Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for January 2015

The Western media, which comprises the bulk of international media, have provided us with round-the-clock coverage of the Paris shootings, while conveniently under-reporting other deadly attacks against civilians. Violent incidents in Nigeria and Yemen in the last week led to far more civilian deaths than in Paris, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nigeria lamented that Western countries were simply ignoring the threat in his country posed by Boko Haram.

When hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram last April, Obama and Cameron outdid one another in making resounding promises of support for Nigeria. But precious little has been done since then (by way of technological,logistical and perhaps even military help) for the Nigerian government and army to free the schoolgirls and defeat a brutal militia. As so often in our recent past, terror has to strike at the heart of Western cities before the “dark side” of our global interconnectedness awakens people from their slumber.

But awakening can lead to panic and knee-jerk reactions, rather than to a new commitment to understand the historical backgrounds to global events or the causes of Islamic radicalization in Europe. That is what we have witnessed in the more popular sections of the Western media last week. The killings fanned the growing hysterical propaganda about the “Islamification of Europe”, and far-right demagogues were suddenly claiming to uphold “Judaeo-Christian values”!

Surely, a central “Judaeo-Christian value” is hospitality to strangers. Another is self-restraint in speech and action when dealing with particularly vulnerable communities experiencing alienation from the mainstream. A third is “taking the beam out of one’s own eye before one tries to take the speck out of another’s eye”.

All these values have been jettisoned in much (albeit, not all) of the media coverage.

The solidarity rally in Paris was attended by several international leaders who are enemies of free speech and independent journalism. Benjamin Netanyahu was prominent among them, even as the International Criminal Court launches an investigation of Israeli state-inspired terror in Gaza last September. The irony was not lost on Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop, who said: “We vomit on all those people who are suddenly saying they are our friends… I’ve got to laugh about that.”

In terror attacks like this, the epithet “Muslim” is always applied to the perpetrators, but rarely to the victims or the heroes. The murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet was a Muslim, and so was Lassana Bathily, the immigrant from Mali who saved many Jewish shoppers in the kosher supermarket that was attacked. Responding to a petition signed by 300,000 Parisians, President Hollande has publicly honoured him with French citizenship. The stories of these Muslims need to be told more widely in the American and European media.

One can condemn the sheer wickedness of the Charlie Hebdo massacre without condoning the double standards employed when it comes to “free speech”. All civil rights are limited by other rights and responsibilities. France has tough laws not only against defamation and libel, but also against the denial of the Holocaust (but not other genocides). I doubt if Charlie Hebdo or the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten would publish satirical cartoons offending women, homosexuals or Jews.

The fall out in other countries of the irresponsible application of “free speech” also needs to be taken into consideration. Violent attacks on “soft” targets – such as local Christians in Pakistan and Niger (as this week)- regularly accompany what Western cartoonists may regard as innocent fun. If I know that my exercising “free speech” is going to result in the killing of innocent others elsewhere, and yet persist in that speech, am I not partly responsible for their deaths?

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has pointed out that those who have untroubled access to the dominant discourse in a society like France or Britain simply assume that their moral position is natural. Not so. He wisely observes:

“If I can say what I like, that is because I have the power and status to do so. But that ought to impose the clear duty of considering, when I engage in any kind of debate, the relative position of my opponent or target in terms of their access to this dominant means and style of communication- the duty which the history of anti-Semitism so clearly shows European Christians neglecting over the centuries.”

And he concludes: “The sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grate on the ear. Context is all.” [Faith in the Public Square, 2013]

The abuse of liberty may be the surest way to kill it.


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