The recent terror attacks in France have highlighted a number of issues, all needing further discussion. One is the reality that it took an attack on European soil to provoke such a reaction – 1.6 million people marching in Paris, led by forty or more world leaders. But militant groups, under Islamic guise, have been slaughtering people for an extended period of time – in Nigeria, in Pakistan, in Syria and Iraq – in the last few weeks Boko Haram terrorists have killed over two thousand in Nigeria. The world reaction, compared to its reaction to Paris, has been negligible, suggesting an inconsistency in the way we value human life.
A second issue is whether free speech can legitimately include hate speech. The reason that I don’t walk down the street calling out racial or bigoted epithets at people of colour, or of a particular culture or religion, is because I am neither a racist nor prejudiced against people who are different, but also because such behaviour is profoundly wrong. In that sense, I quite rightly do not have complete freedom of speech: both the civil law and the moral law forbid speech that is hateful: leading one to ponder whether the now popular #jesuischarlie slogan believes that bigoted or hateful speech is a permissible part of free speech. Charlie Hebdo is an unpleasant publication: not satire, for satire is subtle and clever, but simply crude, bigoted and unfunny. Those who speak in its defence insist that religion is an idea, and that ideas can be attacked. But Muhammad, or Pope Benedict or Jesus of Nazareth are not ideas: they are people, and Charlie Hebdo attacks them brutally and regularly. In 1946 the judges at Nuremburg unanimously sentenced to death a Nazi named Julius Streicher. He had never killed anyone: but he did publish an appalling newspaper call Der Stürmer, which incited anti-Semitic feeling mostly by its cartoons caricaturing members of the Jewish faith. So, can free speech legitimately include hate speech? If not, then we don’t have freedom of speech: and who knows, maybe that’s not a bad thing after all.
But no cartoon could ever be as offensive as the taking of a single human life: the slaughter of men, women and children, young and old, armed and unarmed, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Yazidis and so many others in the last few months by men and women claiming to act in the name of Islam, remains the most pressing issue. It is not because these are educated Muslims living Qur’anic principles that the massacres are happening, but because they are uneducated people, Islamic only in name or in the slogans they carry, who consistently fail to read their sacred texts correctly. A sacred text cannot be read and then acted out: there is a middle step, that of authentic interpretation which, if bypassed, leads to all sorts of fundamentalisms. The issue with the Qur’an is not whether it exhorts to violence – at times it does – but whether or not those exhortations were for their time only, or whether they have a universal and timeless validity. As long as a portion of people read their text incorrectly, we will continue to experience behaviour in the name of religion which is destructive and life-threatening.
*Fr Chris Clohessy is Parish Priest of Newlands/Claremont in the Archdiocese of Cape Town. He is South Africa’s leading Catholic Scholar in Islamic Studies and wrote this guest column for the Jesuit Institute.