Monday, January 12, 2015

Responsibility v Truth in the Coverage of the Charlie Hebdo Murders

Montage of the victims from the Daily Telegraph.
Truth can suffer collateral damage when the media tries too hard to be responsible. We’ve seen some of this is in the coverage of the murders in Paris last week.

Many media organisations have gone to pains to stress that the murders have “nothing to do with Islam.” But if the murders have nothing to do with Islam, why did the murderers think that they did?

Anjem Choudray, a British Muslim activist, has made a very articulate (and therefore deeply shocking, of course) case that there is indeed a connection, and that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists pretty much had it coming to them. As he wrote in USA Today, “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.”

Choudray elaborated on this in a remarkable interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on Prime Time. Choudray made the case that sharia (Islamic) law is the only law and, had the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists been found guilty of insulting the Prophet in a sharia court, they would receive an automatic death sentence. Therefore, what happened to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is only what they would have coming to them anyway in a properly-ordered society.

So who’s correct? Is there a connection between Islam and the murders of the cartoonists or isn’t there? Well, that’s not really for anyone who isn’t an Islamic scholar to say.

Islam is different to Catholicism in that there is no pope – there is no one person who can claim to represent all Muslims. The theological tradition of Islam is not like that of Catholicism. Catholicism teaches that scripture is open to interpretation. Islam teaches that the Koran is of divine origin and contains, therefore, the answer to every question that was ever asked or could be asked.

So, there's nobody with whom to discuss and even if there was, it wouldn't matter because as far as an Islamic pope would be concerned, all questions are answered in the Koran.

This makes dialogue over competing values different, and this is the nub of the problem. The west has no business trying to figure out what Islam is or isn’t. What the west has to figure out is how to find common ground between peoples of a different value system.

And this is where we find out whether the idea of multiculturalism is the way to a bright, new world or whether it is a blind alley from which the west has to reverse and re-orient itself.

The hub of multiculturalism is that, while people appear different, they are all actually the same. They share the same values. Contemporary western values hold that nothing is worth killing for. Anjem Choudray disagrees: “Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them.”

Oil, meet Water. Water, this is Mr Oil.

If the central tenet of multiculturalism is that we are all the same, doesn’t this mean that we are monocultural, rather than multicultural? That culture is no more imbedded in us than a hat, something we can take off and put on as we choose? That there are no such things as separate cultures or beliefs or ways of life?

The media are trying to be noble, in their way, in trying to calm raging waters and not make a bad situation worse by inflaming passions that can only lead to pogroms and more pointless slaughter. But they have a responsibility to the truth too, and making sure that we all know exactly what’s at issue here.

The issue isn’t Islam. The issue is multiculturalism, and just how exactly two radically different cultures can conform to one law, before which everyone is equal, regardless of class or creed. The west has believed that this conforming is possible since the end of the Second World War. Events of the past week and, God help us, weeks to come will test that theory to its breaking point.

FOCAL SCOIR: Richard Dawkins should win an award for tweeting the most bien pensant thought of the week. “Ridicule is the best response, never violence,” wrote Dawkins. “Laugh at them, mock their ridiculous beliefs, do what Charlie Hebdo did. Never use violence.”

Very good in theory, of course. But in practice, when a crack squad of Methodist Militia or the Provisional Pentecostal Army break into your office intent on mayhem and getting set to fill you full of lead, you would be best advised not to say something withering about John Wesley, but rather to shoot them before they bloody shoot you.