Beyond Charlie Hebdo: The miracle question – free speech, church, state and civil society

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre news coverage was dominated by the vision of politicians linking arms at a unity march in Paris.

These politicians could be neatly divided into two groups: those who actually suppress free speech and those who would like too. The heads of Jordan, Turkey, Egypt (yes Egypt!) Russia and Israel were quick to condemn the terrorist attack. These countries between them have a suite of policies that include jailing those who criticise the monarchy, blocking websites, banning YouTube and Twitter, jailing and/or turning a blind eye to the murder of journalists, banning “gay propaganda”, and so on.

Reporters Without Borders keeps a tally of the oppression, harassment, and murder of reporters. In 2014 sixty-nine journalist were killed as a direct consequence of doing their work. There are currently one hundred and sixty five journalists in jail.

If we truly believe that a free press is one of the hallmarks of a civil society there is still a long way to go.

In Italy the journalist Roberto Saviano has been under heavy police guard for several years. Of necessity he is living in secret locations, ever since he published the book Gomorrah, an expose of organised crime in Naples. There is no one in Italy who is brave enough to offer him a place to live.

In 1999, NATO bombed the headquarters of Serbian Radio and Television. Those killed included a make-up artist, a cameraman, an editor, a program director, three security guards and other media support staff. A Pentagon spokesman told a briefing in Washington, “Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military is”. NATO claimed that civilian communication systems were also routinely used by the military. When complaints were lodged with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, NATO stated,

“[We need to] directly strike at the very central nerve system of Milosevic’s regime. This of course are those assets which are used to plan and direct and to create the political environment of tolerance in Yugoslavia in which these brutalities cannot only be accepted but even condoned. ….Strikes against TV transmitters and broadcast facilities are part of our campaign to dismantle the FRY propaganda machinery which is a vital part of President Milosevic’s control mechanism.”

Within hours Serbian TV was back on air.

Reflecting on examples of this type can lead to fractious debates, attempts to allocate blame and strident claims for the high moral ground.

But it is more constructive to consider this – who has the greatest power and responsibility to avoid bloodshed and promote peace?

In the case of Serbia, Milosevic appealed to long held nationalist grievances with the active collusion of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Church did not speak up for a free press and independent voices were harassed and brutally suppressed. Mainstream Serbian media became a mouthpiece for national and religious chauvinism. Nothing new there. All over the globe, Christian and Muslim religious leaders have ingratiated themselves to state power, with horrendous consequences.

There is no institution more deeply embedded in culture than religion. It offers meaning, it shapes our language and world view. It offers comfort to the sick, the poor, the disabled and the grieving. It offers us the rituals that shape all the major events of our lives. Both the Muslim and Christian worlds have champions of peace and tolerance. (In Australia the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Catholic Commission for Social Justice spring to mind.)

And could anyone seriously challenge the claim that the overwhelming majority of both Muslims and Christians simply want peace and prosperity?

There is however an anti humanist strain in both Muslim and Christian doctrines – doctrines that preach apocalypse, judgment and jihad. There is no doubt that in the Milosevic era, Serbian Radio and Television was indeed pumping out a toxic mixture of sectarianism and national and religious chauvinism. Worse still opposition was censored and brutally suppressed. And all of this happened with the active support of the Serbian Orthodox church.

This collusion of church and state now also underpins Russian politics. When three members of Pussy Riot were jailed for staging a political protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church said that they were “doing the work of the Devil“. Pope Benedict supported his view.

In the Muslim countries, wherever possible, both Sunni and Shia use state power to promote their sectarian rivalry – a rivalry that fuels most war between Muslim countries, creates millions of refugees, and internal oppression of whichever group is the poorest.

It is time that the leaders of these great religions stopped pandering to state power to garner a share of it, and represented the interests of their own congregations.

In response to an attack on a Synagogue in Denmark by a Danish-born Muslim, hundreds of Muslims in neighboring Norway formed a human shield around a Synagogue in Oslo as a symbol of solidarity with the city’s Jewish community.

After the tragic hostage drama in Sydney last December, many will recall the Sydney woman Tess Kum who tweeted, if you regularly take the 373 bus between Coogee and Martin Place, wear religious attire and don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. This message quickly went viral and similar offers were made across Australia.

Despite the hypocrisy of our politicians linking arms in the Paris post Charlie Hebdo demonstrations, I would much rather see them there than not. And I would like to see their religious counterparts with them.

I will not republish bigotry or sectarian nonsense, but I will ride with those who value peace, respect for cultural diversity, and freedom of worship.

Why can’t our religious leaders do the same?

When working therapeutically, one of my favorite techniques is to ask the “miracle question”. In this instance – if the world were to miraculously change overnight whilst you slept, what would you notice on waking, that would indicate the problems you were worrying about had been solved?

Easy- the world media would report the following;

  • The Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe has invited Roberto Saviano to stay in the Archbishop’s residence, and to travel on public transport with him whilst he looks for a place to live.
  • Kirill, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church has condemned the civil war in the Ukraine and called on the Russian government to stop aiding and supporting the separatist rebels.
  • Kirill is also planning to travel to Rome for talks with Pope Francis about their shared concerns regarding the connections between state bureaucracies, organised crime and multi national corporations in many countries.
  • The most senior Shia and Sunni leaders across the world have organised a conference with the following agenda; respect for emerging secularism is some of the Muslim nations, a call for the immediate laying down of arms within and between Muslim nations, and the provision of immediate relief for the millions of people displaced by war.

Why not?

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