In 1821 the English poet Shelley wrote a critical essay, ‘In Defence of Poetry’, in which he argued that the value of poetry was that it acts on us in a way that “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought”. This is what the written word – and satirical cartoons – can do for us. And to us. His essay ends with the well-known Romantic thought that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Religious texts too can ‘awaken and enlarge the mind’ – and when read in a certain spirit they do, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian texts – but they can also deaden and shrink the mind. The problem is not (usually) the texts themselves – the problem resides in those who read them.
Today’s murders in Paris are an attack on the freedom of all writers, all artists, to express themselves in ways that might offend others. I share the general sense of outrage, shock and horrified condemnation: it is an attack that goes to the heart of what we think of as ‘civilized’ values. But when what we hold sacred is attacked, or mocked, what can we do? This is not straightforward. When Der Stürmer published its articles and cartoons attacking Jews and Judaism in Germany in the 1930s, Jews did not take up arms to kill the offenders. But should they have done? Would we have wanted them to?
The offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed in 2011 – anti-Muslim polemic has been part of their repertoire for a decade: they republished the Danish cartoons in 2006 that had caused much upset in the Muslim community. They are provocatively anti-authoritarian and anti-religious. Possibly some of the magazine’s content would not have been permissible in the UK, where we have the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, Section 4A of which states: (1) A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he— (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour…or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress. In 2012, following a vigorous campaign, this Act was amended and the word “insulting” was removed.
However this legislation needs to be read in conjunction with the UK’s Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 which makes it a crime to stir up religious hatred – but protects freedom of speech by stating that the act does not ‘prohibit or restrict discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents…’
The idea is prevalent that I can or should protect you from feeling ‘offended’ – but this, along with the notion that I should be protected (by the law, if necessary) from feeling offended – makes no sense. I feel offended by the government’s callous sado-monetarist austerity programmes; I feel offended by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of large parts of the press; I feel offended by many, many things I encounter every day – too many to list, but if you are sensate you will have your own list – but I also recognise that it is my own responsibility to channel these feelings, as best as possible, in ways that aren’t lethal to others. This too is not straightforward, psychologically, spiritually. But it is close to the heart of what it means to be a moral being. Yet it is a task, and not a given.
This latest outrage brings to mind the murderous response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) – Ayatollah Khomenei’s fatwa called for his assassination; his Japanese translator was murdered, his Italian translator seriously stabbed, his Norwegian translator shot, the offices of his Indian publishers were threatened, and the fatwa remains in force even though Rushdie has come out of hiding.
This is what happens when religious texts and religious traditions are related to literally as absolute vehicles for higher truth – rather than as vehicles for the human spirit’s poetic sensibility. When they become idols, rather than imaginative containers for a ‘thousand unapprehended combinations of thought’.
The debate about what the limits of free speech might be in our contemporary world will go on. Meanwhile we mourn those who have lost their lives so senselessly in (and outside) the offices of a Parisian magazine that wished to provoke but could not imagine the power of hatred their texts could unleash.