There isn’t much time for writing this blog at the moment. Life is full on, and my priorities lie elsewhere. One day I will get back to it properly.
The last post was the script of the Thought for the Day, broadcast just a couple of hours before Islamist maniacs went on a killing rampage in Paris. Naturally, I got a barrage of criticism and abuse via various media. Most of this was embarrassingly ridiculous, but not worth responding to in the heated hours (or, indeed, days) following the outrage in France. Charles Moore had a go in the Telegraph, but I decided not to respond – after all, the commentariat opines without cost and without ever dirtying their hands in the real stuff some of us live with every day. I can handle being accused of “weedy niceness” – but it is interesting that the people who went out onto the streets of Paris that night were, in fact, “dancing to a different tune” and not responding with some far-right driven anti-Islamic reflex.
What we have seen since then was predictable (though not sayable at the time). Questions have been asked about the meaning(s) of “Je suis Charlie” and whether this might be somewhat naive as well as well-intentioned emotion. Unlike most commentators, I used to read Charlie Hebdo. I gave up in my twenties because it was more puerile than satirical. Easy targets do not equate to justified targets. And, as someone observed last week, the freedom to offend does not equate to an obligation to offend.
Giles Fraser has now clearly written what I wanted to write (although I would almost certainly have done so less eloquently in response to the criticism I got): the French secularism being lauded in the popular response to the massacre in Paris is not noble and is not what is understood by ‘secularism’ elsewhere. It is one thing to deprivilege religion in the public square; it is something else entirely to be anti-religion to the point of wanting to wipe it out. The myth of neutrality is just that: the public square is either open to all – including religion – or it privileges those who believe that it is open to all except religions. Neutral it is not. Charlie Hebdo was not brave to target powerless people, and it will be interesting to see if it still survives in a year’s time once the myths and emotions have moved on (as they will).
So, as the commentariat now discovers the courage to question the response to the Paris events, I can only judge that it was probably wise to be too busy to blog. And France will have to do some deeper thinking about what it really means by ‘liberté, égalité et fraternité’ and how it includes Muslims – a debate that was informing French novels fifty years ago and questions that have not been addressed since then because of the veil of ‘laïcité’.
On the other hand, the church lives every day with diverse communities, hearing how world events impact on the local. We don’t just do “weedy niceness” from behind a laptop screen; we engage every day in our parishes with all-comers. And we go wider. In the last week in my diocese we have engaged with Sudan (where the church is working hard at living with Islam), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Tanzania. We look through multiple lenses. And we get our hands dirty in the complexity of these contexts – a far cry from merely sounding off on a laptop screen. These relationships take hard work and a long time; they cannot be created in crisis.
I would love to ask what – practically – the commentariat would advocate should happen now. It is easy to comment and diagnose and pontificate and ‘reflect’. But, what do they suggest we then should actually do? Should all Muslims be deported, or all mosques shut? Should we close the doors to all Muslim immigration? If so, what do they suggest we should do with those left behind who suffer the injustice? And so on. What do the clever commentators propose we should actually do?
One of my parishes held a very imaginative and appropriate service last week to honour journalists and the price they pay for telling their stories. The service was titled: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. But, the question I finish on is this: what do we do when the pen becomes a sword? Too often people distinguish between ‘word’ and ‘action’. Words are action – they are performative and they have consequences. There is no neutrality.