Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Europe is becoming a no-God zone. By Christina Odone, 14.1.15.


Timisoara, Romania

Timisoara, Romania

I will be honest: I do not agree with a lot of what the following article contains, but there is enough evidence and truth to suggest that the worries expressed are not totally divorced from reality (this makes the article good enough to share with others, although I am sure that many people have read it elsewhere). However, something with which I totally agree is the idea that “We need more religion in schools, not less, and clearly taught, (and) made relevant to 2015”. We need religion in schools, but only in so far as religion can be subjected to critical analysis and evaluation to expose its strengths and weaknesses. I also go along with the idea that we ignore religion “at our peril”.

So here goes: yet more food for thought.

The visitor to London walks past the plaited breads stacked in the window of a Jewish deli. A passerby wears a hijab. Children in grey uniforms run out of the gates of the Catholic school. The air fills with their cries – and with the peal of bells from the Anglican church.

A snapshot of our capital city, circa 2015. Cherish it, because the odds are it will not survive. The tragedy of the Paris attacks (January 2015) does not stop with the victims murdered by extremists. It spills over into our daily existence. In Europe, many have the courage to proclaim “Je suis Charlie,” but how many Jews dare show their observance after a kosher grocery store was targeted by Islamist gunmen?

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

No wonder a poll today shows half of the 250,000 Jews in Britain do not see a future for themselves here, and another shows that 100,000 Jews have left France in the last few years.

But Jews are not alone. In some parts of the world, wearing the label “Christian” also carries a death sentence. Whether executed for the crime of apostasy in Pakistan, or attacked as “kefirs” (infidels) in Mosul in northern Iraq, Christians are forced to die for their faith in parts of the Middle East. Nor are Muslims spared the persecution the other Abrahamic religions suffer: in western China and episodically in India, public allegiance to Islam is punishable by death.

In ever-greater swathes of the world, being a believer means embracing martyrdom. “Civilised” countries have failed to defend the persecuted – and in fact have created an atmosphere where the person of faith finds themselves pushed into an intolerable place. The extremists want their blind allegiance or will claim their lives, while the secularists suspect their collusion with hot-head co-religionists.

Tallin, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia

How much longer will believers dare to stand up and be counted? Soon Europe, even London, the much-vaunted bastion of multiculturalism, will become no-God zones, banning any public display of religiosity. “For your own good,” the authorities will tell their pious citizens, “you must carry out your ancient rituals in secret. We cannot vouch for your safety otherwise.” Believers will have to hide their precious religious symbols and conceal their rites. Like the early Christians in the catacombs, they will lead lives in the shadows.

Two years ago I wrote “No-God Zone”, an e-book predicting that strident secularism would push religion out of public life in the West. I had under-estimated the dangers to people of faith – the enemies come from two sides, not one. Secularists once sought only a separation between church and state; today they want to purge all signs of religion from all public space. The staff at “Charlie Hebdo” said they did not want to hear the bells of Notre Dame mourning their colleagues’ murders. Salman Rushdie weighed in saying religion, as a “medieval form of unreason”, is the enemy. Meanwhile, extremists have no truck with the moderates in their own religion – and only vicious hatred for outsiders.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia

Squashed between these Scylla and Charybdis, the devout cannot survive – unless the state steps in determined to keep alive our precious religious heritage.

If we in the West want to save the little shop with the sweet-scented challah loaves, the faith school with its uniformed pupils, the pealing of church bells, and yes, the veil, we must act now. We must protect outward signs of religious observance. At present in Europe, this means posting police and soldiers outside Jewish schools and pursuing the perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks. Already, many synagogues are surrounded by local volunteers trained by the Community Security Trust who protect the faithful marking the sabbath.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius, Lithuania

The sacred should be protected, but ignorance should be crushed. Illiteracy is condemned when it comes to the ABCs, yet no one expects children to know who Abraham was, or Moses, or who the Wahhabis are and what they believe – even though more people are ready to die for their faith than for their alphabet. This state of ignorance is shameful and increasingly dangerous. It spreads the kind of suspicion and enmity that explodes in murderous rage.

An ill-tempered debate about faith schools and faith in schools was sparked last year by the Trojan Horse scandal when, in thirteen Birmingham schools, children were subjected to frightening Sunni Islam propaganda and told that hell awaited them if they did not obey. Girls were told that when they married they could not refuse to have sex with their husbands lest the angels punish them. The row left the education authorities feeling wary of teaching their pupils about God in any guise. This is a mistake. We need more religion in schools, not less, and clearly taught, made relevant to 2015 and treated with the same respect we accord literature, science or mathematics. The Paris tragedies show that religion is such a non-negotiable force in most people’s lives that we ignore it at our peril.

Brugge/Bruges, Belgium

Brugge/Bruges, Belgium


Religious people behaving badly (or in ways that have scant regard for current preoccupations).

… but considerably better by the end of the post!


Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk in Myanmar, called a United Nations envoy a “bitch” and a “whore” when he spoke at a rally. A leading UN human rights’ envoy said such comments incited hatred and called on Myanmar’s leaders to condemn the monk’s “abhorrent” language.


They were among the most powerful women on the planet, but that has not spared them from being airbrushed out of a picture of world leaders at the 11th January 2015 Paris march against terror and in favour of freedom of expression. Angela Merkel (the German chancellor), Helle Thorning-Schmidt (the Danish prime minister), Anne Hidalgo (the mayor of Paris) and other politically influential women at the head of the march were removed from the picture so “The Announcer”, an Israeli newspaper, would not “offend” its devout Orthodox Jewish readers (hmmm: the limits of freedom of expression. Do we laugh or cry? Do we laugh or cry, given that almost everyone that Sunday was marching in support of freedom of expression?).

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

When people discover that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain


A few days after jihadi militants murdered seventeen people in Paris and Boko Haram murdered about two thousand people in north-east Nigeria, a Muslim religious leader in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa. You would think that the fatwa would have been issued to condemn the murder of innocent people in Paris and north-east Nigeria, but, instead, the fatwa forbade Muslims from making “anti-Islamic” snowmen because, by making snowmen, Muslims ran the risk of engaging in acts indistinguishable from idolatry. Yes, it’s 2015. Yes, I am avoiding all substances that might distort my mind.

Amazingly, snow had fallen on the mountains of northern Saudi Arabia and a father had asked the religious leader if it was permitted to build a snowman for his children. The religious leader said in no uncertain terms that it was NOT permitted (religious leaders are very good at saying what you cannot do. Ask them what you can do and they have much less to say): “It is not permitted to make a statue out of snow, even by way of play or fun.” To build a snowman is to create an image of a human being, an action considered sinful under the Saudi kingdom’s strict interpretation of sharia in its Sunni guise.

Worryingly, one Muslim wrote on Twitter to support the religious leader: “Building snowmen is imitating the infidels (that’s me and many of you, of course, and, according to many Muslims, infidels deserve death. In fact, there are qur’anic verses that recommend death for people who might be defined as infidels). It (building snowmen) promotes lustiness and eroticism.”

Yes, the latter is true. Every time I’ve made a snowman I’ve wanted to have sex with it. This is one of my many vices.


In Saudi Arabia in 2014, Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and a thousand lashes (for assisting Boko Haram during one of its murderous assaults on innocent people in Nigeria? For beheading hostages in the Islamic State?) for setting up a website that championed free speech and criticised leading clerics (fifty of the lashings were administered in mid-January 2015). According to the trial judge, Badawi had “insulted Islam”. In 2014, Badawi’s wife and children fled from Saudi Arabia when confronted with death threats and they now live as refugees in Canada.

My goodness: I’d “insult Islam” if Islam is capable of such brutal, inhumane and disproportionate reactions to an individual seeking merely to express his views (which, as his blog confirms, are very sound and sensible views in a liberal sort of way).

Aren’t you proud that our government in the UK calls Saudi Arabia a valued ally?


A French-born Muslim refused to take down a “Je suis Charlie” sign at his London café despite receiving death threats. Adel Defilaux told how a “raving Islamic fanatic” demanded he remove the sign, which is a show of support for the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists recently murdered in Paris.


Five people are killed and six churches attacked amid new protests against the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine… in Niger!!!!!

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

There are times when some religious people prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build


More than eighty people, fifty of them children, are kidnapped by Boko Haram in cross-border raids in Cameroon.


A young boy aged about ten is shown shooting dead two Russian “spies” in a new film posted by Islamic State militants.


Jihadi attacks caused more than 5,000 deaths in December 2014. There were 664 terrorist acts in fourteen countries, with Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Afghanistan the four countries worst affected (these four countries suffered 80% of the deaths).


I’ll be honest: Pope Francis is a considerable improvement on the two popes who preceded him (perhaps especially because of a sincere desire to see the poorest and most marginalised in the world have lives characterised by comfort, dignity and the same opportunities as everyone else), but he made a mistake in relation to freedom of expression when he said, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” In so doing, Pope Francis came dangerously close to justifying the murder of the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists, sanctioning the persecution of other cartoonists who have “insulted” Islam or Muhammad, and supporting the fatwa issued many years ago against Salman Rushdie following publication of his magnificent novel “The Satanic Verses”.

This does not often happen, I assure you, but, for once, I found myself agreeing with David Cameron when he said, “In a free society there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian. If someone says something offensive about Jesus I might find that offensive, but I don’t have a right to… wreak my vengeance on them.”

And why does David Cameron not have a right to “wreak” his “vengeance on them”? For me, the following explains why. Because all religions are mere human constructs in exactly the same way that ideologies of a political nature are, we should treat religious beliefs with respect only when they deserve respect. When religious beliefs encourage people to behave in contemptible (or worse) ways, both the beliefs and the people are worthy of contempt. If religious beliefs offend us (by, for example, encouraging prejudice, stereotyping, racism or religious intolerance), or the actions of religious people incline us toward fear and loathing (because such people engage in torture, other acts of wanton brutality, the abuse of children, the sexual exploitation of women, murder, genocide or the persecution of the most vulnerable in society), we have every right to (at the very least) offend in return, perhaps precisely BECAUSE people are motivated by religious beliefs. And why do I say this? Because religion is so often privileged and protected, even in allegedly secular societies. It is therefore necessary to sometimes offend to, among other things, expose the lies, the misconceptions or the contradictions that people subscribe to (and lies, misconceptions and contradictions are far too frequently encountered in world views defined as religions).

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland


King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presided over a brutal Islamist theocracy which denied girls and women many of the same opportunities as boys and men and persecuted Shia and Sufi Muslims. Moreover, the public practice of any religion other than Islam was unlawful. Conversion of a Muslim to another religion was considered apostasy (which, if sharia was interpreted rigidly, was punishable by death). Nothing substantive is expected to change with Abdullah’s death.

Yes: Saudi Arabia is a nation state very far removed from even the most elastic interpretation of inclusiveness. And the only so-called fundamental “British” value that Saudi Arabia would recognise is, unfortunately, the rule of law!

But now for some good news.


Two male witches have tied the knot in the UK’s first pagan same-sex marriage. Tom Lanting and Iain Robertson, who have been together for twelve years, were married in a ceremony in the 16th century vaulted cellars of Marlin’s Wynd in Edinburgh.


And, to conclude, some wise words from Tahir Selby, the imam at Hartlepool’s Ahmadiyya mosque:

We have the wonderful right of free speech in our country, a right which I sometimes feel British people take for granted, but I believe in totally… So yes, we (Muslims) are offended by these images (in “Charlie Hebdo” and elsewhere). But what I want to stress is that ordinary, decent Muslims, true to their religion, would never react to that offence by hurting anybody… The Islamic way of reacting to offence is simply to approach the people causing it and explain, talk and discuss peacefully. This is what the vast majority of Muslims believe: the way of peace… The community I represent… believes very strongly in free speech and we are totally against any blasphemy laws… For us, the liberties and freedoms in this country are a great blessing, and I gave a sermon on 7th January stating that we cannot afford to lose these precious freedoms in this country, especially given what is happening in Pakistan (where blasphemy laws are often invoked to intimidate, persecute and sometimes execute members of minority faith groups, Ahmadiyya Muslims included).

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool, where Tahir Selby is the imam

The Act of Remembrance at St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne…

… for the seventeen people murdered in Paris by jihadi/Islamist extremists, January 2015.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

The Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

The following is a joint effort by two friends, one Jewish and one Muslim, who prefer to remain anonymous.

We begin with commendations. First, Newcastle Church of England (CE) diocese did the right thing when it organised the act of remembrance, and must be congratulated for putting everything together in only four days. Second, for an event organised at such short notice it was a remarkable achievement that about fifty or sixty people attended, and that the event was promoted and then described positively in the region’s news media (we congratulate in particular the Newcastle-based “Evening Chronicle” and “Journal” newspapers and the Darlington-based “Northern Echo” for how they covered the event). Third, the simple format of the act of remembrance, which unobtrusively and sensitively utilised Jewish and Christian elements of worship/practice that no one could have objected to, was ideal for an event of such seriousness, and for an event attended by people belonging to some religions and none. Fourth, important public figures such as Newcastle’s mayor, the leader of the city council and some of Northumbria Police’s most senior officers were able to attend. Fifth, a Muslim, two Jewish people, a Sikh, a Zoroastrian and six or seven representatives of the city’s Christian denominations contributed as spokespeople. Sixth, some of the spokespeople found words that had a universal ring, that reflected the seriousness of the events in Paris the previous week, and that, perhaps most important of all, transcended their confessional and/or ethnic backgrounds.

Sohan Singh at the Act of Remembrance

Sohan Singh at the Act of Remembrance

But, and we realise there must always be at least one but.

Some of the spokespeople FAILED to transcend their confessional and/or ethnic backgrounds and their words therefore did not suggest that genuine dialogue can be undertaken to bring diverse people, religious or otherwise, together to challenge ALL forms of extremism.

No one spoke on behalf of the pagan, the Bahai, the Buddhist, the Hindu, the ISKCON, the Jehovah Witness, the Latter-day Saint or the Coptic Christian communities, to name but a few of the city’s religious groups who, as far as we could tell, did not even send a representative to sit in the audience (of course, this “but” is understandable given the short amount of time between the decision to hold the act of remembrance and when it took place).

No one spoke on behalf of secularists, humanists, atheists and/or agnostics (people belonging to one or more of these “communities” were murdered in Paris, so why were such people not asked to share their thoughts during the act of remembrance?).

No one said that the terrible events in Paris required their community to subject their religion/belief system to rigorous scrutiny to ensure that it did not possess within it the potential to breed the same sort of hatred and extremism that motivated a few jihadi militants to murder completely innocent cartoonists, police officers and Jewish shoppers at a kosher supermarket.

But you know what is perhaps saddest of all? Although Muslim and Jewish people were present at the act of remembrance, nothing but a brief exchange of hellos took place between them. What an opportunity missed for genuine dialogue. For example, would it have hurt the Muslims present to say something such as the following to the Jewish people (or, indeed, to everyone present): “Rest assured that, from now on, we will do everything in our power to challenge the anti-Semitism that exists among Muslim people both in the UK and further afield. We will condemn every act of violence against Jewish people by Muslims anywhere. Moreover, we will say loudly that the state of Israel must be supported as a necessary condition for Jewish survival in a world often hostile to a Jewish presence, and condemn every shell, rocket or bullet fired from Palestinian, Lebanese or Syrian soil.” And would it have hurt the Jewish people present to say something such as the following to the Muslims (or, indeed, to everyone present): “Rest assured that we will, from now on, do everything in our power to challenge the Islamophobia that exists among Jewish people both in the UK and further afield. Moreover, we will petition the state of Israel to recognise the right of the Palestinian people to have a state of their own as soon as possible, and remind the state of Israel that it has never lived up to its responsibility to comply with the second half of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.”

Okay: we know the above ISN’T much to ask of Muslim and Jewish people, but you’ve got to begin somewhere. And where we currently are we’re going nowhere but back to war and an era of even greater prejudice, racism and religious intolerance. This suits no one but the religious cranks who wish to take us a few steps closer to Armageddon.

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

As we all know, interfaith dialogue is ineffective, and long-term peace will never be achieved, unless empathic understanding exists. A pre-requisite for meaningful interfaith dialogue and long-term peace is that we see the world from the perspective of those whom we distrust, those whom we fear, those whom we vilify and those to whom we deny justice.

It’s possible that a discussion such as the one outlined above DID, in fact, take place. If so, perhaps someone can write to reveal what was said and what was promised. But if such a discussion did NOT take place, we urge Muslim and Jewish people to engage in one very similar very soon. Why? Because, if we fail to do so, things WILL get far worse before they start to improve. We know already that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are widespread in Europe and the UK. The longer that Muslim and Jewish people fail to resolve the problems that divide them, the more that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will manifest themselves (although it is obvious that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not a “product” of unresolved problems between Muslim and Jewish people alone).

The Act of Rembrance

The Act of Remembrance

Before Muslim and Jewish people allege that the sort of conversation outlined above is unimaginable, just consider this. Four days ago we brought together a few Muslim, Jewish and atheist friends so we could exchange thoughts inspired by the courageous decision of Newcastle CE diocese to organise the act of remembrance (we communicated intermittently by email for over five hours). All nine people involved agreed with us that a wonderful opportunity had been missed to initiate meaningful discussion at a local level that could possibly have sent beneficial ripples much further afield. Together, the nine of us came up with the formula of words above (in other words, the conversation above is an example of Muslim, Jewish and atheist people working together). Yes, the nine of us were in agreement that, in an ideal world, the above is what Muslim and Jewish people should be saying to each other to improve relations between the two communities. But you know what? Only three of the people who helped draft the conversation are willing to be identified by name because they fear that their ethnic and/or confessional group will disown them (for this reason, all nine people will remain anonymous). Pathetic? Yes it is. It is pathetic that you might be disowned because you wish to acknowledge past and present injustices and point people toward peace.

Oh yes. The same group of nine friends agree with the statement above, that the “longer that Muslim and Jewish people fail to resolve the problems that divide them, the more that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism will manifest themselves.”

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

But let’s end on a positive note. Many thanks to Newcastle CE diocese for arranging the act of remembrance. Many thanks to the few spokespeople who examined the world from outside the confines of their narrow ethnic and/or confessional boxes. And many thanks to the few spokespeople who could find words of universal rather than mere sectarian relevance. But the act of remembrance remains, at the most fundamental and meaningful level of all, a lost opportunity of considerable proportions (unless the imagined conversation above DID take place, or takes place very soon).

P.S. I (Phil is writing now) have just received the following from someone who used to be very active in interfaith matters in North-East England but has since moved to another part of the country where her efforts to bring people together are much valued. She is Jewish:

Anonymous spokespeople for sanity, you have confronted Newcastle (and perhaps even the North-East region) with a challenge it needs to respond to in a positive and constructive manner. If you are correct, the Muslim and the Jewish community representatives missed the chance to use the act of remembrance to begin dismantling barriers to interfaith harmony and understanding. Time and time again, when I attended interfaith events in Newcastle, I was told that the city has faith groups that are constantly in discussion with one another and working towards peace, interfaith understanding and justice for all, not least justice for those with whom we are frequently at odds. I must be honest: this is simply nonsense, and nonsense despite the tireless efforts of remarkable people such as Hari Shukla, and people within the CE diocese who have for years tried to encourage the faith groups to shed their narrow sectarian preoccupations.

Now would be the perfect time for Newcastle’s faith communities to live up to their much-vaunted reputation for working towards peace, interfaith understanding and justice for all. And, as a Jewish person profoundly concerned by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe (and the rising tide of Islamophobia, for that matter), I think it is the responsibility of the city’s Muslim and Jewish communities to begin immediately to dismantle barriers to meaningful discussion about problems of mutual concern. I am an optimist, despite everything, and know this can be done. And I believe that, if Newcastle can do this, Newcastle can impact positively on other parts of the country. Dare I suggest Newcastle might even impact on the mess that is the Middle East itself?

One last thing about your imaginary conversation about Muslim and Jewish people offering to assist each other as they combat injustice, etc. If Muslim and Jewish people cannot give substantive expression even to your imaginary conversation (and some Muslim and Jewish people will be unable to get even that far, I fear), what hope is there? Very little. But you have clarified exactly what should be done as a meaningful first step.

I am therefore issuing a challenge to the Muslim and Jewish communities of Newcastle. Admit that there is right and wrong on both sides. Identify the aspects of injustice that must be addressed. Set up a group of Muslim and Jewish people who acknowledge what the aspects of injustice are and take action to promote justice for Muslim and Jewish people alike. We will then have a situation in which Muslims are campaigning for the rights of Jewish people and Jewish people are campaigning for the rights of Muslims (albeit in Newcastle only, at first). What could be more sensible and reasonable, not least in so far as both communities allege that they are committed to individual, civil, community and human rights. But we cannot be advocates for justice, committed to diversity or described as empathetic people if we are committed to OUR individual, civil, community and human rights alone. If WE benefit from such rights, WE must ensure everyone else also benefits from them. This is an aspect of the golden rule and, as a Jewish person, the golden rule inspires my actions on a daily basis.

You won’t be surprised that this courageous woman does not want to be identified. What a dire world in which we live.

By the way: I support every word she has written. You, the readers of the post, are reasonable, responsible, informed and empathetic people, so I know you will support her every word as well.

The Act of Remembrance

The Act of Remembrance

P.P.S. I’ve been asked what an atheist or a humanist might have said during the act of remembrance, had the opportunity arisen for an atheist or a humanist to speak. I cannot speak for all atheists, obviously, and, although Humanism is a belief system with which I have immense respect (it is one of the few belief systems, religious or otherwise, that makes a lot of sense), I do not define myself as a humanist. This said, I would have liked to hear someone say the famous comment originally attributed to the remarkable film-maker of Spanish origin, Luis Bunuel. Bunuel is reported to have said (and I hope my paraphrase encapsulates the essence of his wisdom), “I admire the person who seeks the truth, but live in fear that one day the person finds it.” As we all know, it is often those who think they possess the truth that want to impose their truth on others. Therein lies tyranny. Therein lies extremism. Therein lies the denial of individual, civil, community and human rights.

P.P.P.S. Just before uploading this post, the following exchange of views took place between Sohan Singh and me. Sohan:

The act of remembrance (for the people murdered in Paris) was held yesterday in my area and was well attended. People from different religious traditions recited their respective prayers, but the Muslim representative lamented that the Church of England had not organised a similar event last month when the Taliban murdered about 150 people, most of whom were children, at a military school in Pakistan. After the Muslim representative had spoken it was my turn at the podium, so, before giving my presentation, I praised Mr. R. for pointing out that atrocities have occurred in parts of the world other than Paris.

After the reciting of prayers we chatted for a few minutes in small groups. A senior police officer pointed out that they are very aware of Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria, but nothing like their mass killings could happen in this country (the UK).

It suddenly occurred to me that we were all speaking from our narrow sectarian perspectives. What would Nigerians say about an act of remembrance that only recalled the recent events in Paris? And what would Christians and other minorities living in Iraq and Syria make of such an act of remembrance when they face genocide at the hands of ISIS?

We are all far too parochial in our outlooks.


Can I congratulate you, Sohan, for your ever-so-perceptive point about how we are still locked into seeing the problems of the world from our narrow confessional/religious and/or ethnic point of view. This is precisely the criticism that, for me, was most obvious about the act of remembrance last week (although I congratulate the Church of England for arranging it at such short notice and I think the diocese did the best possible job that it could. No other faith group than the Anglicans could have brought together people of so many different backgrounds so quickly). Only two or three spokespeople found words that had a universal ring to them or suggested they could look at problems from a perspective other than that of their religious or ethnic group. We have a long way to go before interfaith dialogue becomes meaningful.

When I upload the next post on “Faith and Belief Forum” (this post, in fact), you will find that it is precisely this idea (we are too parochial in our outlook and, consequently, not yet in a position to resolve many of the most serious problems currently confronting humankind) that enlightens the text. In fact, your comments confirm I MUST upload the post. It will appeal to people with perceptions not significantly different to yours.

P.P.P.P.S. This is a much-delayed post because I wanted a number of trusted, detached, objective and perceptive people to critically evaluate it before it entered the public domain. Such people, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Bahai, Hindu, humanist and atheist included, have engaged in such critical evaluation and I now feel it deserves exposure. But will anyone rise to the challenge described above? Time will tell.

Oh yes: the criticism levelled at the diocese for not arranging an act of remembrance following the terrible events in Pakistan (when the Taliban murdered about 150 people, most of whom were children, at a military school) is most unfair. In a case of such brutality committed by Muslims on Muslims, it is mosque leaders who should arrange such acts of remembrance. Moreover, for such acts of remembrance, it is mosque leaders who should reach out to people of all faiths and none to show solidarity with Muslims ashamed of and/or disgusted by the actions of co-religionists capable of such crimes against humanity. We are all on a steep learning curve, quite clearly.

Je suis Charlie, Je suis Juif, Je suis Ahmed: c’est fini?

If only. I fear that the events this week in France actually mark a beginning, and a beginning which will lead to more blood and hatred.

Frank Fateh Singh, a Sikh based in the USA, wrote to me the other day to say:

There are two important values here that can compete with each other: there is the commitment to freedom of expression and the commitment to freedom of religious expression. I maintain, as a devout but far from perfect Sikh, that the latter must take precedence, particularly in these troubled times. I would put it this way. My religion may not be the same as yours, but I will neither denigrate your faith nor will I satirise it.  Responsibility should NOT be thrown out of the window in the interests of freedom of expression, particularly if the only result is some short-term humour. I am as opposed to poking fun at Jesus, Moses and the Buddha as I am to poking fun at the prophet Mohammad.

When Frank engages with “Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie (postscript)” he will see that, far from the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists acting irresponsibly, they have been acting responsibly by exposing the absurdity of Muslim and other manifestations of religious extremism, and, in the process, emphasising that, if he were alive today, Muhammad would be profoundly disturbed by what extremists are doing in the name of Islam. When people in the name of religion behave contemptibly (or in ways far worse than contemptibly, as recently in France), they deserve to be treated with contempt. However, the key thing is to target the people worthy of contempt (in this case, the people who subscribe to extremist interpretations of Islam) and not innocent bystanders (in this case, the great majority of Muslims who agree that people should live in the ways that they wish to live, especially if, in so doing, they do no harm to others).

The murder of the young female police officer and the siege at the kosher supermarket (hence “Je suis Juif” in the title of the post), both in Paris, confirm that it was neither satire nor cartoonists’ “contempt” for Muhammad or Islam that led to the unforgivable events at the offices of “Charlie Hebdo”. The murderers sought to inflict permanent damage on their stereotyped (and therefore highly selective and inaccurate) image of how the French see themselves. But the murderers did not appreciate that the French do not have a single image of themselves. For all the emphasis that France places on assimilation rather than integration, French society is as diverse and as fragmented as society in every other major developed nation state. The murderers may think that they were striking a blow against a detested version of Frenchness, but they were not. By attacking the offices of “Charlie Hebdo” they singled out a target that represented only a small section of French society (this is confirmed in what routinely are the magazine’s very small circulation figures), and a section of society frequently at odds with ALL faith groups represented in France AND many sectors of the French secular establishment (I admire the cartoonists’ even-handedness. If only we could all be so even-handed). But the murder of the cartoonists, the murder of innocent police officers and the siege at the kosher supermarket (where four hostages died) have done more to unite (albeit temporarily) the great majority of French citizens than anyone would have imagined possible (and this therefore means that, when “Charlie Hebdo” is next published, the special edition of one million copies that roll off the printing presses will be snapped up by many people who, until before this week, felt almost as much disquiet about the magazine’s content as Muslims who lack a sense of humour or a much-needed sense of proportion).

Initially, the new-found sense of unity and common ground among the French people will find expression in dignified and restrained responses to the needless murders and deaths of the last few days (note the very large and extremely moving gatherings of people of all backgrounds that began on the night of 7th January and have continued through to their climax on 11th January), and in pronouncements from leading national and international figures that the French must remain true to the most laudable values said to underpin that much-discussed concept of French civilisation. But, in time, the cracks within French society that existed before the last momentous week began will reassert themselves and the far right in particular will engage in increasingly damaging attacks (verbal and physical) against Muslims and their property. It is at this point that those who are in sympathy with what the murderers have done (sadly, there are such people, and they exist in larger numbers than we would like to imagine) will feel they are winning.

It is already the case that, every year, Jews in quite significant numbers migrate from France because of problems they encounter with their Muslim neighbours and the anti-Semitism that exists among some non-Muslim sectors of French society. I imagine that there are now many more Jewish families in France who feel that this is the right time to leave the nation state where liberty, equality and fraternity will soon be in far shorter supply than they already are (and for this we have the contemptible “Charlie Hebdo” murderers and their sympathisers to “thank”. Yes: blame must be placed where blame lies).

Robert, a self-declared atheist very active in interfaith dialogue in North-East England, wrote to say:

The murder of the young female police officer far from where the carnage was at its worst, and the hostage-taking at the kosher supermarket today (Friday 9th January), confirm that it wasn’t really satire directed against Muhammad and the increasingly fragmented religion of Islam that provoked the attack on “Charlie Hebdo” (such satire was just an excuse for the attack): the assassins had as their target their stereotyped idea of how France perceives itself. What is sad is that there will now be a sometimes savage backlash (which is exactly what the murderers wanted) that cannot help but isolate and then antagonise “ordinary”, “moderate” Muslims (who, of course, have taken insufficient action to confirm that Islam need not be the sort of religion which it increasingly appears to be, in conflict with individual and civil liberties, brutally oppressive, inclined toward genocide – and absurd. Oh yes. At times very, very absurd).

9/11 was one of those moments you knew the world would never be the same again (and thereafter would be considerably worse than for many, many decades). Sadly, the murder of the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists and the related events in France amount to a moment almost as seminal. Moreover, this has happened at the end of a fortnight during which I still have to add up all the reported deaths at Muslim hands (such deaths are mainly Muslim on Muslim). Oh my goodness: I have yet to include in the total the hundred people killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria on Wednesday. Yes: events in France must be seen in their global context.

Thank goodness for the moving and conciliatory words from family members of the Muslim police officer shot dead (hence “Je suis Ahmed” in the title of the post) outside the “Charlie Hebdo” offices, and for the life-saving intervention by the brave Muslim employee working at the kosher supermarket. At times when despair seems the only realistic response, some human beings respond in ways that defy expectations, stereotypes and confessional loyalties. Hope springs eternal (just).

P.S. Sorry: one last excellent contribution to the discussion, this time from the most recent “Hope not Hate” Newsletter printed in the UK:

“Charlie Hebdo” is well-known for its satirical cartoons and articles, a few of which caused deep offence to some. Yet, as one British Muslim tweeted today, those who kill for mere reason of offence have done far more to damage their faith and community relations than anyone with a pen or a cartoonist’s brush.

So today we hang our heads and mourn, and offer our sincere condolences to the families of those killed. Tomorrow, I want to ask you to stand with us as we move to expose the people and ideologies behind militant jihadism, as well as those who would seek to harm Muslims in response.

Yet let us not fool ourselves: a new page has been turned and things could get very difficult in the coming days and weeks.

Anti-Muslim protests are likely to gather pace across Europe, community relations will be tested to their limits and violent attacks could well increase. Under the guise of free speech, it’s likely that the haters will emerge – from both sides – seeking to drag us all down into the quagmire of their hatred and a world which they would happily turn to ash.

Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.

Guess what? I’ve not yet heard a word from people who engage in or are committed to interfaith dialogue that anything will be done locally or regionally in response to the events in France. Pathetic? Pathetic.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie (postscript).

And now a female police officer has been murdered in Paris, the perpetrator of the crime unknown.

It is now about twenty-four hours since I uploaded “Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie” and, on my email, I’ve had a few extremely thoughtful responses to it. People are beginning to realise that part of the purpose of “Faith and Belief Forum” is to encourage a sense of empathic understanding (seeing the world from the perspective of other people), perhaps especially a sense of empathic understanding for people whom we might routinely despise.

The blog would appear to be having its intended effect because Mohsin of Keighley (West Yorkshire), a self-declared Muslim of Iranian origin, wrote to say:

The wholesale destruction of Syria, which has caused the death of almost 200,000 people, the internal or external displacement of another nine million people (yes: the war has created nine million refugees) and the physical destruction of some of the Middle East’s most beautiful towns and cities, many with unique heritage sites, is the result of Muslims fighting Muslims. Syria, until less than four years ago the Middle East’s country with the most exciting ethnic and religious diversity to survive from the past, will almost certainly end up a far less culturally diverse nation state, and one possibly run in the interests of a brutal government shaping its laws according to sharia, a legal code which discriminates against non-Muslims, girls, women, gays, lesbians and many others in ways that no civilised society can condone.

When Muslims next complain about the death and destruction caused by Israeli arms in Gaza or Lebanon (such death and destruction are unforgivable, of course), they would do well to remember what Muslims have done to Syria (and what Muslims have also done to Iraq and Afghanistan, for that matter). In comparison with what has happened to Syria (or to Iraq and Afghanistan), Israel’s crimes against humanity (and Israel has committed crimes against humanity, let’s be in no doubt) pale into insignificance.

Another Muslim, Ahmed from Waltham Forest (London), says:

I am told to accept everything in the Qur’an as God-given, but even the extremists select from the Qur’an only that which serves their purposes. Also, anyone familiar with how existing copies of the Qur’an are said to have come into existence must doubt how human additions and changes can have been excluded from the final text. Why should I interpret the Qur’an literally when commons sense tells me that at least some of the holy book must be the work of man and not the work of Allah?

Mohsin and Ahmed: thank you for restoring some of my confidence in humankind’s capacity to think clearly and with empathy.

Next, something from Sohan, a Sikh living in Tyne and Wear (North-East England):

For a long time, peace-loving people have nurtured the belief that the “pen is mightier than the sword”, but for now it seems that the sword has taken the upper hand and the gun is holding sway. I believe that we Sikhs do not for one moment condone satirising any faith or the printing of cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, or any prophet for that matter. However, one does wonder if it is right to kill eleven innocent people because of the work of one cartoonist. From reports in the press, it is certain that the gunmen knew their real target, Charb the cartoonist, but why then kill his colleagues?

Where is dialogue to clear the misunderstanding and raise the awareness of media people about your faith and your sensibilities?

As a consequence of these brutal murders, there will be much paranoia in France in particular and the West more generally. Burgeoning anti-Islamic attitudes will be grist to the mill for right-wing political parties, and particularly for the Front National, now, according to some people, the most popular political party in France. This paranoia needs to be resisted otherwise the terrorists will have won. We can condemn the perpetrators of the brutal murders, but must not malign the entire Muslim community or subscribe to Islamophobia.

Thank you, Sohan. Now some thoughts/insights I encountered in “The Independent” newspaper (one of the UK’s most responsible newspapers) the morning following the murders. The first cluster of thoughts/insights derive from Jamilla, a French schoolteacher and Muslim aged thirty-four:

Jamilla held up a poster of a front page from “Charlie Hebdo”. It read, “Love: stronger than hate”… Jamilla pointed toward her poster depicting a Muslim man in an embrace with a man representing “Charlie Hebdo”. She said, “I am Muslim and I defend until the end what this poster says – hate cannot win. These killers tried to kill not only people but also the idea of peace and debate. I won’t let them do that and everyone in France won’t let them do that. Mohammad would be turning in his grave. Tonight, we are all Charlie.”

What an astoundingly brave and clear-sighted woman, a woman courageous enough to say, in effect, that nothing – nothing – should be precluded from discussion or debate (no doubt because it is only through discussion and debate that we can hope to arrive at anything approximating the truth), even if discussion and debate cause disquiet or angst in certain quarters.

Mohammad, another Muslim, is described as the manager of a dry cleaning shop near the “Charlie Hebdo” offices. He is quoted as saying:

“A newspaper isn’t a gun. Who was ever killed by a sheet of paper? These men cannot win. We won’t let them.”

Not long after the murders took place, it was confirmed that one of the two dead male police officers was a Muslim. Unforgivable though the murder of the two police officers is, “The Independent” concludes that:

It takes a special kind of brutality to murder a nation’s lampooners and jesters. At 11.30am yesterday, the “Charlie Hebdo” editorial team… were considering returning to one of their favourite subjects, the comical absurdities of extremist Islam… In November 2011, “Charlie Hebdo” published a special magazine “edited by the Prophet Muhammad”. It consisted of cartoons in which the Prophet Muhammad despaired of the brutality perpetrated in his name.

Tell me. How many Muslims do not think that “extremist Islam” is absurd, that Muhammad would not despair “of the brutality perpetrated in his name”? More often than not, “Charlie Hebdo” has reflected mainstream Muslim thought rather than been in conflict with it. Moreover, the reaction of many millions of Muslims around the world who have shown their support for the murdered cartoonists and police officers confirms this is so.

But, just as the murderers no doubt hope will be the case, we must expect a backlash from all the opponents of ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse societies; of “multiculturalism”; and of the free movement of people; and a rise of anti-immigrant populism in more privileged nation states such as our own that have in the past provided a safe haven to refugees and asylum seekers. It is time for everyone to hold their nerve and act in ways that are proportionate (the latter being what the murderers in Paris self-evidently and absurdly failed to do, and what extremists everywhere fail to do. In fact, acting disproportionately may be an indicator that an extremist exists, or that an individual inclines toward extremism).

But participants in and advocates of interfaith dialogue: now is the time to take action to unite all those repelled by the extremists responsible for the “Charlie Hebdo” murders. Moreover, the action taken must engage with people in all communities and be imaginative enough to have some lasting beneficial effect.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughter the innocent (the story with no end)

Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie.

What is there to say? Two or three violent young males shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) murder twelve people in Paris simply because some of the twelve produced a few fairly predictable cartoons about a religion and some of its well-known religious figures, past and present. The cartoonists worked for “Charlie Hebdo”, a magazine just a notch or two more “daring” than the UK’s “Private Eye” (which, in common with “Charlie Hebdo”, takes the quite understandable view that those who engage in reprehensible behaviour – and who has NOT engaged in reprehensible behaviour at some point in their lives? – deserve to be mocked).

“Faith and Belief Forum” has sought twice already to confound the stereotypes about Islam being a warlike, an extremist or an intolerant religion. With timing that is nothing less than impeccable, people who reveal themselves to be Muslim act in ways that confirm the stereotypes.

Perhaps at a moment such as this, silence is the only appropriate response. There are times when one can do nothing but despair about how religion generates problems the contemporary world can do without. If you have a faith of your own, please subject that faith to scrutiny to ensure it does not possess within it the potential that might lead to similar crimes against humanity.

The candles and the arti lamps have been blown out. The scriptures have been wrapped in their protective covers and hidden from view. The pious rhetoric of the devout has been drowned out by the last screams of those who have so needlessly died from their gunshot wounds. Yes: Je suis Charlie, nous sommes Charlie. In a world in which it seems the only certainty is death itself, we must defy those who believe they possess the truth (poor, misguided, tyrannical, ill-informed and life-fearing fools), because those who believe they possess the truth do nothing but burn, burn rather than build, build. Protect us from the bigots (of all religions and beliefs) who would kill us for nothing more than their contemptible “truths”.

Are any of the bigots’ “truths” worth a human life? Of course not. Get real.