Reflection: This week’s Charlie Hebdo cover is a huge mistake

Independent Catholic News

By: Canon Pat Browne

Canon Pat Browne gave the following homily at Holy Apostles, Pimlico, central London, on Peace Sunday.

I believe the publishing this week of the cartoon of the prophet Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo was ill-judged, badly timed and a huge mistake.

Yes the publishers have every right to say what they want and publish what they like but that does not mean they should do so in every case. Why seek to offend when you could befriend? Is it necessary to use your freedom to insult others if you are serious about building a peaceful, just and diverse society? I’m sure Charie Hebdo like to think of themselves as a free-thinking liberal and enlightened publication. But they have played into the hands of extreme right-wing racist groups whose purpose is to rid France and other European countries of all immigrants. They have contributed to setting the white host population in these countries against minorities and those immigrants who live settled, peaceful lives contributing to society through their work, their taxes and their gifts – people in many cases who have no voice and no agenda other than to be good citizens.

Because I have the right and the freedom to do something does not mean I should always do it. There are other values that coexist alongside the right to freedom of speech – like prudence.

Will Self the British broadcaster and writer was interviewed last week on Channel 4 News. He reminded us: “along with rights, come responsibilities”. Pope Francis tells us the same thing, as this weekend we are celebrating Peace Sunday. The Peace Sunday theme is: Slaves no more; But brothers and sisters. The pope reminds us “the right to liberty of expression comes with the obligation to speak for “the common good”.

We will never have either a just or peaceful society if we are exclusively obsessed our own rights. We live in community, alongside and with others. To have real community people give way to one another out of respect and affection not because they have to but because they want to. Otherwise we are all individuals uncaring and obsessed with self- seeking ambition, asserting our rights without a care for the rights and sensibilities of others….a recipe for violence and disaster.

Charlie Hebdo has in the past printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed I am talking about the rear views of a naked Muhammad on all fours. I am talking about the homosexual postures he has been depicted in. I am talking about vaguely pornographic religious hate speech which far from being intellectual is just smutty and unworthy of any serious publication. To get a sense for what I am saying; how would you feel if people spoke like that about Jesus, or about your mother. As the Pope said this week in the Philippines, if someone insults my mother they can expect a thump. No, he wasn’t saying we shouldn’t turn the other cheek but he was saying no one has the right to provoke me like that.

It is foolish to defend uncritically everyone’s right to say whatever he or she wishes? For example, people do not have the right to run into a cinema and shout fire if there is no fire. They will get charged I hope, with wasting police, ambulance and fire service resources, at least. When I walk up to you in the street and start slapping you, that counts as an assault. When I curse you, attack the virtue of your mother, or shout personal things about you that are embarrassing in a public place? Isn’t that an assault too? Can’t I be charged for at least disturbing the peace, damage to your reputation and maybe causing an affray? We don’t have the absolute right to say what we want when we want to.

As one writer put it this week, the French citizens who espouse the liberties of satire look toward Moliere, who skewered the powerful. British comedians and satirist like to do the same – and there is a place for that.

But the citizens who follow Islam in France, or London or other European cities, for the most part, are a powerless minority, often poor, blocked off in what seems to be state-sanctioned ghettos from which there is little escape. They are the ones caught in the vice between free speech and terrorism. They are the ones who suffer as too many people adopt the line; They are all the same!

Those who use the right to freedom of speech and who exercise it in the way this magazine did, not only do not make for a more just and free society but they fuel the fires of hatred and prejudice.

In the name of standing up against terrorists Charlie Hebdo has attacked the sincerely held beliefs of peace-loving Muslims all over the world, who are their fellow citizens and entitled to equal respect and protection from the rest of their community. They have made a huge error of judgement this week and abused the right which is theirs to freedom of speech.

Canon Pat Browne is Parish Priest at Holy Apostles, Pimlico and Roman Catholic Duty Priest for the Houses of Parliament.