On Sunday, millions across France, along with leaders from over 50 countries, marched against the obscene violence that was tragically perpetrated last week by just a few individuals in the name of God and Islam. Around the world debate is unfolding, centering on whether or not ‘we are all Charlie’. A muslim I know asked me on Friday, “Why would people produce cartoons that would upset 1.5 billion people around the world and expect nothing to happen?”. Alleged leaked emails from Al-Jazeera express a similar view: “I guess if you insult 1.5 billion people chances are one or two of them will kill you…”, Mohamed Vall, Doha based Al-Jazeera roving correspondent allegedly wrote.
How did it come to be that an interpretation of a religion could establish a mind-set where “chances are” that someone could be killed for “insulting” a group of people? The answer is that this is not a new phenomenon. Our history books are littered with numerous cases where people insulting European monarchs or rulers of empires are murdered. An absolute power insulted might feel the need to remove those who would call the legitimacy of the absolute power into question, otherwise the critique could bring about dissent, rebellion and the end to the reign of the absolute power.
So, when people declare ‘we are all Charlie’, are they stating a simple idea: power in this world can never be seen as absolute? As former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson put it, “If you afraid, you are a slave”.
This question about the interpretation of ‘we are all Charlie’ is important. Not all of us think that insulting other people’s religion is a good way to go about things. On the contrary, we know there are many constructive ways to interrogate each other’s belief systems, with fruitful outcomes. Many would argue that freedom of expression with no regard to consequences of hurting the feelings of others is in fact a moral contradiction in terms. Most importantly, I have never met anyone who disagrees with the notion that if we focused on the values that are common to all of us, humanity would be making faster and more effective strides towards solving major problems we face as a community.
But if that is the case can we say that ‘we are all Charlie’? It sure sounds like that in so doing we would be saying that we all believe insulting cartoons are the way to achieve social, political and cultural harmony. I personally reject that attitude, most people I know reject it and it is antithesis to the vision of Humanity Online and engage.re. But if ‘we are all Charlie’ means that stating a view that insults a source of power should never ever be a reason to be murdered, then absolutely: we are all – and if we are not we must all be – Charlie. We all have the right to live, no matter who we insult.
Our responsibility to protect the life of others should be a fundamental of any goal and purpose that we pursue as humans. This is nicely illustrated in the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the first biblically recorded death, a murder, which ironically results from one man’s motive to have a perfect relationship with God. In the Genesis story, Cain kills Abel after his own sacrifice to God is not accepted, whilst God accepts the sacrifice of his brother Abel. Afterwards, God says to Cain, ‘where is your brother?’. Cain replies to God, ‘I did not know that I am the protector of my brother’. Cain had wanted to redeem himself from the feelings of inferiority – the anger and depression he experienced – when God rejects his offering. Before he kills his brother, God had said to him, ‘Why have you become angry and why are you depressed? Is it not the case that if you improve then you’ll succeed, but if you don’t do better you will just get caught up in a destructive cycle’. Despite this advice, Cain murders his brother, perhaps to prove to God just how important God’s acceptance is to him. God’s reply to Cain is that he has gotten his priorities wrong: if you’re thinking about service of the divine, priority number one is protecting the life of your brother.
Whatever we believe as truth, whatever we believe as purpose, it can only be legitimately practiced if it is in a way that results in the wellbeing of those around us.
In the end, religions and ideologies – whatever their source – are put into practice and thereby interpreted by human beings. Whenever a Muslim mentions the founder of Islam, Muhammad, they say ‘the Prophet Muhammad- peace be upon him’. My Muslim friends tell me that as children they were taught how their Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – forbade his followers to punish those who critiqued or even mocked him. In this light it is no surprise that the Qur’an itself begins with the words “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the entirely merciful..” and regularly reminds readers how God, as represented by Islam, is kind and forgiving. Then there are later interpretations of Islam which, into the present day, are used to justify murderous attacks, not just on cartoonists who insult Islam, but on entire communities in Baga, Nigeria, simply because they are of another faith and not practicing Islam. Bus hijackings where passengers are asked to recite Muslim prayers; those unable to do so being shot dead. But it is peace, kindness, forgiveness and mercy being associated with Islam that seems consistent with lessons we can learn from the Genesis story, that our number one priority is to protect the life and wellbeing of others.
Scientific research suggests we are actually biologically wired to be empathetic. Human endeavour and our great achievements in cultures, religions, ideologies, science and technologies have always been the search for community, and how living and working together uplifts and benefits the lives of all the individuals who form the whole. Communities in this sense have only ever been possible to achieve through the discovery of the other. We develop languages, norms, values and rules that help us understand each other and then share things that are common to all of us, so that through those shared ideas we can explore, discover and thereby address common challenges and achieve new goals. My father reminded me last night how the great Islamic scholars helped replace the Roman Numeral system with the Indo-Arabic numeric system we use today. This provided the basis for major advances in scientific discovery and the development of technologies that have allowed us to improve food and shelter security and the means for travel and communication never before possible. The Islamic scholars also studied, translated and brought back into currency the works of the Greek philosophers, which in turn later resulted in the re-ignition of the search for discovery in Europe. These are legacies of Islam where peace has been brought upon the name of Muhammad; the zeros and ones that ultimately form the basis of the technology that powers this blog and the entire age of communication.
Whatever religion, ideology, culture or creed we follow, we can ask ourselves whether we live by it, like Cain, as a mechanism for justifying how right we are, destroying anything or anyone that highlights our failure, instead of pursuing the extraordinary growth we can achieve, or, are we applying a paradigm that gives us a mechanism for achieving peace through the discovery of our own and other people’s potential? These are questions that we can ask ourselves in the privacy of our own thoughts, interrogating our own motivations for accepting truths that form the cornerstones of meaning in our lives. Beyond that, these are the questions we can ask our friends, our family and our broader communities. And the broader community reaches a global level. Every day it becomes clearer how we are, as humanity, a single global community – whether we like it or not. How we behave in one part of the world, affects others elsewhere. The ripples through natural ecosystems and through social communication infrastructures are boundless.How will we use the unique opportunity afforded to us by communications technology and how will we approach the unprecedented responsibility in the face of rising conflicts and challenges to contribute towards the peace and prosperity of humanity? These are not choices of leisure. The extreme interpretations of religion are colliding with far right movements in Europe in ways that only mass, robust and constructive choices can mitigate. Can we focus on those things that we have in common to form the basis of a shared community where the life and wellbeing of others is held as valuable above all else?
What kinds of methods of coming together can help facilitate this kind of learning and transformation of the global community? Is it just about government policies, social attitudes and religious interpretations, or is it also about how social technology can offer an environment within which we can discover each other and pursue the common good? Can we suffice with social technology that merely facilitates challenging notions of power and the mobilisation of groups against one another, or do we need something more sophisticated that also thereafter facilitates a constructive dialogue and constructive and effective collective action?