One of the things I got used to being brought up in the UK in the 1970s was bad news. I was a young child when the troubles reignited in Northern Ireland and it seemed that tales of atrocities were on TV every night. The images were always the same: People with faces twisted in anger and hate. The Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the Protestant political party, had a rhetorical style I hear echoed in how some people talk of Muslims in Europe today. "They breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin" he said, referring to the Catholic community. He called the Pope "The scarlet woman of Rome". Of course he was exercising his right to free speech, but it didn't help. Anger begat anger.
Then on 8 November 1987 something happened that changed things - Northern Ireland's version of Charlie Hebdo. The people of Enniskillen were at a public gathering when a huge bomb went off with no warning. 11 members of the public were killed. Even in a country numbed by a decade of violence it caused outrage.
This was when something truly extraordinary happened. A local grocer called Gordon Wilson was interviewed on TV. His daughter had been killed by the bomb. The narrative was pre-written - the shocked relatives were expected to vent their anger and rage.
Mr. Wilson broke with the script.
"I bear no ill will," he said quietly. "I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She's dead. She's in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night."
In a soft, calm voice he offered forgiveness and asked for peace.
For me and many others this was a game changer. I am not a religious person but the humanity in Mr. Wilson's words ignited something in me: an ember of hope. He showed what it takes to break a cycle of hate. He preached love, not resentment. He showed what true leadership is.
There is absolutely no justification for what the two gunmen did in Paris, but like in Northern Ireland to start to understand how to break the cycle you have to understand the history. The two gunmen were born of Algerian parents. Over 90% of France's Muslims are of Algerian decent. The reason for this is that for over a hundred years France colonized Algeria. They forced people to speak French, and converted mosques to Christian churches. They ruled with authoritarian brutishness. The six-year war of independence that ended in 1962 was brutal even by the standards of war. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians were tortured and killed, with French authorities using techniques that give ISIS a run for their money. When the war was over France evacuated nearly a million people, including 90,000 Algerians who fought on their side, causing huge problems in terms of where to house them. This was when the first Algerian ghettoes were established. Many Algerians assimilated, but many more remained marginalized in a culture that really didn't want to look at what had happened in Algeria. France is like Northern Ireland in the 1970s - the wounds are raw and run deep.
With this backdrop the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo take on a different tone. The right for free speech is trumpeted as the reason they are OK but therein lies the fault line that runs through modern secular liberal beliefs - we cannot say that people are not allowed to express opinions we believe to be racist, sexist or engendering hate, then do it ourselves. Offence is in the eye of the beholder, not the perpetrator. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are designed to have the same impact as Ian Paisley when he called the Pope "The scarlet woman of Rome".
In some American colleges a concept called 'micro aggression' is being introduced that says if someone believes you are insulting them based on their ethnicity, gender, sexuality or culture, even if you don't think you are, you probably are - your cultural prejudices are playing out without you knowing it. This is an extreme stance, but there is something for secular liberals to get in it - we don't realize how arrogant we are being in thinking we are above prejudice.
If we are to break the cycle of violence we have to take our steer from Gordon Wilson, stop being Charlies, and grow up. It is not OK to provoke others and ridicule their beliefs. It is an act of aggression. Muslims are part of our increasingly diverse societies and thus to demean them is the same as demeaning people for their ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.
If we are going to make multiculturalism work we need to learn to find our common similarities and learn to love and respect each other's differences, and that includes each other's faith or lack of it. That doesn't mean we tolerate practices and behaviours that contradict the laws of our society - fitting in with them is the deal we make when we live in one country rather than another. But it does mean respecting things that are sacred to others that we may not hold as sacred ourselves. This is what it is going to take if we are going to build truly diverse societies and cultures. It is going to take a new level of sophistication for many to do this, but it is a sophistication we all need to develop if we are to thrive in a dynamically changing increasingly interconnected world.
I pray for the loss of the families of those killed in Paris. I feel their pain keenly. I stand up against those that choose to shoot and maim. I defend Charlie Hebdo's right to free speech. But not what they say.
I am not Charlie Hebdo. I am human.
Je suis l'amour.Suggest a correction