Cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad: poking fun or insensitive bigotry?

Samuel Paty was a teacher who was killed and beheaded in a Paris suburb. He is said to have died because he showed and discussed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad with his pupils. In the wake of his killing, thousands in Paris and other French cities have demonstrated against this brutality.

There’s something so primitive about beheading that we react with revulsion, even though it’s arguable that once you’re dead, it doesn’t really matter what’s done to you. The core question here is, can religion – or anything else – be satirised or mocked in the name of free speech?

Most of us would instinctively say yes it can – that criticism or mockery are part of our human rights, especially in the Western world.  But let’s think for a moment.

The journalists at Charlie Hebdo who first published the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad argued that nothing and nobody should be off-limits in terms of humour and mockery. Our reflex action tends to be agreement with this proposition. But what if, following the attack on Charlie Hebdo, or following the beheading of Samuel Party, a publication had produced a  written article or a series of cartoons mocking the death of the Charlie Hebdo journalists or the death of Samuel Party? What would have been the likely reaction of the public?

It undoubtedly would have been outrage, that the taking of  human life, which we hold as sacred, should be laughed at.  Locally, few of us can forget the “Trick or treat?” cry of the loyalist killers who left eight innocent people dead in a Greysteel pub in 1993. The killings were barbaric; the mockery rubbed salt in the wounds of the victims.  No one, I’d suggest, would attempt to defend such mockery.

But as most of us hold such mockery inhuman,  because it laughs at what we hold dear, so too the Muslim attackers on Charlie Hebdo and on Samuel Paty held the Prophet Muhammad as something precious, sacred, not to be mocked.

Too many of us find it easy to go with the notion that nothing should be safe from criticism and mockery – until mockery is made of something we hold dear, in which case we instantly denounce it.

And yes, Virginia, I know we’re used to sectarian taunting here and always have been. But because something disgusting is commonplace and widespread doesn’t mean it should be condoned.

There are things that we all value, hold sacred, and mockery of those things is clearly unacceptable. Maybe we should keep such matters in mind when we respond to the killing of Samuel Paty and Charlie Hebdo staff.

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