Charlie Hebdo and the Question of Blasphemy
It’s been a short and woefully chaotic year since the killing spree in Paris that resulted in the massacre of a group of cartoonists and French citizens, and despite the short-lived universality of “Je suis Charlie,” the world seems to have moved on.
Regardless of the newfound fame of the satirical magazine, the anniversary edition of Charlie Hebdo has been widely criticized, including by the Vatican’s periodical L’Osservatore Romano, which has denounced it for refusing to “recognize or respect believers’ faith in God, regardless of their religion.” Though slightly more reserved than the Pope’s statements last year — when Pope Francis went so far as likening the attacks to a justified act of retribution: “If my good friend…says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch…It’s normal. You cannot provoke” — this position is only slightly less repugnant.
And regrettably, apologists exist on both sides of the aisle. In his recent and rather infantile review of Charbonnier’s posthumously published Open Letter, John Semley describes the book as “deliberately [and] pointedly provocative,” and in the process contributes to the very culture that Hebdo and other satirical works reject. Semley fails to appreciate that a society that criticizes one’s beliefs – even in what might be considered an offensive manner — is far less sinister than one that politically or socially represses them.
Both of these positions fail to recognize the crucial distinction between respect for one’s ability to choose their own beliefs — a fundamental aspect of liberal society — and a forced respect for those beliefs themselves. In light of this common misconception, it is important to consider the role of blasphemy in contemporary society.
2015 was a year of blasphemy related religious violence; notably with the murderous campaign against secular bloggers in Bangladesh, the vicious killing of Farkhunda Malikzada in Afghanistan, clashes with Islamist gunmen in both Denmark and Texas, and the devastating November attack in Paris. It has also been a year of state-led persecution against blasphemers, notably in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and India. Because of this, now, perhaps more than ever, the notion of blasphemy in a secular society must be addressed. Is blasphemy intrinsically different, or any worse, than any other sort of criticism?
In the past year, scores of articles have been written recently that aim to defend our right to blaspheme as if it were somehow distinct from the usual set of freedoms that we maintain in a liberal society, such as those of speech or expression. However, this seems quite problematic. Obviously the main principle that these articles assert is absolutely correct – that the right to defend, critique, or insult any belief is a cornerstone of Western liberal society — but it is exactly because of this that the use of the term ‘blasphemy’ in this context is so counterproductive
Traditionally, the term has been used in the context of believers engaging in acts or utterances that are considered sacrilegious by the religious leaders or texts that the believers follow; however, to extend this term to incorporate the actions of nonbelievers is to suggest that even nonbelievers must show reverence to certain ideas, objects or people, simply because they’re considered sacred to a select group of individuals. While religious individuals are certainly free to believe what they will, they are not free to force others to do the same. This means that, while blasphemy may exist within the bounds of a religious community, whose members all adhere to the rules and beliefs of their specific sect, it cannot exist outside of this community — in society at large. After all, if an individual doesn’t adhere to the beliefs of a religious sect, then they cannot be held accountable or condemned for breaking the rules of this group, especially when they don’t believe in the existence or sanctity of what they are criticizing in the first place.
Differentiating the right to lambaste religious beliefs from our right to critique any other idea is problematic because, implicit within the use of the term ‘blasphemy’, is the notion that — even for nonbelievers — there are certain ideas that are more sacred than others. By continuing to refer to these acts as ‘blasphemous’ we afford religious reproach its very own category of criticism, we suggest that criticizing, satirizing, or even offending religious views is somehow worse than doing the same to secular values; this creates a hierarchy of ideas, thereby allowing some to be attacked while presenting others as immutable. Yet, a belief or custom is not worthy of respect merely because it has a long and established history, nor simply because it is held by the multitudes. It is crucial for a secular society to maintain that no idea is immune from rational reflection, no matter how many believe it to be sacred. In short, the separation of our right to blaspheme from freedom of expression in the traditional sense is useless, and also has the unfortunate result of perpetuating the antiquated belief that religions are innately more worthy of respect than certain other values.
Rather than fighting to protect our right to blaspheme, we should be emphasizing that in a secular society there is no such thing.
By Nicholas Chiasson