Vinoth Ramachandra

Rarely do we hear good news coming out of the United Kingdom. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive two bits of good news in the month of September. The first was the decisive rejection by the House of Commons of the Assisted Suicide Bill which, if passed, would have turned British physicians into professionals who kill their patients rather than caring for them. The second piece of welcome news was the election of the veteran politician Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party (and, therefore, of Her Majesty’s Opposition) against all the smug predictions of political soothsayers.

Arguments for assisted suicide stem from shallow views of individual autonomy and compassion. Compassion is an ambiguous concept, and it has been used in history (e.g. by Nazi doctors) to justify horrendous crimes against people not thought fully human. It is thus not morally admirable when divorced from other moral considerations.

The problems with invoking compassion to justify assisted suicide and euthanasia are, at least, threefold: (a) It can justify the killing not only of terminally ill patients, but of anybody suffering what they regard as “unbearable pain”, psychological as well as physical; (b) It ignores the advances in and availability of palliative care and undermines the quest for more public funding for such care (the Hospice movement was pioneered by Christian healthcare professionals who demonstrated practically how it was not necessary to kill the patient in order to kill the pain!); and (c) Why not, out of compassion, end the lives of all severely disabled babies and adults, who will never function to their full potential, even if they do not suffer pain- because they drain public resources from those who are thwarted in their personal ambitions by a lack of the latter?

For these reasons, compassion is always subservient to patient autonomy in the more sophisticated arguments for assisted suicide. Indeed, the patient’s autonomy now seems to be the only moral value that is taught in courses on medical ethics. It rests on an unreal conception of the human person, as if we were isolated monads choosing to enter into relationships rather than being constituted as persons through relationships which, for the most part, are not chosen but given. It ignores not only our human inter-dependencies, but also the way our so-called free choices and desires are themselves shaped, indeed manipulated, by social, cultural, political and economic forces of which we are only dimly aware. (Why else would business corporations spend billions of dollars on TV advertisements?).

Thus, by focusing on the individual’s expressed desire, to the exclusion of all other considerations – not least the impact on the medical profession itself- arguments in favour of assisted suicide perpetuate views of the human person that will be destructive of other areas of society in which respect for human life has hitherto been taken for granted.

Assisted suicide is being pushed in the media by a highly vocal, secular liberal elite. As John Wyatt, a paediatrician and medical ethicist, counters in his book The Right to Die? (to be published in the UK in November): “It is surely reasonable that the autonomous desire of a small number of resolute, vocal and determined individuals to have a legal and medically supervised means of killing themselves may have to be curtailed if it exposes large numbers of vulnerable people to the risk of lethal harm. The individual autonomy of a few cannot and must not trump all other considerations.”

Curiously, compassion for the helpless victims of government economic policy is absent in the political discourse of the same social elites. This is why Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election should be greeted by all who care deeply about the absence of compassion – and indeed justice – in British public life. He is an old-style socialist, committed to returning Labour to its roots (interestingly, among the founders of the Labour Party were several devout Methodist laymen). He has promised a more inclusive way of doing politics, giving a greater voice to those who didn’t vote in the last General Elections, particularly young people and working-class Labour supporters who felt alienated by the identical agendas that all political parties were offering.

One does not have to agree with all his stated political or economic beliefs (I certainly don’t) in order to welcome his intention to tackle the obscene levels of income and wealth inequality in Britain. Such inequalities, long ignored by most mainstream economists, not only widen the gulf in educational and job opportunities but also undermine the solidarity of citizens in a democracy.

Corbyn has thus opened up a space for the return of political ideas and serious political debate in Britain. The news media have joined parliament in turning their backs on the poor, and failed to expose the hypocrisy and double standards surrounding human rights that has been practised by successive British governments (the latest instance of which is the way corrupt Chinese tycoons are being wooed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer while refugees are shut out, and jailed Chinese dissidents and the people of Hong Kong and Tibet are ignored). Let’s see if Corbyn delivers. And if the media will rise to the challenge of addressing the moral issues at the heart of politics.

My last post on World Refugee Day seems quite timely ten weeks later. (Caring for my wife during her cancer surgery and treatment has naturally pushed my Blogging to the background in recent months).

If 3-year old Aylan Kurdi had been black, would images of his body washed ashore on a beach have elicited the same outcry among Europeans? (I think I have written enough about racism in India and elsewhere to be absolved of the charge of being Europhobic!). Such images can awaken the world to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers from conflict-ridden societies. But emotional reactions cannot substitute for level-headed appraisal of the causes of conflict and what needs to be done to contain or resolve such conflicts.

History and context matter in thinking about politics and economics. The Donald Trumps, Sarah Palins and their followers refuse to acknowledge how much the American economy (and especially the farming, hotel and restaurant industries) is dependent on exploited “illegal migrants”, and the connection between the latter and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement which has seen highly-subsidized US agribusinesses virtually destroying Mexican agriculture.

Similarly European, no less than American, politicians refuse to admit how much the unfolding tragedies in the Middle East have been precipitated either by their own adventures in the region or by their favourite local allies – not least the continuing plight of Palestinians and Iraqis. Leave aside plain human compassion. We have a special moral responsibility towards peoples whose suffering is partly or wholly due to policies of our governments, or the actions of our forefathers.

There are some tough questions that European governments and their citizens need to address if they are to prevent the present refugee trickle into Europe turning into a massive flood. To those who bravely proclaim “refugees are welcome” (and I admire such folk), I want to ask, “Are you prepared to welcome the poor, the elderly and the disabled who are often those most affected by war, or is your compassion limited to the young, the fit and the wealthy who can make the dangerous journeys by sea and road and contribute to your economies?”

Everybody agrees that human smuggling syndicates must be broken up and the ringleaders brought to justice. But, given the lack of the rule of law in so many states, are European and American navies prepared to evacuate refugees from war zones themselves?

As I pointed out in my last post, the largest refugee populations are hosted by some of the poorest countries of the world, often those bordering on war-torn nations. The number of those who make their way to Europe and North America are miniscule in proportion. The vast majority of Syria’s 4 million refugees, for example, are to be found in the Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). What assistance do these people and their host nations receive from those in Europe, Asia and elsewhere who want to keep them out of their own territories?

Perhaps the two most straightforward questions in relation to the Middle East/North Africa that the Western media appear to be downplaying are:

(1) Why are European governments not pressurizing the Gulf states to do more for Arab refugees? There are many European professionals living in these wealthy states and Western governments have strong commercial links with them. The West may depend on them for oil, but they too depend on the West (not least for arms and banking). They are desperate for the (hollow) global esteem that comes from building the world’s tallest buildings, super-luxury shopping malls and quixotic Disneylands, or hosting the soccer World Cup- all at the expense of cheap labour from South and Southeast Asia. Europe and the U.S pander shamelessly to such repressive feudal states.

These states can easily absorb and employ more Arabs from the region and, by doing so, would combat the widespread perception that Muslim refugees have to depend on non-Muslim peoples for shelter because their own leaders are too selfish, incompetent, or both. Indeed, failure of Muslim governments to care for their fellow Muslims is being exploited by radical Islamist propaganda. It is the way Islamists try to justify their legitimacy to Muslim populations from Morocco to Bangladesh.

Imperial British and U.S governments contributed to many of the region’s conflicts, from the post-League of Nation’s “carve-ups” (including the creation of Iraq and several of the Gulf states) to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the present Arab regimes benefited from such historic agreements and recent Western military interventions. So they cannot avoid responsibility for the consequences nor blame Israel and the West for all the problems piling up on their doorstep.

(2) Is the West serious about defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? Hitherto the military response has been half-hearted. The American media’s obsession with Iran has blinded Americans to the role played by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Arab states in fuelling regional instability. Indeed, it seems to be the case that much of the weaponry being supplied to ISIL has been funded by Gulf sheiks who want to rid the region of Iranian Shi’a influence.

Obama’s famous “red line in the ground” regarding the use of chemical weapons has been repeatedly transgressed by both Syria’s Assad and by ISIL (see But neither the UN nor the Western powers have made any concerted military response, save the occasional drone attack on ISIL militias. Unless the international military coalition hits harder at ISIL units possessing chemical weapons, and at the same time creates “no-fly” zones over Syria and “safe-zones” to which civilians can go to receive medical and other assistance, Syria’s hapless population will continue to haemorrhage.

Last weekend we were invited to remember World Refugee Day, Father’s Day and International Yoga Day. No need to guess which was the most popular. Crass commercialism rules. And the greatest tragedy for me is the way it has engulfed so many affluent churches, reinforcing their inward focus and tendency to being mere pawns in the hands of corporate and political forces.

If anyone experienced a local church remembering World Refugee Day, I would love to hear from you- and especially how it was remembered.

Since 2000, the 20th of June has been marked by the UN as World Refugee Day to honour those who are forced to flee their home countries under the threat of war, persecution, conflict and environmental disasters. The UN High Commission for Refugees informs us, in a report released last week, that one out of every 122 people in the world is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. The number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to 59.5 million, compared with 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. Overall, the largest refugee populations under UNHCR care are Afghans, Syrians and Somalis – together accounting for more than half of global refugees.

Refugee camps have become permanent settlements for many people, as in Palestine since 1948. Children born in such camps may spend their entire lives there, lacking citizenship rights let alone access to basic education and healthcare. These become the breeding ground for political and religious extremism. Pakistan, Iran, and Lebanon are hosting more refugees than other countries, yet receive scant financial help from the rich world (the politicians of whom only complain about the relatively meagre numbers who end up on their shores). Humanitarian organizations are also massively under-funded. There is no political will to resolve long-standing conflicts, and statesmanship on the world stage is sorely lacking.

In Denmark’s recent elections, the results of which were announced on World Refugee day, the candidate who received the most personal votes turned out to be the most fascist, running on a brazenly xenophobic ticket. Danes and Britons can go as “economic migrants” to the USA. But an “economic migrant” to these countries from Africa or Asia is regarded as a criminal. And often, especially in Britain and Australia, it is the recent migrants from South Asia who become the most vocal in opposing migration from their home countries, jealously guarding their jobs from competition.

As for the patronising demand that all migrants must “accept our values”, it is clear that the Western media will never rest until their sexual mores are imposed on the rest of the world. Tourists show no respect for native values and sensibilities- as in the case of those who stripped off their clothes on the top of a mountain in East Malaysia that local peoples regard as sacred. The typical Western media reaction has been to ridicule such local superstitions and “backwardness”. Ironically, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia have been pilloried in the same media for the way their aboriginal populations were decimated by “re-education” in mainstream (often church-run) schools. So, either “They should become like us” or “Leave them to themselves”- this is the impoverished language of late modern secularism. Respect for other peoples and their cultures involves mutual listening and interrogation, not blind accommodation or arrogant dismissal.

As for International Yoga Day, this was the work of India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a good example of how traditional Indian religious practices have been colonized and “de-religionized” by Western enthusiasts and then reclaimed, commodified and transmitted by modern Indian gurus and their middle-class followers as a political tool.

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “discipline”. It has a complex history with a number of disparate traditions, but the classical text is Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras which was probably composed around the fifth century A.D. It was Swami Vivekananda in the late nineteenth century who elevated yoga into both a “science of supra-consciousness” and a unifying sign of the Indian nation. As the religious historian Peter van der Veer notes (in his book Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain), this was not only for national consumption but for consumption by the entire world.

“This is a new doctrine, although Vivekananda emphasized that it was ancient ‘wisdom’. Especially the body exercises of hatha yoga, underpinned by a metaphysics of mind-body unity, continues to be a major entity in the health industry, especially in the United States. What I find important in Vivekananda’s construction of yoga as the core of ‘Hindu spirituality’ is that it is devoid of any specific devotional content that would involve, for example, temple worship and thus a theological and ritual position in sectarian debates. Vivekananda is, first and foremost, interested in Hindu unity… Hindu nationalism could hardly exist without such a notion… there seems to be no escape today from the relentless marketing of India’s spirituality.”

Thus for modern religious Hindus, yoga is “Indian spirituality”. For Western “fitness” devotees, yoga is merely a route to mental calm and physical health. Both represent the combination of consumerism and cultural imperialism that we saw last weekend. I suggest that truly divine spirituality is rather seen in the men and women who risk their security and comforts to protect, support and speak for refugees all over the world.

On my first visit to Nepal in 1989, I was appalled at the grinding poverty in which the vast majority of its citizens lived. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the rich world came to trek, climb the Himalayas or seek some variation of private nirvana. None of this tourist wealth “trickled down” to the poverty-stricken masses huddled on the river banks in Kathmandu or in the remote villages which had neither roads nor healthcare facilities. The Hindu caste-system was strongly entrenched, and conversion to Christianity forbidden. Yet an “underground” Church flourished, comprising mostly very poor folk; and foreign Christian doctors, nurses and agrarian researchers helped build a functioning infrastructure while corrupt politicians and business elites pocketed the wealth flowing from tourism.

Most of the “tourist paradises” of the Majority World – from the Caribbean islands (playgrounds of the rich and famous) to Bali, tell the same story. The poor are invisible not only to the hotel and tourist industry, but to the global media, until disasters in the form of hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis strike. But the recent tragedy in Nepal illustrates the close nexus between corruption, oppressive religious and cultural systems, and the betrayal of citizens by their own governments.

When the Indian Ocean nations were devastated by the tsunami of 26 December 2004, I raised the question: why is it that when hurricanes and earthquakes hit places like Florida or Japan, the loss of life is minimal; but that when the same disasters occur in Central America or South Asia, the devastation is mind-boggling? The answer is simple and straightforward: poverty. Or poverty combined with corruption and incompetence on the part of government officials. In South Asia, annual warnings about floods and cyclones are routinely ignored when the technology needed to save lives and property is readily available. Coral reefs and mangrove swamps (that absorb much of the impact of tropical storms and ocean surges) have virtually disappeared from our coastal belts. Building contractors frequently violate safety standards, even when building in earthquake-prone areas.

Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, even animal predation, and other natural events are not aspects of the Fall, as has been understood in much of the Christian tradition, but rather the way God has chosen to bring about ecological changes and biodiversity on the planet. The awesome Himalayan ranges themselves were produced by earthquakes. The “fallenness” of the human condition is expressed in our increased vulnerability to such events. It is sinful human actions (including wrong priorities) that result in the heavy loss of life, much of which is preventable. Poverty and economic inequalities on the scale seen in our world cannot be blamed on God. They represent a violation of God’s will for humanity.

God has chosen to create us humans as part of a material world. So, as material beings, we share in the unpredictability and vulnerability of the rest of the created order. Our solidarity as a human species is what leads to our rejoicing in the joy of others and weeping over the pain of others. To only receive through the good that others do, but not to suffer the consequences of what others do, would be a denial of our inter-dependent creatureliness. Natural events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are a painful reminder of our fragility, our interconnectedness with and dependence upon nature.

When tragedies strike, the first thing to do is to express our human solidarity, not to forget that these are our fellow men and women, creatures like us who are in the image of God and for whom Christ died. Our Christian response is well summed up by the theologian Jon Sobrino: “To let ourselves be affected, to feel pain over lives cut short or endangered, to feel indignation over the injustice behind the tragedy, to feel shame over the way we have ruined this planet, that we have not undone the damage and are not planning to do so, all this is important. It motivates compassion and immediate emergency assistance, but more importantly it sheds light on the most effective way to help in the tragedy.”

There will always follow the clamouring existential questions and our feeble, stuttering human answers. But more importantly, what we experience is a sense of indignation that “the same thing” always happens and “the same people” always suffer; and a yearning for things to be different some day.

Finally, every protest against innocent suffering, as well as every free embrace of others’ suffering, are both alike reflections of God’s own response to suffering – as seen supremely in God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ. In Christian thought, God is inherently relational: a three-fold movement of ceaseless giving and responsive love. So, in answer to the oft-asked question, “Where was God in these tragedies”, we can say, humbly yet boldly, that the Triune God of sacrificial love was present in the pain and terror of the victims, in the grief of the survivors, in the heroism of people who risked their lives to save others, and in the anger and protest expressed against the vulnerability of the poor in a technologically rich world.

I don’t normally re-publish other peoples’ Blog posts or news articles. However, as Israelis go to the polls today, and the world’s media continue to misinform us about the history and current realities of the Middle East, this passionate appeal by Professor Richard Falk is worth disseminating:

“If deterrence is a security necessity for the United States and Israel, it should be even more so for Iran that is truly faced with a genuine, credible, and dangerous existential threat. I would not argue that Iran should acquire nuclear weapons, but rather that it has the strongest case among sovereign states to do so, and it is a surreal twist of realities to act as if it is the outlier rather than the nuclear weapons states that refuse to honour their obligation set forth in the Non-Proliferation Treaty to seek nuclear disarmament.

Israel’s military threats directed at Iran clearly violate the international law prohibition contained in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter that prohibit “threats or uses” of force except for self-defense against a prior armed attack or with an authorisation by the Security Council.

Despite this threat to international peace in an already turbulent Middle East, there is a widespread international acceptance of Israel’s behaviour, and in fact, the best argument for the sanctions regime is that it offsets the concerns of the Israeli government and thus reduces the prospect of a unilateral military strike on Iran.

Overall, this opportunistic treatment of Iran’s nuclear programme is less indicative of a commitment to non-proliferation than it is an expression of geopolitical priorities. If peace and stability were the true motivations, then we could expect to hear strident calls for a nuclear free Middle East tied to a regional security framework. Until such a call is made, there is a cynical game being played with the complicity of the mainstream media.”

See the entire article at:

Last Tuesday a gunman walked into a restaurant in a town in the Czech Republic, killed eight customers at random before shooting himself. The incident was reported in small print in most newspapers outside the Czech Republic.

Contrast this with the recent shootings in Ottawa, Sydney and Copenhagen. These were immediately dubbed “terrorist attacks”, although it was subsequently found that the gunmen acted alone, were home-grown citizens, had a history of mental instability (including violence) and were known to the local police. Yet the attacks led to frenzied calls for tighter restrictions on foreigners, more surveillance of vulnerable minorities, expanded powers to the police and security services, and self-righteous affirmations of “national values”.

Following the shootings in Paris, a wave of assaults, arson and vandalism targeting mosques and Muslim organisations occurred in the USA and Europe, including in Copenhagen where Denmark’s only purpose-built mosque, which opened last year, was defaced with Nazi swastikas.

Disturbing questions arise. Are acts of violence “terrorist” only if they are perpetrated by people with a Muslim background? Why are the atrocities committed by ISIL/ISIS given heightened publicity (which is, after all, what groups like this actually seek!) while similar atrocities committed by pro-Western regimes in the Arab world and elsewhere are routinely ignored? Despite the boastful claim to be tolerant, pluralist democracies, how much real civic engagement is there in Western nations among people of different faith-commitments, whether “religious” or “secular”?

The Western media, and especially popular TV channels (like Fox News) and pulp tabloids, are notorious for the profound ignorance they display of the world’s great religions, Christianity no less than Islam. And there are, of course, those deracinated elites who want to obliterate all religious sensibilities while proudly defending “free speech”.

In a letter to a Danish newspaper following the Copenhagen shooting, my wife wrote: “Yet another violent act which no words can suffice to condemn! But this aside – let us take a moment to search our own hearts. When we defend the right to, the need for, and the necessity of free speech for a democratic, truth-loving world, do we Scandinavians really practice this central principle unconditionally? Do we really believe with all of our beings in free speech? Would we defend cartoons that ridicule the idea of the equal worth of women, blacks and homosexuals? Or that vigorously promote a rebirth of Nazism with its history of violence against Jews and other minorities? Do the Muhammad drawings just manage to reveal us as people who do not have enough imagination to understand that there are other sensitivities and values than the ones we hold?”

In an older Blog post (July 2010) I gave the example of Rocco Buttiglioni, Minister of European Affairs in the Italian government, who was selected by the president of the European Commission to be its commissioner of justice. When in his interview he acknowledged that he was a practising Roman Catholic and believed that homosexual activity was a sin but should not be criminalized, he was disqualified from taking office on the grounds that his personal moral convictions were “in direct contravention of European law”. Rocco rightly called his treatment “the new totalitarianism”.

Let me repeat some things I stated in that post of five years ago because they continue to be relevant to debates about freedom of thought and speech in the West.

We can agree that shunning language that demeans and humiliates people is a way of showing respect for the worth and dignity of others. For instance, the use of “invalid” for people with physical or mental disabilities was a dreadful way of speaking (yet, ironically, the same societies that have dropped the term “invalid”- and even “handicapped”- are promoting a public ideology that regards foetuses and elderly people with disabilities as of no intrinsic value, thus demonstrating that language-change alone does not alter our moral perceptions).

But things took a sinister turn when the “political correctness” lobby stressed the political in the phrase and started using naked power to outlaw any moral viewpoint other than their own. How being “sensitive in one’s speech” moved from being a matter of good manners, civility or politeness to becoming political marked a significant cultural shift.

This was the culmination of changes in Western society that thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Jeffrey Stout and Charles Taylor have traced in some detail. Moral languages which were once part of coherent intellectual traditions have broken down. All that is left are fragments of earlier beliefs. There is no shared set of moral values that holds societies together, only institutions such as governments, legal systems or markets. Institutions survive, but the beliefs that gave them meaning are forgotten. And when moral truth itself is seen as a matter of mere personal taste, how can we engage in public moral argument? We only talk past each other. And when we want our way to prevail we resort to the naked assertion of power. The loudest voice or the most airbrushed speaker wins. (Hence the power of rabid tabloid headlines, scurrilous cartoons, and spin doctors).

This is the new repression that masquerades as “political correctness” and “tolerance”. The tragedy, of course, is when it surfaces on university campuses which once held academic freedom to be indispensable in the quest for truth – the freedom to publish any opinion, however outlandish, provided one was willing to submit it to critical scrutiny and debate. It is seen when a Singaporean law professor had her invitation to speak at a prestigious American university revoked after intense pressure from the “gay” political lobby, because of her views on homosexuality; or when some academics in the UK campaigned to exclude Israeli scholars from attending conferences because their views were considered Zionist.

Who will safeguard genuine intellectual freedom and reasoned argument in the media and the universities of the future?

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.


May 2016
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