A big sign in the centre of my home town in France proclaims: “Bayonne est Charlie”. From the “Je Suis Charlie” mantra that went out right across France after 2 brothers caused carnage at a Paris magazine office in the name of Islam. Soon after, an equally sick-minded terrorist shot dead four people at a kosher supermarket in France. Anti-terrorist squads killed all 3.
Millions marched all over the country in a show of solidarity. Such was the outrage in France the newspaper’s print run went from 60,000 to a sold-out 3 million. The solidarity spread throughout Western Europe and naturally feelings are still strong in France.
Why is this relevant to you? Well, because all of us in countries like New Zealand and France owe democracy immeasurably, all the rights and freedoms that come with being free citizens. If we call some subjects too contentious to discuss in polite circles, then we scrape away at the foundations of our freedom.
In democratic countries we practice religious tolerance. And we should not tolerate madmen like this for a second.
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There is, it has to be said, the argument that this secular, anti-establishment, irreverent left wing magazine – Charlie Hebdo – went too far in offending religious sensibilities with their cartoons. But that doesn’t justify murder, not for one moment. The same publication has lampooned the pope, presidents, ideologies, all religions and capitalists. Like our television comedians poke fun at public figures, religious beliefs, silly notions, anything that moves and can be twisted to induce a laugh. That’s the democratic way.
But some things can go too far. Over 20 years ago, Te Papa Museum featured the work of someone they described as an “artist of importance.” His dubious masterpiece had a Madonna figure covered by a condom. I wrote in a column that this was extremely offensive to Catholics and if this supposed artist dared put a condom over a Maori carving it would be the last thing he did. I did not mean that someone would be killed.
I might not be a believer in any deity, but I sure as heck believe in respecting other people’s religion and culture. It’s called respect. If my most implacable ideological antagonist was to become our Prime Minister, I would address him or her as “Prime Minister” without feeling compromised of principles or outlook. The respect is for the office not necessarily the individual installed there.
I have a right to write what I want about any Prime Minister. But not the right to be personal. I can say the P.M. has a big mouth. But not that she has a big nose or bad breath or is fat, skinny or ugly. I can proclaim that the P.M. has made a mistake of judgement. But not accuse him/her of being corrupt, unless of course I have proof. And it better be bullet-proof. What any Prime Minister does in his/her private life has nothing to do with any of us unless it is extreme and bizarre.
In the aftermath of their 1789 Revolution, the French people guillotined the King and his wife, and beheaded nobility and clergy in their thousands. From that day, July 14, 1789, France became secular and a republic. With a long intellectual tradition, this Revolution enhanced that outlook, freed it from the strictures of the church and oppression of the nobility, both of whom were exempt from paying taxes. Freedom of expression became one of its most cherished tenets. Anyone who messes with this precious democratic right does so at his own peril. New Zealanders live by much the same principles.
The victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre were adults making a free choice to express themselves, as is their democratic right. The French people are roaring in angry unison. Extremists beware. They do not belong in our society or indeed any other. We must all be a united force against them. Freedom, equality, fraternity are the three pillars of French society. Dissenters, you have a right to argue differently. Wrong-headed destroyers, have no such right.
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