Friday, January 9, 2015

At what cost the sacred?

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was not an accident, not a stray act of horror and not an unanticipated calamity. It was the culmination and result of a noxious coming together of ever-increasing radicalisation and political paralysis in the face of radicalisation and violence. It was the outcome of a series of ‘provocative’ challenges to reigning orthodoxies and the violent backlash these challenges invited. But this is not to suggest that the challenges themselves caused the ‘retribution’, a deeply disturbing and pernicious argument that has been put forward in relation to Charlie Hebdo for some years in some quarters until now (and perhaps even now); in this case, retribution, a term that evokes such guttural revulsion, was fuelled by a politics of ‘la haine’ and vitriol and enabled by the reticence of the rational, secular public. 

Political leaders and the news media of liberal democracies have played a significant role in this. As Michael Weiss argues in Foreign Policy and Emma-Kate Symons argues in Quartz, both politicians and media commentators and editors have repeatedly condemned Charlie Hebdo in the past for pushing the boundaries of satire and for indulging in bad taste, and they have done so on the premise that it is morally wrong (and of course politically disastrous) to mock images and precepts sacred to Islam, and to criticise Islamic fanaticism. Much blood has been spilled over the idea of the sacred, but, in this postmodern morass of competing visions and political ideologies, each of which is apparently as valid as the next, a basic question needs to be asked - what is sacred? And how have we sacralised what we have come to view as sacred? At what price the preservation of that which is sacred and, at the other end, at what cost sacrilege? I revisit Salman Rushdie (1990):

“No, nothing is sacred in and of itself, I would have said. Ideas, texts, even people can be made sacred - the word is from the Latin sacrare, 'to set apart as holy' - but even though such entities, once their sacredness is established, seek to proclaim and to preserve their own absoluteness, their inviolability, the act of making sacred is in truth an event in history. It is the product of the many and complex pressures of the time in which the act occurs. And events in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction, even to declarations of their obsolescence. To revere the sacred unquestioningly is to be paralyzed by it. The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas - Uncertainty, Progress, Change - into crimes.”

For years, the journal’s satire has been has been criticised as racist and incendiary. But I find the charge of racism specious here. When religion is attacked, it is attacked for what it stands for – the attack is a matter of principle. The oppression that religions bring with them is always oppression – it does not become any more acceptable or any less repugnant when it is perpetuated under another name, another designation, another God. I’ve encountered arguments from both religious reactionaries and leftists that decry the journal’s ‘provocation’ as an ‘act of war’ – truly, if there is anything in this gruesome saga that is more disturbing than this consensus then I do not know it. It is in characterising intellectual challenges, satirical or otherwise, as acts of war that we have the root of our anomie. There are now voices calling for respect for freedom of expression and free speech. We argue that the freedom to offend is precious and must be protected at all costs. For Charlie Hebdo, however, these calls and exhortations to defense of free speech have come too late. Twelve people have been brutally, unconscionably massacred. The tide has turned irrevocably. These deaths prove conclusively that claims of the sanctity of western values and freedom are ultimately otiose and meaningless in the face of the real and unrelenting violence that awaits those who offend. Those who imagine that this is a blip, yet another condemnable aberration, in European politics delude themselves. Charlie Hebdo was an outlier in that they repeatedly, recklessly and, yes, courageously, pushed the boundaries of a palpable new political order characterised by previously unthinkable levels of censorship and suppression of dissent. Isn’t it a mark of utter complacency and self-deception to imagine another taking its place in the aftermath of the massacre? The changes, repression of thought and self-correction that have gradually and imperceptibly transformed intellectual debate for many years now stand starkly before us in all their resplendent ghastliness. I do not doubt that each one of us, by omission or commission, is implicated in the rise of the new regime, and thus, by extension, in the brutal and unconscionable fate that befell Charlie Hebdo.

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