Losing or keeping your head? Free Speech, the Terror and the Religion of Peace.

It was a sobering moment. The priest at mass on Sunday had just heard about the shooting of the Greek Orthodox cleric in Lyon the day before, who is still fighting for his life. He was reflecting on the vulnerability of the French clergy and the Catholic Church here. In 2019, ‘they’ burned 1000 churches down –  three a day on average. The shooting followed the decapitation of a Church janitor and a mother in a Church in Lyon the day before. I have just heard the first news about shootings in Vienna. The media will say the routine stuff: ‘it’s terrorists. We don’t know what kind of terrorists; their motives are still a mystery to us.” They said this about the knifeman in Nice even as he was shouting “Allahu Akbar” while killing. 

No wonder they feel vulnerable here . Not long ago an 84 year priest, Jaques Hamel, had his throat cut at the altar in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy.

This is a writing month, spent in my small water-mill in Normandy and, until Lockdown, Church was allowed up until last Sunday. No longer, but that’s a different story. 

The assassinations of French Christians and teachers kicked off again in a small suburb of northern Paris. A teacher, Samuel Paty – whose job was to teach a moral and civic education course to his kids – showed them the cartoons of Mohammed that had been published by the satirists at Charlie Hebdo. I remember donning my cassock at a small demo and carrying a candle and a sign at the time saying ‘Je Suis Charlie.’ As a response it seems a bit lame a few years later.

So I was astonished to watch an interview with President Macron on Al Jazeera TV. Macron was amazing. He was being asked why the whole Muslim world has turned on him in the last few days.

He chose to make the rights of girls the focus of his response. His argument was very simple. French society was founded after a revolution on the Enlightenment. 

He criticised what he called Islamic ‘extremists’:

“They teach that you should not respect France, that you should not respect our law, that you should in some way turn your back on our laws. They teach that women are not equal to men. They teach that girls should not have the same rights as boys. Not on our soil. I tell you very clearly, not on our soil… Never, never, never will I accept an association, even in the name of a religion, pushing back on those rights.”

I don’t think I have heard a politician in the English speaking world speak or defend the freedom of speech with such determination or clarity. I found myself wondering if you had to have a revolution to learn how to keep your head screwed on and thinking clearly.

The interview suddenly stalled. Macron was formidable on the equality of men and women and freedom of speech. But then he faced the real conundrum that all politicians and social commentators avoid. 

“I am not a specialist in theology, but I have never viewed Islam as legitimising or fostering the recourse to violence of any kind.”

Unfortunately, at about the same time as he was speaking so was Palestinian scholar Nidhal “Abu Ibrahim” Siam. In his weekly sermon in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, he told his listeners that it is a great honour for the Chechen youth to have beheaded French teacher Samuel Paty and it is a great honour for all Muslims as well. He went on to consider the West calling violent Muslims terrorists: 

“Islam has nothing to do whatsoever with the term ‘terrorism,’ except for the terrorising of enemies. The [Quran] says: ‘Prepare for them whatever force and steeds of war you can, in order to strike terror in the heart of the enemy of Allah and yours.” He went on to insist that the only response to France and President Macron is to declare Jihad and that the armies of the Caliphate will conquer Rome and France and remove Macron and his “corrupt” civilisation.

In case you wondered if the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was a fringe extremist enclave (it isn’t), in Pakistan politicians were taking an even harder line against Macron.

Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a mainstream politician and founder of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, urges the Pakistani government to declare Jihad against “those who slander the Prophet Muhammad.” He demanded the government “use the atom bomb” against France and Macron. “[Let] everyone die.” He then declared a fresh Jihad against all those who slander the Prophet.

We should be grateful that nearer home our Muslim politicians take a more irenic view of their task. In Scotland the Justice Secretary has been pioneering a bill that would outlaw ‘islamophobic’ criticism and other hate crimes spoken in the privacy of the home, which would seem at first sight to provide a charter for children to denounce their parents to the police for tea-time conversations.

Is there anyone in the UK who has the courage to echo Macron’s words and principles to say to those who try to close down free speech “never never on our soil?”

Meanwhile in France, the churches still burn and the priests fear for their lives, but at least we can still write and talk about it, thank you M. Macron. 

Naming but not shaming. Fighting back against ‘Cancel Culture’.

I remember those summer days waiting with such delight for the next Harry Potter book. JK Rowling was a genius who brought delight in bucket loads around the world. Her novels were full of excitement and moral depth. But ‘they’ are trying to cancel her; for hate.

This is the new secular blasphemy. Rowling is a wordsmith; words are her skill. She uses them with great care and great expertise. She found herself objecting to the word ‘woman’having its meaning changed; “People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?,” she wrote.

She was told by her critics, the online mob, that in defending  biological reality she was being ‘hateful’ to people who suffered from gender dysphoria; that is people who lived with having a mental picture of who they were as a gender, at odds with the reality of their body and biology.

Rowling tried to explain why when two different kinds of meaning crashed into each other, it was dangerous to allow people’s private maps of meaning to shut down everyone else’s experience.

“If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”

And there you have the heart of the matter: ‘it isn’t hate to speak the truth.’

By some odd route, our society has found that it has different truths in competition with each other. So feminists and their truth about their struggle for power in the world being equal to men, has crashed into the trans community’s truth that if a man ‘feels’ he is a woman, (trapped in a man’s body) he is as much a real woman as ‘a person who menstruates.’

When these two truths crash head on, cancel culture has become the progressive’s weapon of choice.

‘Cancel culture’ is a new phrase. It’s only been around two or three years. It represents something as horrible as it is dangerous. It involves the mob closing someone down, and taking away either their freedom to speak, their job or their place in society.

What is so odd about it is that we have become sharply concerned as  a society about hate and bullying. You would think that if there was any consistency around, anything that acted as a weapon for bullying and hatred would be found repulsive and rejected?

But the opposite has happened. 

A lot of small vulnerable people have been ‘cancelled’. They have lost their jobs, and had their reputations as decent people trashed. No one seems to have been willing to stand up against this politically correct bullying, until they targeted JK Rowling.

It’s just possible she is rich enough and powerful enough and admired enough to see off the mob, but it’s not guaranteed. Amazon is full of fake hate reviews trying to trash her latest book and stop it being read.

I don’t know if the mob is going to be held back by JK Rowling and a few other doughty determined feminists, or if they too will be submerged by the hate mob. The mob see no irony in their vicious bullying into silence people they have identified and accused of being hateful. One rule for them, and another for everyone else.

But I found myself asking how we got here? Just in case there is any chance of escaping from this cultural mob violence in which no one is safe.

A psychologist called Jonathan Haidt found himself asking the same questions and wrote 

a very perceptive book about it. ‘The Coddling of the American Mind.

He suggested that three very well intentioned but utterly disastrous attitudes had been slipped into the education system in America and the anglophile world.

The first was about suffering and took the form of  ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” The second was about the relationship between feelings and thoughts or analysis; and became “whatever you really feel is really true.” The third was that the world was made up not of good and bad ideas, but good and bad people, and you had to destroy the bad people to be made safe.

So we now have a generation who are terrified of suffering and feeling hurt in any way. In fact Haidt felt that the constant catastrophising in the media, was bringing a generation close to a state of almost clinical mental illness.  

One of the most powerful antidotes to depression has been found to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT. At its centre lies the skill of recalibrating feelings so they come second to a more sane and well-judged mental analysis. If that’s true, you can see what emotional paralysis we face by being unable to discipline or re-inform raw feelings in a counselling obsessed culture where getting in touch with feelings has become paramount, and trumps everything else.

Most mature philosophical and religious traditions recognise that it’s ideas rather than the people who hold them, who are good or perverse. So you fight the ideas, and try to change people’s minds. But cancel culture settles very happily for destroying the people.

How do we escape these three disastrous attitudes? We may need to find a philosophy or religious tradition with deep roots that exposes them for dangerous charlatans they are. If schools and universities won’t or daren’t do it, that just leaves the churches. It may be that the sanity of our civilisation depends on a group we have spent the last century ridiculing; to our cost.

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