I'm Charlie,Toulouse.January 10. Alain Pitton/Demotix. All rights reserved.The spontaneous support demonstrated for Charlie Hebdo on the streets of Paris was inspirational. So too, the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ message that echoed around the world. And the renewed defence of ‘free speech’ from an outraged press and media and political leadership has to be applauded. But it is unfortunately likely that the lives lost in this latest atrocity will not result in lasting and real change. Indeed, it is more than possible that the Paris murders will be repeated in other towns and cities. We will need much more than empathy and outrage if free speech and tolerance are ever to become normalised.
Rather than seeing free speech extended in recent years, the reality is that the legal framework has become more restricted in the most liberal societies, especially through the imposition of more constraints on views about faith and religion. And virtually no politician has seriously advocated a freer framework because they know that there are many sections of their communities – including the majority - that simply do not have the capacity and skills to cope with challenges to their identity and beliefs. virtually no politician has seriously advocated a freer framework because they know that there are many sections of their communities – including the majority - that simply do not have the capacity and skills to cope with challenges to their identity and beliefs. Indeed, hate crime is currently all too prevalent in European societies and is often directly sparked by speeches, propaganda and comments on social media, designed to create fear and anxieties about ‘others’. Rising tensions are then often only controlled by arresting the perpetrators.
And our legal framework is not the only constraint on our free speech. For years, our press and media have supported these restrictions by refusing to give extremists ‘the oxygen of publicity’. In 2009 the BBC took the controversial decision to allow Nick Griffin, the then leader of the BNP, to appear on Question Time. But this was very much the exception and was strongly criticised by many commentators. The reality is that extremists are rarely allowed to express their views, even if they are not advocating violence. Politicians also continue to reinforce and add to these constraints, for example, through the UK Home Secretary's recent ban on extremist speakers in universities. After more than 50 years of multiculturalism, we are apparently still not able to cope with the occasional hate-filled rants of wannabe demagogues, even if we have the benefit of a university education. The way to deal with these views is not to ban them, but to bring them out into the open, to robustly challenge them, and thereby also avoid creating ‘victims’ of the supposed culture of political correctness. The way to deal with these views is not to ban them, but to bring them out into the open, to robustly challenge them, and thereby also avoid creating ‘victims’ of the supposed culture of political correctness.
Many liberal commentators find it hard to appreciate how such ill-informed comments about ‘others’, jokes based on crude stereotypes, or cartoons which they believe are no more than the harmless ‘poking of fun’, can be so inflammatory. But it is not difficult to understand. Imagine that you are growing up in an almost entirely monocultural community in which virtually all influences are governed by your family and community members and your daily life revolves around your faith, which is venerated at every level and regarded as an absolute truth.
And your school has no students from other backgrounds and is governed by faith leaders who ensure that the acts of worship are entirely integrated into education and learning. Further, from birth, you are taught that you are ‘different’, and that your identity is under threat from others whose sole aim is to undermine your very existence. Moreover, you still live in an age of deference and there is little by way of a culture of questioning and challenge, let alone an acceptance of satire aimed at those with power over you.
You may live in the Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia – but you could even live in a part of the UK, Holland or France. Would you respond with equanimity to the cartoons, or is it possible that, against this background, you would respond with anger and with frustration? And, even with violence?
At the present time, such a response is most likely amongst – but not in any way limited to – members of the Muslim community. Not because Muslims are inherently more violent, but because there is a very strong and widely held belief by Muslims that their basic principles and very identity are under threat from ‘the West’. Much as our political leaders do their best to dismiss Samuel Huntingdon's Clash of Civilizations thesis, Muslims around the world are constantly bombarded by social and other media which use every aspect of western policy and practice, from the Iraq war, the Palestinian conflict, and even the ‘murder’ of Princess Diana (‘because she wanted to marry a Muslim’), as propaganda to reinforce the perception that Muslims are under attack. Of course, not all Muslims subscribe to such views but the narrative of victimhood is pervasive and does gain considerable support.
These geo-politics therefore tend to push some Muslim communities towards the top of the risk list. But there are many other communities in which ‘difference’ is seen as a threat and where any challenge to their way of life – direct or indirect – is likely to be met with an extreme response. You may be a member of the Jewish faith, a Sikh, or an evangelical Christian. Or you may not have a faith at all, but still be ‘socialised’ within a very closed community in which it is only too easy to take advantage of the fear and ignorance and stir up hatred and violence against others based on complete lies and fabrications, or just a series of stereotypes, myths, or distortions of the facts - something the Far Right know only too well.
David Aaronovitch writing in The Times on January 8 was of course right to set out ‘the deal’ in which we all need to recognise that the freedom to practise and espouse religion is the same freedom that we use to criticise and even ridicule it. But this is aspirational.
Western societies have not yet thrown off the shackles of multiculturalism in which we were protected from offensive remarks and incitements and nor have they been given the tools to deal with them. That means a much more pervasive programme for the development of intercultural skills. It also means tackling the physical segregation of communities, the segregated places of learning and the social and cultural ‘parallel lives’ in which dominant views go unchallenged.
Intercultural encounters need to take place on a daily basis, in communities, schools and workplaces, so that barriers can be broken down and the human face of the other can actually be seen rather than de-humanised.
If we remove the restrictions on free speech without such programmes, we will make it even easier for mischief makers to provoke more tensions and more extreme acts. After all, if many White Europeans cannot apparently be allowed to criticise another of their faiths, or are also prevented from denying of the holocaust, why should we expect some Muslim communities to passively accept the denigration of their prophet?
Through education and experiential learning we may, in time, succeed in providing all communities with the resilience to accept taunts and the ridiculing of their faith. The research evidence by Professor Miles Hewstone and others clearly demonstrates that when people actually encounter others who are different from themselves, they do change and become more tolerant and accepting of diversity.
In the European context this is not difficult, particularly if we use the formal education systems to ensure that cultural exchange takes place and that no child is able to avoid learning about other faiths and their secular alternatives.
Citizenship education is not rocket science, but the legacy of multicultural policies means that so much of our education system is divided and partial. In the UK, we have, according to an OECD Report 2014, some of the highest levels of school segregation in Europe.
And the present Government removed the ‘duty to promote community cohesion’ from the Ofsted school inspection regime almost as soon as taking office. It has recanted to some extent, instructing Ofsted to ensure that ‘British values’ are back on the agenda following the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair in Birmingham.
But this is too little and too late, with no sign of the level of intervention now required. A few weeks ago, the UK Government published a list of its integration measures. These include a few good schemes, but it is a ragbag collection, without any real strategy and the number and volume has been much reduced by the Coalition. These schemes will not even begin to break down the narrow faith-based education that continues in just about every town and city. The Government really has to understand how its own education policies are fostering division and perpetuating a fear of difference. The Government really has to understand how its own education policies are fostering division and perpetuating a fear of difference.
Outside of western societies, where formal education is far from universal and where communities are much more divided, the task is even more difficult. Indeed, almost daily, there are reports of a new atrocity in the name of a faith, sect or ethnic group and though these are often on a scale much larger than that in Paris, they are hardly reported in the western media.
Intercultural education was not a feature of the Millennium Development Goals, but surely does now need to be in the UN's post-2015 agenda. Even so, it will take years to gain a real acceptance of plurality across the globe. And that means that members of monocultural societies in which sectarian and partisan views are entrenched will struggle to accept any notion of difference whenever they are confounded by a globalised and plural environment.
Ideas about plurality and co-existence therefore need to be spread with great care, and a little understanding, rather than confrontation. But this does not mean doing nothing, rather, building a more supportive environment for creating the conditions for change.
The positioning of faith
We also have a fundamental problem with regard to the way in which faith is positioned in western societies. Presently, the messages we send out are contradictory. Faith leaders and faith institutions are constantly given privileged positions, their schemes and services often receive state aid, separate faith educations systems are encouraged and any critique of basic beliefs is generally very limited and overly respectful.
In fact, the contestation of faith was recently branded as 'militant secularisation' by UK Government Ministers who gleefully announced that they did ‘do God’. In many European countries, blasphemy laws are still evident and the crime of ‘incitement of religious hatred’ now pervasive. The latter was added in the UK as recently as 2006, despite warnings at the time that it would limit debate and even stifle the relatively moderate lampooning by comedians.
Most people would like to live in a society where people were not deliberately offensive, in which deeply held beliefs were respected and tolerance was the norm. But multicultural policies, which were necessarily restrictive 50 years ago, have held back the process of development. Tolerance can no longer be enforced through blanket legal provisions. We need to be much more discerning and show intolerance of practises that violate human rights and to develop a wider understanding that freedom of speech does have two sides.
This should not be limited to concerns about Islam. Whilst the threats from Muslim extremists clearly inhibit open debate, the fact is that we generally choose not to attack the extremes in most other religions, such as creationism in Christianity, or the fantastical beliefs of Scientology. Faith does enjoy a high degree of reverence. But given that it is a characteristic that is based upon conviction and one that we choose to adopt – no one is born a Christian, Jew or Muslim – it is hard to understand why debate is limited by law at all.
Surely an open discussion would enable people to have an informed choice. In recent years, the notion that faith has a place ‘in the public square’ has become accepted. Gone are the days, apparently, when faith was a private matter. But if faith is to maintain its place in the public square, adherents have to accept, as David Aaronovitch reminds us, that its contestation also has to be clearly evident in the public square.
Despite the strong support for ‘free speech ‘from politicians in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders not a single proposal has come forward. The only response has been to re-double security, which on its own, will only serve to heighten anxiety and fear and further restrict open dialogue and debate. The only response has been to re-double security, which on its own, will only serve to heighten anxiety and fear and further restrict open dialogue and debate.
Politicians must now live up to their rhetoric and support the gradual lifting of the restrictions on free speech, constantly pushing the boundaries but also encouraging dialogue and ensuring that communities have the resilience to cope with the challenges that will emerge.
With regard to faith, governments do have to promote a much more open and critical environment. This needs to start in schools through a much more robust curriculum to learn about all faiths and none, but in more general terms, Government needs to visibly show its support for open debate and challenge.
The hegemony of segregated environments also needs to be challenged through gradual but determined programmes to develop shared communities, ensuring that interaction with others becomes habitual. But at the same time, this needs to be supported by a robust intercultural education, delivered through a school system that ensures that every child understands what living together in a globalised world really means.
Even with such measures, it will take time for tolerance to be embedded, but without them, there is the strong chance that ‘Je Suis Charlie’ will acquire a new name to lament.
Get our weekly email