I have been backgrounding myself on the murders of ten of the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists last week. This raises profound questions about the relations between Islam and secular Western culture, the role of free speech and the nature of blasphemy.
It’s not all sombre. I stumbled across a scholarly publication devoted to the study of blasphemous and offensive language: Maledicta, The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. The journal lapsed in 2005. Its principal contribution seems to have been to examine examples of vulgar, obscene, aggressive, abusive, and blasphemous language such as … Sorry, I’d better not go there. The keyboard might melt if I were to type in some of the words, let alone say them.
The point is that no matter how progressive we might think ourselves to be, there are expressions which offend us deeply.
And that’s the way it should be. A person who cannot be offended is a person who loves nothing, who is loyal to nothing, who has no commitments, who is a pathological loner. Consider the husband who stands by and yawns while a stranger calls his wife a &3^@)#, a %+#&@, and a &@+$&#% (all terms drawn from the Maledicta journal). Human decency demands that he react strongly – hopefully not violently, but emphatically and severely.
We are learning the wrong lesson from the atrocity in Paris. The terrorists claimed that they were avenging the honour of Allah whom the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had blasphemed. And so we indict blasphemy and exalt free speech. But that lets us all off the hook.
Blasphemy is being dismissed as an antiquated prejudice, but in fact we all react with horror at the gravity of blasphemy and censure those who blaspheme. Thomas Aquinas, the encyclopaedic theologian of the Middle Ages, gives a very precise definition. “The word blasphemy seems to denote the disparagement of some surpassing goodness”.
Every society needs a commitment to a “surpassing goodness”; it is the lynchpin which holds society together. Pull that out, and the rattling Rube Goldberg contraption which is society collapses. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.
Of course, for Thomas, as for all believers, that “surpassing goodness” is God, as he specifies in his discussion: “… especially that of God. Now God, … is the very essence of true goodness.” At this moment in history, our secular societies, and especially France, have repudiated God as the lynchpin. But societies of every era must have a lynchpin, and for us it is the Nike slogan, “Just do it”. Just feel free to express yourself, just live your life as you want”.
That’s why millions marched in France over the weekend: they were protesting against the blasphemers who has fouled the “surpassing goodness” of free speech.
On one level, it’s impossible to disagree with them. It’s outrageous that rational discourse about the teachings of Islam should be muted by the fear of being beheaded on the street like the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Even with the most rigorous tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, these fanatics have no legitimacy.
But when happens when free speech itself is impugned?
Not surprisingly, supporters react with the anger of a person whose supreme goodness has been disparaged. Take, for instance, reactions to this week’s article in the left-leaning magazine Nouvel Obs by one of the founding editors of Charlie Hebdo. Henri Roussel, now 80, had written for the magazine when it was known as Hara-Kiri Hebdo in 1970.
In his opinion the murdered editor Stéphane Charbonnier was to blame for violent attacks after he published scabrous cartoons of the Prophet. “I really hold it against you,” he told “Charb” before the January 7 attack. He was “dragging the team to death” with rash editorial decisions. “I believe that we are fools who took an unnecessary risk. That’s it. We think we are invulnerable. For years, decades even, it was a provocation and then one day the provocation turns against us. He shouldn’t have done it.”
For venturing to question the dogma of absolute free speech, however, Roussel was attacked. “Charb has not yet even been buried and Obs finds nothing better to do that to publish a polemical and venomous piece on him,” said his lawyer. And on Twitter he was harangued as “senile”, “a typical French capitulating coward”, “appalling”, “truly disgusting”, and so on. It was to be expected: Henri Roussel had blasphemed against Free Speech.
The question which arises from the Charlie Hebdo killings is not whether blasphemy is absurd. We all believe that denigrating whatever we esteem as our “supreme goodness” is wicked. Nor is it whether free speech should be limited lest it offend paranoid Islamists. The real question is whether Free Speech can bear the weight of being the lynchpin which holds society together. On its current showing it is just as capable of tearing society apart.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.