Sometimes there is a moral duty to mock religion

Charlie Hebdo editor Charb, who was murdered yesterday) AP Photo/MIchel Euler)

One of the great, tiresome clichés of online debate is Christians responding to criticism of our faith by telling comedians: “You wouldn’t say that about Islam, would you?”

Well, of course not. But what’s your point? That we should be more like Islamists and seek to physically harm those who mock our religion?

The real point is that Christianity is bigger than that. If Catholicism did not emphasise forgiveness, if its holy book encouraged us to physically destroy its critics, if it advocated the death of apostates, then I would leave it today and spend my life denouncing the religion without caring whether anyone called me a Romophobe.

Not that there isn’t truth in Christians’ challenge to their mockers: the whole point of satire is that it should make fun of the powerful and so shame them into changing their ways or make the rest of us fear or respect them less.

Charlie Hebdo “did say that about Islam”. It took satire to a heroic level, in a way that shames journalists and artists who consider themselves transgressive or edgy. British satire is famously un-edgy, and will never steer outside a comfort zone as small as one of those BBC green rooms with copies of the Guardian and Independent on the coffee table. It took Radio 4 about five years to even make a joke about the current US president.

We live in a society in which “controversial” has become broadcasting code for “political opinions we deem unacceptable” and in which the only institutions that can be mocked are those that lost power 40 years ago. Those taboos that will really endanger your employment opportunities are never broached. As for the one that will get you killed – mocking Islam – no one dares.

Of all the idiotic comments made following yesterday’s Paris massacre, this editorial by the Financial Times’ Europe Editor stood head and shoulders above anything else, criticising Charlie Hebdo for “mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims”. This is partly the logic of the Islamophobia industry and the victimhood narrative: that Muslims are so sensitive and defenceless that they can’t help but respond violently to anyone making fun of their religion.

The point that seemed completely lost on the FT is that, while mocking a religious group may be unkind, once members of that group begin to threaten people for doing so then making fun of them becomes a duty. As Douglas Murray pointed out in his booklet Islamophilia, once we can freely make fun of Islam then people should stop doing so, because it would just be unpleasant and rude. Until then, we have a moral duty to do so.

Charlie Hebdo made fun of everyone – including Catholics and Jews – in a way that was crude and offensive. But no one was obliged to buy the newspaper. Some Catholics stopped reading the Times after it printed a cartoon with Benedict XVI wearing a condom on his head. That’s what religious people should do with publications that offend – don’t buy them.

In that cartoon the Times was criticising the Church’s response to the Aids crisis in Africa. That’s their call. All newspapers, like any commercial venture, must be careful about offending and losing customers – it’s how the free market encourages politeness and tolerance. But when people start censoring out of fear that is another thing altogether.

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion