Pope's tragically mistaken intervention on the jihad

Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many around the world. But to capture our minds he will have to do better than his de facto apologia for Islamist violence. He has made a tragic error of judgement

Papal thoughts on rabbits? Fine. The jihad? Less so
Jeremy Havardi
On 20 January 2015 13:34

The Pope's decision last week to wade into a debate on free speech proved most unproductive. Instead of offering robust support to Charlie Hebdo and its many supporters, he inadvertently aided Islamic jihadists and undermined western values in the process.

It was a spectacularly ill-timed intervention.

Speaking in Manila last Thursday, Pope Francis declared that free speech was indeed a fundamental right and there was a duty to speak one's mind for the common good. He added that killing in the name of God was an "aberration".

But he went on to say that freedom of speech had its limits, particularly when it came to insulting or ridiculing a faith. "You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others".

He then added, in apparent jest: "If my good friend Dr. Gasbarri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch". In an earlier statement, the Pope described those who mocked religion as "provocateurs". He clearly had Charlie Hebdo in mind.

At a stroke, the Pope suggested that at least some of the blame for last week's violence lay with the publishers and not just the murderers. After all, if they had made a mistake in mocking and satirising the Islamic faith, some militant response was to be expected, right?

Wrong. It's at this point that a statement of the obvious is needed: if outraged Catholics, Jews, Mormons and Buddhists can react to provocation with disapproval and peaceful protest, then that is good enough for Muslims too.

Indeed most Muslims lack any impulse to defend their Prophet with the sword or a Kalashnikov. To suggest that it is understandable to respond more aggressively, albeit without murderous violence, is to do a disservice to the majority of decent minded Muslims who abide by the law.

We must also mention the two policemen and four Jews killed in the Jewish supermarket last week. They were victims of the same jihadist killing spree. Those murders surely give the lie to the notion that while the Paris killings were abhorrent, they were somehow explicable as a response to Muslim outrage.

The policemen had not stoked up Muslim anger or done anything to merit a reaction. Coulibaly's murder of Jews was based on nothing more than his own obsessive hatred, something evidenced by the fact that he was reportedly planning an attack on a Jewish school the day before.

The Pope was also implying that Charlie Hebdo should not have republished an image of Muhammad on its front cover. After all, if such things are insulting, why continue to be a 'provocateur?'

This is to counsel capitulation to the demands of murdering psychopaths, and appeasement in the face of violence. It is to roll up the drawbridge at just the moment when assertive responses are needed. For right now, as former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey recently pointed out, fear of criticising Islam in the UK has created a de facto blasphemy law, effectively insulating one faith from satire.

Deliberately retreating from causing offence will only encourage more demands, ones that will only further undermine western freedoms.

As it is, the Pope undermined one of the core values in a civilised, secular society, namely our freedom of expression. It is both true and trite that such freedom is never absolute.

There should be no freedom to trash people's reputations without justification, hence the importance of defamation law. Freedom of speech must also be balanced by the need to protect national security, especially in wartime.

Furthermore, one has to draw the line at incitement to violence where one's freedom of expression will directly harm others. No one wants to defend hate speech.

But that is not what the Pope was talking about. He was arguing that freedom of speech had to be curtailed when it came to mocking or ridiculing religion. This is quite wrong.

In a tolerant and open society, religious beliefs, no matter how sacrosanct, must not receive the same protection as people. They function within a global marketplace of ideas where they are subject to rigorous intellectual scrutiny. Here they should be challenged, debated and mercilessly pored over. When they appear absurd, those ideas should be mocked and satirised.

To ring-fence these beliefs from censure is to give them a privileged treatment they do not deserve. It is to suggest they have an aura of infallibility. Yet they no more have infallibility than a Papal pronouncement.

Indeed, such a position virtually defines a secular society, as opposed to a theocracy. Tolerant secularism means that while I revere your right not to blaspheme your own prophet, I am not obliged to revere him. What is sacred to you may not be sacred to me.

Of course, it may be harder to defend gratuitous insults to faith. But good satire is constructive because it holds up a mirror to the vices and follies of society, ridiculing those who are powerful and self-important. That is exactly what Charlie Hebdo did with such devastating effect.

That is why freedom of speech should be defended against those who wish to curtail it without good reason. By his most recent comments, it is clear that the Pope is on the wrong side of this debate, tragically so.

Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton

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