A protestor wears a mask with the slogan 'Je Suis Samuel' written on it during an anti-terrorism vigil at Place de La Republique (Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

We must get serious about being intolerant of intolerance

History is clear: excepting blasphemy from freedom of expression causes far more and far greater suffering than it prevents

This piece – an argument against the victim-blaming that swirled in the aftermath of the murder of Samuel Paty, and a call for some of the #JeSuisCharlie solidarity we once had – was originally commissioned by Cherwell(Oxford’s “independent” student newspaper) in mid-November. After several weeks of editorial back-and-forth, the paper decided not to run it, on the grounds that it lacked the requisite “level of explicitness about the nuances” for an article on “such a sensitive issue.”

In a Parisian suburb on 16 October, a man named Samuel Paty was beheaded with a meat cleaver outside the school where he taught. The attack took place to exact revenge on Mr. Paty for showing his teenage students Charlie Hebdo’s 2012 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, as part of a freedom of expression class required by the French national curriculum.

While our world has steadily become desensitised to brutal violence and semi-frequent terrorist attacks, surely the decapitation of a teacher, outside his school, for doing his job, should be revolting enough to prompt profound shock and active resistance. And yet, largely, the reaction outside France has been muted at best, and sinister at worst.

For religious violence, the ends will always justify the means, however horrific

At the end of October, POLITICO Europe ran an opinion piece which all but explicitly laid responsibility for Paty’s murder on Paty himself, for “enthusiastically exhort[ing] blasphemy.” The article has since been removedby Editor-in-Chief Stephen Brown for not meeting “editorial standards.” The Financial Times also published a short-lived article in a similar vein, which promptly met the same fate, as did a quickly deleted tweet from the Associated Press. Similar undertones ran throughout much immediate US coverage and Twitter “analysis” – most of which has since vanished – particularly by The Washington Post and The New York Times, which Emmanuel Macron has criticised for “legitimising violence.”

Much non-French reporting and commentary has lifted implicit victim-blaming to its apotheosis, despite the fact that the anglophone, liberal media has spent recent years strenuously avoiding and vehemently criticising the concept, and quite rightly so. Blaming the victims of violence for their own suffering is cruel and irrational; it perverts and inverts our moral condemnation of the worst things humans do to each other. So, what was different about the slaughter of Samuel Paty?

Simply put: blasphemy. While the French variety seems to fare particularly badly, any state-enforced secularism is a mistake and inevitably creates serious problems for itself. It often unjustly impinges on people’s ability to practise their religion as they see fit, particularly notably for French Muslim women wanting to wear a niqab. That itself is a restriction on freedom of expression. Religion is not, never has been, and never will be, a purely private matter, much as most of the West likes to pretend otherwise. Regardless, however clumsily it tramples religious freedom, laïcité is not responsible for the murder of Samuel Paty, nor does it justify murder on the grounds of blasphemy. Nothing can. No one, nothing, is responsible but the executioner alone.

If we give freedom of expression an exception clause for blasphemy, it won’t only be French schoolteachers discussing principles of liberty who will find themselves doomed. It will be all of us.

Mitchell and Webb’s classic sketch, “the passive aggression of the Christ,” features Robert Webb, dressed up as Jesus Christ, carrying the cross. He turns to the jeering crowd with a mild scowl and says, “It’s fine, I’ll carry it!” before trudging on. The joke depends on a basically stupid wordplay on “the Passion of the Christ.” It also ridicules the torture of the Son of God – humanity’s saviour – and the crescendo towards the moment of single greatest importance in Christianity: the crucifixion and resurrection.

Excepting blasphemy from freedom of expression causes far more and far greater suffering than it prevents

If those reporters and commentators universally applied the logic they implicitly applied to the murder of Samuel Paty – if, in any way, they truly believe blasphemy justifies violence – they would find themselves at least partly advocating and justifying the execution of David Mitchell and Robert Webb; the application of thumbscrews to Richard Dawkins; placing people who casually drop the exclamation “Jesus Christ” into conversation in the stocks to be publicly shamed; the deployment of waterboarding, the rack and deliberate limb dislocation as performed by the Spanish Inquisition; the burning of Protestants by Mary I and the live disembowelling of Carthusian monks by Henry VIII; the expulsion of Jews from England and Wales in 1290; both sides’ actions in the 1969 Gujarat riots which saw the killings of hundreds of Indian Muslims and Hindus; both sides’ bombing of thousands of civilians in Yemen as an extension of the ongoing Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war, defined by Sunni-Shia tension; the list goes on indefinitely.

Privileging the beliefs of certain groups by insulating them – legally or culturally – from certain types of speech doesn’t just harm intellectual freedom, it inevitably hands power and moral justification to those groups, which then gets used to the detriment of others with equally valid religious beliefs just as deserving of that protection, whether through violence, social persecution or exile. History is clear: excepting blasphemy (or heresy) from freedom of expression causes far more and far greater suffering than it prevents. For religious violence, the ends will always justify the means, however horrific.

In the context of violence, it does not matter how distasteful or disrespectful or cruel those cartoons were. If blasphemy is an exception to freedom of expression, if it is a justification for violence, then our future is damned to repeat the endless sectarian violence and theological vitriol of so much of our past, and that much of the world continues to suffer. This is not something that anyone should want for their own faith, nor for anyone else’s.

Samuel Paty was an innocent man whose brutal murder should be mourned, and the murder itself – as well as the implications of much of its coverage (and the lack thereof) – should be a cause of concern for all of us, for people of all faiths and none.

This brings us onto the United Kingdom, its institutions, and our university. After the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, there was widespread international anti-terror solidarity in defence of free expression, in this country as much as anywhere else. “#JeSuisCharlie” was everywhere. Looking back on 2015, and thinking about the last few weeks, it is now very much “Nous étions Charlie.”

There has been no recognition of the attack and its significance – which is just as great as in 2015, if not more so, involving the freedom of expression of a teacher, of all people – let alone condemnation, and certainly no “Je suis Samuel” expression of solidarity from the Government, nor the Opposition, nor the National Education Union, nor the University and College Union, nor Index on Censorship, nor the University of Oxford.

In 1945, Karl Popper identified the toleration paradox: if a tolerant society is limitlessly so, it will eventually be destroyed by intolerance. If intolerance towards the criticism or lampooning of certain ideas or beliefs is tolerated, then intolerance between differing cultures and beliefs will become the norm, thereby undermining their ability to harmoniously co-exist.

If we are serious about living in a pluralist, multicultural, peaceful, and just world, we must get serious about being intolerant of intolerance. This applies to all of us, but most especially to our academic institutions; no teacher should live in fear for what they teach their students. No atheist, agnostic, or believer should have the right to dictate what others may or may not say about them. We must all regrow some of the backbone we had in 2015 and stand up for inter-religious harmony and for liberty. Vice Chancellor, in an institution as ancient, hallowed, influential, devoted to education, and dependent on free expression as ours, it really ought to start here.

I urge anyone to sign the open letter to Louise Richardson, which is still accepting signatures, and awaiting a response.

If we have forfeited our ability to robustly defend the principle of a free society, then the battle is already lost

It is disappointing that while Cherwell felt comfortable commissioning this piece, it could not bring itself to publish it and risk disturbing the “sensitivities” that surround the matter. For an article that decries media coverage more interested in Samuel Paty’s blasphemy than it was in his murder, the irony of its fate is not difficult to make out. Standing up for a free and peaceful society in which all religions can happily co-exist matters. Sometimes, it takes backbone. I was glad – when the piece was commissioned – that Cherwell seemed to have that strength and courage of conviction. It seems I was mistaken. This decision, and the weeks of dithering that preceded it, is far more saddening than it is angering; I bear the students who made it no animus. It’s telling, too. If we have forfeited our ability to robustly defend the principle of a free, peaceful and pluralist society, on the grounds of it being too “sensitive” an issue, or out of fear, then the battle is already lost. Popper would have his head in his hands.

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