I live in Paris and, like many locals and expats, have been deeply affected and saddened by the tragic events of the recent terrorist attacks.
I have lived in France for 4 years but this was the first time that I had heard about Charlie Hebdo. My initial reaction to the news was to learn more about this satirical magazine and, to explore, for myself, it’s role as part of a democratic society. A friend posted this quote from Joe Randazzo, former editor of satirical news site The Onion:
“Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.”
Yet, in the aftermath of the shootings, I have been reflecting on whether our right to freedom of speech can and should include ‘the right to offend’. ‘The right to offend’ is something we have seen written on the signs of demonstrators in the wake of the shootings, discussed in countless articles and Facebook posts and vehemently defended by many. I have been deeply troubled by this.
Does free speech, a right I deeply value, also include the right to say what you wish, irrespective of it’s impact on the feelings and values of others? Does freedom of expression override the importance of respect for another’s culture or belief? Does satire offer a healthy way to critique those in power? Or are there perhaps better, higher ways of questioning the powers that be in a way that is more constructive and conducive to change? It has always seemed to me that attempts at change and the continued maintenance of our democratic ideals should always be based on a sincere foundation to elevate the conversation, not seek to pull it down, attack or mock.
One way of thinking could be that satire might have a role when it seeks to expose dogma, whilst offering up a better model. Religion and politics are often targets for satire, which pokes fun at those in power. If we are to retain the role of ‘court jester’, as Randazzo suggests, to my mind, humour should bring with it a more rigorous intellectual inquiry on the role of religion to uphold true spirituality, or demand that politics be an arena for great statesmanship and leaders of integrity. Critique, in my view, should never be outright attack, if it does not bring with it a way to point to a higher standard of being.
The inevitable discussion that the events have brought up around Islam and the role that it may or may not have played in the attacks has also lead me to reflect on an experience I had many years ago when, teaching foreign students one summer in Cambridge, I asked my (male) Libyan students to take me to a mosque. With all the negative press about Islam at the time (in the aftermath of September 11), I was keen to get a more balanced view.
Being the only female, I was alone when I entered the woman’s section of the mosque but was soon befriended by two women there who explained how to wear the headscarf and gently guided me through the process of worship. Afterwards, they kindly invited me back to their home whereupon I had a delightful afternoon, learning more about Islam. One woman was Indian, a Muslim since birth, the other, an English woman, who had converted to Islam on marriage. One of the things that struck me most in that conversation and the ensuing personal research I did afterwards, was the concept of ‘jihad’ as the ‘war against self’. As a spiritual thinker, I thought that this was a beautiful, and profound, concept. For, is this not the true warfare, the battle to be waged against jealousy, greed, ego, hatred, fear, in pursuit of a higher spirituality till we are all, finally, in submission to God and Love alone? My understanding is that the Prophet Mohamed*, saw military warfare as the ‘minor jihad’ in contrast to the ‘major jihad’ of the peaceful battle for self-control and betterment. It is THIS battle, surely, that we are ALL to be waging.
To me, the war against self is surely as much about the refusal to take offense at others opinions as it is about the removal of the human labels we put on ourselves and others - and the critique that ensues. It is the call to each one of us to have a higher view of humanity, a more enlightened view of our fellow men and women, even in the midst of great fear.
Of course, these attacks are not simply about the role of satire in a democracy, the supposedly violent nature of Islam or our right to free speech but also encompass a wider range of issues to do with equality of opportunity, an end to discrimination and a more tolerant, integrated society that sees all people’s basic needs met.
Ultimately, the real threat is our fear. This is surely what we most need to work on. In the months to come, as France takes steps to build a safer, more harmonious society, a more complete self-examination will be necessary, one that recognizes that we all have our part to play in exercising that higher standard of love, not fear. We all have a right to choose to submit to love - and build a society built on that most highest of principle.
I am a trained actress and founder and director of Hua Dan, one of China’s first and leading social enterprises. Hua Dan uses the power of participation in drama-based workshops to reveal and develop individual and community potential. Hua Dan has a particular focus on working with China’s rural-to-urban migrant workers, particularly women, who work in the manufacturing and service industries, at the heart of China’s economic boom.