Do I think yesterday’s mass murder was a despicable act? Of course. Do I feel great anger and sadness for those who lost their lives and loved ones? Naturally. And it goes without saying that no cartoon can justify violence, EVER. But still, I am not Charlie Hebdo!
In western Europe, the freedom of expression is an absolute right, an untouchable, ‘holy’ principle. It can be limited by criminal law only; we are not allowed to call for genocide or violence, etc. Anything else goes. For many, that’s the end of the story. For me that is where the story starts.
Many people have given their lives for our right to freedom of expression, my freedom of expression. I have traveled and lived in countries where there is limited freedom of speech. There, I’ve seen how a lack of that freedom impacts lives and societies. I consciously cherish my freedom of speech, every day. Because of my freedom of expression I can live my life freely. I can be who I am.
I am aware of sacrifices made for my freedom of expression. That is exactly why I don’t feel the need to use that freedom to consciously hurt and insult others, who have in no way done me wrong. It would be an insult to those who sacrificed their lives for my freedom. Those who were members of resistance against the nazi occupying power, and the women who accepted being outcasted for claiming their voices; what were they fighting for? The right to hurt? I believe they fought for the right to be. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Yes, it is everyone’s legal right to make cartoons that ridicule someone’s religion. Just like we have the right to tell our grandmother that we find her religion retarded, Mary was a hooker, and praying is for clueless, ignorant people. Of course that is our right. But why would we want to?
To prove that we can? To say ‘my atheism is superior to your religion’?
It seems like the majority feels the need to tell religious people (mainly Muslims) – through cartoons and otherwise – that they’re ignorant because they have a God and a prophet. In that lies a self-centered, supremacist attitude that seeks to shove atheism down the throat of people who are religious.
Is that out of fear for religious people, especially Muslims, living in Europe? Are we afraid we’ll wake up tomorrow and are forced to become Muslim? Have we allowed ourselves to be brainwashed by islamophobic speech?
What would happen if we didn’t ridicule people’s religion? Probably nothing.
I feel like we have adopted a fundamentalist way of thinking around the right to freedom of expression; you are either for it or against it. It is all or nothing. A generally white, atheist majority has decided that the right to freedom of expression is an absolute and ‘sacred’ part of our society that has no social nuance whatsoever.
Cartoons ridiculing Islam (or any other religion) are not an embodiment of tolerance and liberal thinking. They’re an expression of intolerance and judgement towards a religion and its followers.
Islamophobic cartoons do not get published in a vacuum. They are part of a larger context of intolerance and hostility towards Islam and Muslims in Europe. Muslims have to prove they are good people, ‘despite the fact they’re Muslim’. Moslims and mosques are targets of attacks. They have to defend their religion against accusations and insults from people who have never even seen a Quran. And more dangerously, many expect Muslims to distantiate themselves from murders carried out by people shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’, only because they are Muslim. If we connect these heinous killings to all Muslims by default, then we have let the murderers win. Then we have given up on our common humanity, and given in to the violence of a lunatic group.
No one said coexistence in a multicultural society was going to be easy. On the contrary; it can be far from easy, for everyone. But in western Europe there are only two options now. Either you walk the – sometimes bumpy – path, involving dialogue based on equality and mutual respect, that eventually leads to a more harmonious society. Or you militantly defend your right to ridicule other people’s beliefs, in the hope that they will one day think like you.
I am not religious. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect religious people around me, and respect their feelings regarding their religion. Respecting someone means to also show respect for something that is very important to that person, even if that is something I cannot relate to, personally.
In a society where beliefs and world views can be so different, the freedom of expression comes with responsibilities and complications. Our western European multicultural society comes with questions and challenges. I don’t have the answers, but I know that there is a dialogue worth having. Not because mass murderers are using violence to silence others, but because we want to live together. Because we want a society in which people feel free and respected.