I’m still trying to process yesterday’s massacre. It’s difficult to put considered words to my emotions. Usually one wouldn’t have to be considered. When something as awful as the murder of 12 people happens one shouldn’t have to watch what one says. But when a few extremists, from a minority, perpetrate an outrage, the responsible thing to do is moderate one’s reaction.
Muslims are in a vulnerable position in Europe. In an ideal world, these newcomers would be seeking to fit in, rather than to blend in. Part of fitting in, rather than blending in, is looking different. Be it because of skin colour or religious dress, European Muslims do generally stand out. This difference is extenuated by Muslims not feeling obliged to forget who they are, just to make us natives feel more comfortable with change. I like that.
Unfortunately, not everyone does. Even in the best of times there are those whose identities are so fragile or malformed that difference and change feels threatening. It’s a phenomenon that’s made worse in times of economic strife. Europe has obviously been experiencing an economic crisis so the backlash is getting better organised and most worryingly, better dressed.
It becomes more complex when religion is conflated with race. It gets yet more complex when a liberal wants to criticise Islam and finds that the far-right is making similar criticisms and the far-left is acting as an apologist for religious extremism.
So how do I emote responsibly? How do I give words to this fear and rage without descending into the language of hate?
I didn’t feel like this when Anders Breivik murdered dozens of children. Of course no one suggested that those children shouldn’t have provoked a deranged extremist by being members of Norway’s Labour Party. He represented such an insignificant strand of psychotic extremism that I did not feel threatened by his actions. Nor did I have to hedge my condemnation, for he was white and Christian.
I want to be free to attack Islam. I regard it as being as ludicrous a lifestyle choice as Roman Catholicism, but how do I ridicule and other it, without using words that an Anders Breivik would nod approvingly at?
How do I point out the supernatural nonsense, the homophobia and the misogyny? When I criticise Roman Catholicism, no one in Ireland will be worried about their churches being attached, job opportunities lost, their citizenship being withdrawn or their children attacked on the streets. It’s easy being a liberal in Ireland with a bone to pick with the Catholics.
Having a go at a minority, sets off, or should set off, alarm bells in the mind of a liberal. Yes, I could say, but they attacked free speech. They attacked a value as dear to me, as many people hold religion to themselves.
The problem is that I don’t live in a country that takes free speech seriously. I live in a country with blasphemy laws and that bans atheists from certain high offices. What right do I have to feel so offended by an attack on free speech in France, when a satirical cartoon, in an Irish newspaper, depicting Roman Catholic Priests was pulled due to the ‘offence’ some Roman Catholics chose to take?
Should I wait for Ireland to get its house in order before commenting on religious attacks on free speech in other countries? It’s an argument that can be made.
I think I feel defeated. How do I, with every privilege, being born a straight, white man, in Western Europe has gifted me, argue the case for untrammelled free speech? How do I make the case to a gay adult, who has survived all the bigotry this country has thrown at them, that the next generation of gay people must also endure the witless homophobia of the Roman Catholic Church?
I can attempt to explain that if we empower the State to silence Catholic bigotry, we’ve then empowered the State to ban gay ‘propaganda’ as Russia has done. I can attempt to say that the responsibility of people, of good conscious, is to drown out the noise of institutional bigotry. That we must argue for and model behaviour that inspires minorities, that so inculcates them from the hate, that the words and deeds of the tiny minded, becomes wholly irrelevant. I have to argue that free speech is worth suffering for?
Saying those things makes me feel like I am a middle aged man in 1914, urging and cheering the young men off the war, safe in the knowledge that I will never be called upon to suffer their fate.
Do I condemn the cowardice of the Irish mainstream media for not printing any of the cartoons that so offended the extremists? I wouldn’t be the one courting a violent death.
I had hoped that writing this would help me process my feelings and give me a renewed sense of purpose. But it hasn’t. I’m left with the feeling that expending any time, effort or passion on an ideal such as free speech, is merely to display my privilege in garish colours.
Perhaps that’s the point. Free speech does remain a privilege. A privilege, but not a priority?