways for both good and bad reasons.

This was not an attempt to advance the cause of the adoption of Sharia law or to convert large numbers of Europeans to Islam: in fact it now seems that only a quarter of the six million of the French population originating in North Africa and classified by the French government as Muslim is in reality observant or ‘practising’.


Nor was it just another terrorist attack opposing the established freedom of the press. It was a disproportionate and inappropriate response to an incredibly insensitive and unhelpful campaign of ridicule that has caused deep and justified offence to a quarter of the world’s population. I agree with Robert Shrimsley, the Financial Times journalist who wrote a column explaining that he would not have the courage to be Charlie Hebdo. I make no claim to courage as a journalist though my criticisms of opera and theatre have certainly been sometimes offensive. I just do not think it is necessary or wise to be vilely rude to one’s neighbours and insensitive to their profoundest religious convictions – nor should the secular state fail to understand that religious convictions generally stem from concern with the best way to live, the most valid perception of that mysterious power of goodness in our world which religions call (as they try to understand it) God Almighty.

Representational art

The reason that Muslims find cartoons offensive is not because of what they represent, the humour or whatever, it is the very act of creating an image of a living or once alive person that is contrary to the beliefs of Muslims and the teaching of the Koran and the Hadiths. Representational art is fundamentally un-Islamic. We Christians (or some of us) may find it perfectly acceptable to show God in the Trinity as an old man with a beard, a young man with bleeding wounds, and a dove – having emerged long ago from both Orthodox and Puritan iconoclasm.

But what we may find acceptable is repellent, absurd and blasphemous (in its intention and in its method) to almost every Muslim.

Use of force

Of course in practice there must be many different takes on this within Islam and among its individual s adherents. Religious people hold their beliefs in the privacy of their hearts. This is just one of ways in which Islam differs from other religions. Of course Islam was spread by force and has no admired pacific example save in the story of Jesus, whom they revere as the great prophet before Mohammed. Nor have they a problem with the use of force and violence to do the will of Allah and extend the submission that goodness requires. But religions when established or ‘national’ are often like that, as are political systems. Christianity once it became a power learnt to compromise on its original pacifism. And it was being violent and horrific a mere 300 years ago wherever it could be found – in the cause of rooting out the devil or heretical ideas. But the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) do remain significantly different in their understanding of goodness – that difficult, always challenging and uncertainly resolvable issue which is at the centre of the whole religious project of mankind.

Causing offence

‘Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never hurt me.’ What about pictures though? Satire poses questions that Christians are happy to face, which is why South Park can be accepted as part of a discourse with modernity. But there are some actions which impious outsiders visiting a Christian shrine could do that would cause grave offence to us on a very wide scale. With Muslims we must have good relations and hold more friendly polite discussion about our religions on a reasonable basis. But the concepts involved in being Muslim, accepting the Prophet, Allah and the Koran, are universal for faithful Muslims and therefore not open territory for ribald abuse. To intrude on that territory by ridiculing the ideas conceptually can surely be no more acceptable than to deface a Christian shrine or perform some seriously improper or obscene act publicly within it.

The wrong issue

To get worked up about the freedom of the press in Europe is quite simply to be on the wrong page and addressing the wrong issue. Of course freedom to publish and think and speak are crucial. But that freedom has never been absolute – it is subject to the law regarding libel for a start. Common insult has been seen as justifying violent response in earlier ages in Europe.

It is not therefore just whether one is brave enough to stand with a mass of people who enjoy laughing at cartoons that ridicule some religious pretensions. If you went along with ‘I am Charlie’ you were not, I suspect, saying that to insult another person’s core beliefs was reasonable and acceptable. The issue is the extent to which it is right to be rude about strangers’ beliefs and the principles to which they adhere. This is not about the gloriously over-the-top satirical tradition of Rowlandson, Cruikshank, Gillray, Heath, Searle, Scarfe, Martin Rowson and Steve Bell.

Vital seriousness

In the nature of religions is a vital seriousness about values that has guided and assisted humanity in crawling out of the stone age, and remained crucial to humanity’s continuing philosophical discussion. But we cannot make Islam be the way we want it to be. Muslims come as they are to this discussion with the rest of us, and we need to respect them even if they hold their beliefs in a different way from how we hold ours. This does not mean the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo were justified, merely that we need to be more clear what the offence was that made the assassinations seem both reasonable and heroic and distinguished to those who carried them out. We must also recognize that the beliefs of Muslims, even Muslims given to violence and fighting for a Caliphate in Syria-Iraq, should never be allowed to be taken as an all-purpose casus belli for new religious wars. ND