Free speech and the desecration of religion

Free speech and the desecration of religion
Muslim demonstrators protest against the publication of cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad in Charlie Hebdo, in London.

The recent shootings by terrorists in Paris sent shock waves across Europe, inspiring cries that "freedom of expression is sacred." Trying to silence expression by violence is indeed an egregious act. With 17 innocent civilians brutally murdered, it is no surprise that such a strong backlash occurred. The importance of freedom of expression has to be emphasised again since it is the foundation of a society that respects the beliefs of individuals.

However, with this incident, we must not overlook an issue that tends to be overshadowed by the cry for freedom of expression. That is, how does this incident look from the point of view of religious believers? Or, how have religious believers been troubled by Western Europe's deeply ingrained antireligious sentiments?

Western Europe's obsession with freedom of expression is characterized by an intense passion that can be described, not inaccurately, as a "religion of freedom of expression." Looking at the persistence of satirical cartoonists, we realise that there is a cultural and historic background that cannot be fully explained simply by respect for freedom of expression. Their aggressiveness cannot be explained without reference to deep-seated antireligious, atheistic sentiments.

Particularly in France, where the strict separation of church and state is most staunchly defended among countries in Western Europe, and where 40 per cent of people now deny the existence of God, there is a strong tendency to marginalise religion.

It is clear that the spirit of atheism is deeply rooted there. With that in mind, taking a look from the position of a traditional religious believer, the image of modern French society that comes into focus is one of incessant religion-bashing.

First, pressure was constantly put on Catholicism over its stances on abortion, de facto marriages, same-sex marriages and euthanasia, while in recent years with Islam at the forefront, women's veils and head scarves have been prohibited in public places. This time, attacks on religion have continued in the form of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Yes, the satirical cartoons published over the last decade or so can be seen as a manifestation of the French "tradition" of "bashing religions by atheists and the antireligious." That is to say, we must not overlook the fact that there is something deep-rooted in the "nature" of French society that cannot be fully captured by orthodox arguments such as the protection of freedom of expression.

Come to think of it, in France and other countries in the northern part of Western Europe, where secularism and atheism have advanced, many people have forgotten the value and magnetism of religion. Thus, they lack the imaginative ability to comprehend the emotional pain of those who have seen their religious symbols disgraced, which is not the usual case in the United States, where religion is still sound.

That is why many Western Europeans have no qualms about blaspheming about religion. Satirical cartoonists in Western Europe do not seem to be fully aware that they have hurt the feelings of 1.6 billion Muslims. Nor can such a perspective be found in statements made by leaders of the French government.

Yet, since the desecration of a national flag, a symbol of a country, is largely punishable by law, the desecration of a religious symbol is in fact a sinful act. At the very least, shouldn't the act be criticised as uncivilized bad manners, lacking humility? That is why not only Islamic leaders but also Pope Francis have strongly condemned the satirical cartoons, saying that the desecration of religion cannot be tolerated.

In terms of exposure to attacks by atheists, Islam and Catholicism actually stand on common ground as traditional religions. In other words, in Western Europe, religious followers - be they Catholic or Muslim - are directly involved in a confrontation between atheists and religious believers.

This time some media played up a confrontation "between Europe and Islam"- namely, Samuel Huntington's "Clash of the Civilizations"-as a major concern. In reality, however, Islam and Catholicism stand on the same side. A majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims are "anti-atheistic" but not necessarily "anti-European."

It is likely that atheists and the antireligious will be on the offensive against followers of traditional religions on a wide range of issues, from the satirical cartoons and the banning of head scarves to issues of bioethics, all the way to family ethics. This so-called "mini civilizational war" in Western Europe, so hard to comprehend for Japanese who live in a lukewarm religious environment, seems to heat up even further with both Islam and Catholicism involved.

Ueno is a civilizational essayist. He was born in 1948 and is a nontenured professor at Kyorin University and former ambassador to the Holy See.

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