Charlie Hebdo, the pope and what to do with the freedom to give gratuitous offence

Religions, so Pope Francis declared in response to the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Jewish shoppers, have a dignity that we must respect. He no doubt believes that to give religions such privilege would limit aggression and hate. The problem is that there can be no agreement as to what constitutes a religion that would thus be entitled to have its dignity protected. More importantly, many religions, like his own, claim to be the only gateway to God. On that basis, holy wars, the killing of “infidels”, “heretics” and adherents of the “wrong” religion were justified and declared a holy duty. “Deus lo vult” was the battlecry of the crusaders who, on and off for two centuries, massacred Albigensians, Muslims and Jews, and ransacked their homes. A few hundred years later the great reformer Martin Luther advised the German princes to follow the example of other Christian countries “for the honour of God and of Christianity” to drive out “this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews”.

It would have been more helpful had the pontiff supported the humanist view that every human being has an inherent dignity that must be protected. An attack on that is a blemish on our own worth and diminishes us as moral beings. To understand that, we don’t need any religion.

Thus the torture of prisoners, detention without trial, withholding basic rights, degrading living conditions and crass inequality are infringements of the basic need to respect human dignity.

In this context it is pertinent to call into mind article 1 of the German constitution of 1949, expressing a lesson learned from recent history: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”
Jurgen Schwiening
Market Bosworth, Leicestershire

The pope and various Muslim and Jewish religious leaders are agitating for limits on freedom of speech for those who do not share their beliefs. It’s not atheists who advocate violence in response to criticism or ridicule of their views. As an atheist, I am uncomfortable about people proselytising irrational beliefs, especially to children, especially where these preachers advocate violence.

So if freedom of speech is to be limited, perhaps we should at least act in an even-handed way by taking their proposal to the logical conclusion of outlawing freedom of all speech about all religion – both pro and anti. Without indoctrination of new recruits to their religious factions, the number of believers would quickly reduce over time. Think how much more peaceful the world would become without this source of strife, or justification for murdering other people.

For clarification for those who do not understand the principles of the cartoonists who were brave enough to ridicule this sort of repressive nonsense – this suggestion is, of course, sarcasm.
Annie Thackeray

In one sentence the pope says it is wrong to respond to insults with violence, and in the next says he would do exactly that himself. It is beyond satire.
Catherine Rose
Olney, Buckinghamshire

I’m amazed at the contrast between the outrage that (rightly) greeted the plan by some American religious bigots in 2010 to stage a public burning of the Qur’an, and the reaction to the provocative republication (by “secular bigots”?) of satirical cartoons featuring Muhammad. Of course people should have the freedom to give gratuitous offence, free from fear of violent reprisal, just as, for example, they should be free to commit adultery, but that doesn’t mean they are right to do so in either case.
Dr David Golding
Honorary chaplain, Newcastle University

If only the concern of anti-war campaigners at UK foreign policy could be put down to a “coping mechanism” to deal with our fear of terrorism, as Jonathan Freedland suggests (Opinion, 17 January). We take this view because it is demonstrably the fact that the war on terror, begun nearly 14 years ago, has failed in its aim. Terrorism has grown in terms of its degree of threat and its spread geographically. The wars continue, leading to devastation in countries as far apart as Libya and Afghanistan.

The implication that we consider Islamist terrorists as “the armed wing of the Stop the War Coalition” is the opposite of the case. We oppose their politics and methods. But we argue that the policies followed by successive governments have allowed these groups to grow, as has support from western allies in the Middle East. If we are going to deal with the effects of this terrorism in Europe, we have to understand its causes.
Jeremy Corbyn MP (chair) and Lindsey German (convenor)
Stop the War Coalition

Jonathan Freedland writes: “There were two groups especially shaken by last week’s attacks – journalists and Jews.” Muslims, by implication, have not been shaken and have nothing to fear, though it is likely they will be even more victimised throughout Europe than they have been so far as a result of these attacks. And it is Muslims who are the main victims of extreme Islamism throughout the Middle East, as well as of US and European responses to Islamism.
Sophie Richmond

The identity of Muslims is strongly bound up with Islam, and, as we too often forget, attacking people’s deepest identity only drives it deeper. Moreover, the defining experience of most Muslims in Europe has been one of social exclusion. They have lower incomes, higher rates of unemployment and fewer qualifications than the rest. They also suffer from housing deprivation and disproportionately from bad health. They are also more likely to be the victims of crime. In addition, unqualified western support for Israel and military interventions in the Arab world cause much anger. These factors of poverty, exclusion and war don’t justify the killings, but they go a long way to explaining them.

Satire has traditionally referred to the ridiculing of the rich and powerful, not lampooning those suffering deprivation and exclusion. In this sense, the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were not examples of satire but Islamophobic attacks.
Sabby Sagall

Thank you, Tim Lott, for your wonderful piece in praise of doubt, and against anger. In some ways, it seems to me, it is even worse than you say, but in other ways, not quite as bad. Even science – the soul, one might think, of reason and institutionalised doubt – has its unacknowledged dogmas. There are unacknowledged assumptions about metaphysics, values and politics built into the aims of science. Science would be all the more rational if these implicit articles of faith were made explicit, so that they can be critically assessed and improved as science proceeds.

On the other hand, is it really true that “all our belief systems are just constructs”? It may well be that “everything is in doubt”, as you say, but still things exist that are genuinely of value in themselves in the world – the laughter of a child, an act of kindness, a good article in the Guardian. All views about what is ultimately of value in life may be open to doubt, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing that is genuinely of value.


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