For a short while on 11th January 2015, an estimated 1.5 million people were brought together in Paris as a homogeneous entity, along with a further estimated 2.5 million elsewhere in France. They represented huge diversity of race, religion, age, ability, interests and political allegiance. What brought them together for that brief moment was their common protest against the violence meted out to individuals who in these post-enlightenment times, had not broken any law, but had merely exercised their right to freedom of speech. Though few of the protesters might agree with the Charlie Hebdo line, the protest was in defence of their right to express it, and the shared horror at the premeditated violence visited on them.
That spontaneous moment of universal protest is now complete. But the mindless abuse of Muslims was almost immediate. Those aggressive reactions could well seed equal and opposite responses. So the world might continue its progression in the wrong direction, refusing to learn any lessons from the simple minded ‘war on terrorism’ declared by George W Bush after 9/11 and supported by our very own Tony Blair. The time for simplistic generalisations is surely over; the struggle must begin for some deeper understanding on which to base action.
Professor S M Deen, in his book ‘Science under Islam’, outlines the scientific achievements of Islamic societies in the 8th and 9th centuries. During that Islamic golden age, Arabic and Muslim societies made major contributions to philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, optics, chemistry, geography, mechanics and medicine – we still find Arabic numerals to be the most useful. But science is a method, a philosophy and an attitude, which privileges openness, objectivity, experimentation and continual challenge to achieve greater truth. It is this which the conservative orthodox strand of Islam feared as threatening their (unfalsifiable) religious belief.
From that early age, there were two strands within Islam: open, outward looking, truth seeking and progressive on the one hand; closed, inward looking, doctrinaire and conservative on the other. They still exist today. Moreover, within each strand further fragmentation has produced both enlightened moderation and extreme commitment to blind belief. Referring to Islam as a coherent homogeneous whole is nonsense.
The same is true of Christianity. In ancient times, it had its brutal orthodoxy, not averse to chopping heads off for non-conformance. More recently it has still engaged in extremes of violence, exampled by the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Christianity has its more enlightened side too. Its social role throughout the parishes of England has generally been benign. Without demanding fervent compliance over matters of belief – that was a matter for theologians – the church promoted its system of values: honesty, fairness, kindness and respect in relation to fellow human beings. Referring to Christianity as a coherent singular is just as much nonsense as it is in relation to Islam.
Nevertheless, despite their huge diversity of race, religion, age, ability, interests, political allegiance and so on, the 4 million were joined in protest in France because they valued humanity. Being human grants certain inalienable rights. Magna carta specified civil liberties protected by the rule of law. The American declaration of independence claimed all men to be created equal, with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The French expression, perhaps the most eloquent, was simply for liberty, equality and fraternity.
When those rights are threatened, as they were in Paris, then it is surely right that we all protest. And try to avoid the mindless reactions of the past being repeated. Those human rights are now being threatened, less obviously but perhaps more powerfully, by the explosion in inequality throughout the more advanced economies. Equality has gone. Fraternity is fragile. Liberty will be next.