VICTORIA WHITE: It is France’s arrogant secularism that is the truly intolerant ‘religion’

Je ne suis pas Charlie. 

A vigil organised by Muslim groups at the Brandenburg Gate, in Berlin, in Germany, in commemoration of the victims of the terror attacks in Paris.

The men who carried out the brutal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and on the deli, who combined killed 17 people, are brutal murderers. My heart goes out to the loved-ones of the victims.

But that doesn’t mean Charlie Hebdo was right to publish its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, either in recent years or yesterday.

That wasn’t courage, that was ignorance, particularly in the context of France, in which Muslims are an embattled minority; they represent between 5% and 10% of the population.

It wasn’t courage to attack a religious figure in a country that is ring-fenced with laws defending its secularism, and in which a young Muslim girl can’t even put on her head-scarf as she dresses for school.

Who is more courageous? The editor and his cartoonists in their city-centre office, feeding the French metropolitan elite what it wants, or the young Muslim girl who puts on her headscarf today and knocks on a door looking for a job?

Or the young Muslim boy who passed the crowds that were queuing up to buy Charlie Hebdo yesterday, as he made his way to his local mosque?

But, no, this gross insult to the beliefs of a beleaguered minority is defended mightily in the name of ‘freedom of expression’. Which means “freedom to say anything that insults anyone else, but nothing that insults me.”

While reading the Huffington Post on the Charlie Hebdo affair, I also read an article discussing the banning of a lingerie advertisement in Australia, because it displayed “a level of sexuality and nudity which is degrading to women.” That’s ironic.

No boobs, then, but a cartoon showing the Prophet Mohammed being beheaded is A-OK.

I realise there is a distinction here. The sexy girl in the lingerie is advertising, while Charlie Hebdo is journalism.

But every society has codes of decency. Every society suppresses comment that it finds distasteful. It’s just a question of deciding what you find distasteful and what you don’t.

I didn’t hear many of the voices I’m now hearing shouting in favour of free speech, when journalists John Waters and Breda O’Brien were being attacked for their opposition to same-sex marriage last year, for instance.

I am in favour of same-sex marriage. But I do believe the media have a right to carry opposition to it in the run-up to a national referendum and, if you don’t, I suggest you reflect before you put on your ‘Je Suis Charlie’ T-shirt.

I agree that Charlie Hebdo had a legal right to publish those vile images of the Prophet Mohammed. The concept of blasphemy is subjective.

But a civilised society should have no market for them. They should fall outside society’s unwritten rules on taste and be deemed gross, bullying, hurtful and insulting to that quarter of the world’s population for whom Mohammed is the true prophet sent from God.

Islamophobia is out of control in the West.

A small example of our complete lack of perspective would be the Financial Times’s special supplement, at the weekend, on Turkey, which depicted the country as being in mortal danger of becoming Islamic.

The UK has more religious influence on its governance than Turkey has on its, with a head of state who is the ‘supreme governor’ of the Church of England and who can’t even marry a Catholic, let alone a Muslim.

Maybe only 18,000 people marched in Dresden last week, at the rally organised by Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA).

But a poll by Stern magazine, before the Paris attack, showed 13% of Germans would attend such a rally if held near where they live, and 29% believe Islam is having too great an influence on German life.

You would think you could catch Islam like the flu. True, thousands are converting to Islam annually, particularly in France, but they are doing so of their own free will.

We might ask ourselves what they found lacking in their own cultures: hope, spirituality, security, love, care, meaning?

We might ask ourselves how France, with the most aggressively secularlised society in Europe, has the worst relationship with Islam? Yes, there is the unedifying colonial history, which has been followed by mass immigration.

But there is surely more to it than that. France is the centre of a secular religion that is grossly intolerant of faith.

What adherents of this ‘religion’ find most distressing about Muslims is that so many of them are openly devout. Muslims don’t do the decent thing and hide their faith. They pray in public, they call their people to prayer, and many of them wear distinctive clothes.

There is nothing else to fear in Islam — one of the three religions which spring from Abraham — than faith itself. Faith will always offer a challenge to secular power; it is provocative in a society that adheres to the ‘religion’ of secularism.

There are lots of reasons why Muslims have done so well in Ireland, and one is that they have been highly educated.

But it is surely also because Irish people do not fear faith as much as people in mainstream Europe do.

Dr. Ali Selim, author of Islam and Education in Ireland, a book published last year, agreed with this point, when I talked to him the day before the Paris attack, about battling Islamophobia. He motioned to the door and said you could put in place whatever security you liked, but your only real security was in education.

I gazed out of the open door and had what seems now like a premonition of attackers racing through it.

Dr. Selim, who is considering being a candidate for the Dáil with Reboot Ireland, makes the case for a middle ground between secularising our schools and leaving them in religious hands.

He calls our only State-run schools, which are under the non-denominational remit of the VEC, a “promising” idea, because they allow for religious education during the school day, according to the different religions represented.

Deny Muslims the right to pray at school, deny them religious education, and they will find it outside school, he says.

But he says that the curriculum on Islam must be written by practising Muslims “who are resident in this country.”

He was impatient when I asked if any country could serve as a model for this inclusive education system and, in return, he asked, “Why can’t we do it here?”

Why can’t we? As a small country with a strong awareness of faith traditions, why can’t we show the world that you don’t fight Islamic extremism with satirical cartoons or anti-terrorism laws?

But you can fight it with an education system that makes Muslims feel free, safe, and valued at the heart of their communities.

Adherents of this ‘religion’ find it distressing that Muslims are so openly devout.

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