Last week in Paris, the sword was temporarily mightier than the pen when militant Islamists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, and killed twelve people.
The cold-blooded murder at Charlie Hebdo ignited determined support for freedom of speech. With “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) as the rallying slogan, an estimated 3.6 million people, including 40 world leaders, gathered across France to honor the victims and to show their commitment to democratic freedoms. In a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the slain cartoonists, many held pens and pencils aloft. It was a living cartoon conveying the message, “the pen is mightier than the sword”.
While it is relatively easy to kill individuals for expressing their views, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo tragically illustrates, it is much more difficult to kill the ideals that promote the flourishing of human society.
Following the atrocities of the Second World War, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the international community articulated a set of principles that are the foundation for freedom, justice and peace. These principles recognize the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all people. Freedom of speech and belief are specifically mentioned in the preamble to the Declaration.
There have always been and there will always be individuals and groups who are intolerant of differences, and who want to silence freedoms. While Muslim extremists are not the only people guilty of intolerance, the post 9-11 world is all to familiar with terrorist-style attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam.
Religious extremists of any stripe give religion a bad name; their actions sometimes fuel anti-religious sentiment, which in itself is a form of intolerance. An intolerant view of religion needs to be balanced with the recognition that the majority of people of faith do no harm to others; on the contrary, many of them are actively doing good for others. The principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights find a natural home in them because those principles accord with their view of God and of God’s desire for the world.
The way a person views God will determine how he acts. An individual who believes in a compassionate, merciful God will respond to life in a different way than someone who sees God as a harsh task master requiring strict obedience and exacting punishment for infractions.
Last week in Paris, one of the gunmen was heard to shout “Allahu Akbar” (“God is greater”) and “The prophet is avenged”. He had a particular view of the character of God and the dictates of Islam. That view stands in stark contrast to this one, expressed in a January 9, 2015 letter published on the website of the Montreal Gazette. Shafik Bhalloo wrote, “My Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and forgiveness. My Islam teaches love, concord, sympathy and tenderness to one’s fellow men – not killing people for practicing their freedom of expression or speech.”
The actions of radical Muslims who feel it necessary to battle the west, wipe out Jews, Christians or other Muslim groups perpetrate crimes against the dignity of their religion, and against the compassionate God (however one names it) who wills the well-being of all people, including irreverent cartoonists.
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .