The ancients Greeks used to have a custom whereby the public, the demos could hold a mass carnival in the streets once a year where anyone, masked or not, could indulge in self-derision, mock at and insult the Emperor, show disrespect, consume drugs, openly and loudly criticize the functioning of the institutions, and slaves could complain about their conditions and call their masters names. This sort of indulgence and freedom was said to be a sign of a mature civilization.
We could figure out how the demos had a field day in throwing overboard all conventions and rules, letting go all restraint and fear, and open their minds and hearts for anyone to hear. In all likelihood, such a custom was surely meant to symbolically liberate the public from the shackles of submission, servile obedience and oppressive rules.
What we do not know is whether the participants in the carnival invoked the gods to protect them from the oppressors, or asked Zeus to hurl thunderbolts from Mount Olympus, Neptune to unleash a tsunami and Hades to come out and take the baddies away with him to the Underworld.
This passing allusion to the ancient Greece summons a vision of the wonderful world of the Illiad, of gods accompanying warriors on the battlefield, every hero, Paris, Hector, having their own invisible divine protector counselling and guiding them. Images of priests consulting the oracle of Delphis and priestesses burning incense at the altar of Venus, Apollo or Ceres for a good harvest spring to our mind. The myriad of gods did not pose a problem to the Greeks or to the Roman invaders who borrowed all the mythology, neither did the development of science in those days.
Mockery and derision in a yearly mass carnival were certainly a relief to common citizens mostly in an era of unquestionable political oppression. It is an indirect and subtle means of criticism that pervaded art and literature, poetry and drama with jesters, clowns and fools expressing popular wisdom at the king’s court. In modern times, books, muppet shows on television, cartoons, drawings and caricature in the press perpetuate the means of using mockery as a form of expression at least in countries which enjoy a fair degree of political freedom and maturity, where religion does not play an oppressive and authoritarian role.
The French television show ‘Les Guignols’ Mauritians are familiar with is an example of mockery and satire, accessible and comprehensible to everyone, and is quite hilarious and relaxing after a day’s work. It is an accepted form of expression which covers a variety of topics that concern society at large, politics, economics, social issues, wherever freedom of speech prevails. Broadly, just as assessment and mild and harsh criticism of all these topics are accepted in conferences, books, documentaries or films, so they should normally be accepted in the press.
This spirit of public criticism and freedom of expression is deeply entrenched in the Western ethos. Western countries have gone through a profound intellectual development for two centuries, and tremendous economic prosperity for more than five decades, which have had a liberating effect in all spheres of life. Their citizens feel free to discuss the historical facts about Christianity and the contents of the Scriptures. A critical representation of the last moments of Christ in a French film did arouse controversy around two decades ago but not to the point of committing brutal murder of the film producer.
The importance of religion in the life of society at large has dwindled over decades. Otherwise, if ever Christian religious laws were to regulate people’s lives in an authoritarian manner, critics and satirists would lose no time in voicing out their opinion and running down the figurehead of the religion as well as bringing biblical content under harsh scrutiny. Because just as politics, economics, wars and the environment impact on people’s welfare, so does religion logically as far as beliefs, thoughts and dogmas are concerned.
Westerners have by and large gone beyond the intolerance and violence that characterized the Middle Ages in the form of conquests and aggressive proselytism though subtle proselytism in the Asia is still alive and kicking. The kind of intellectual freedom to take on religious dogmas is not espoused by all faiths, however. The point is that countries are no longer living in homogeneous ethnic and religious groups. Europe is essentially Christian, and it has been home to mass immigration on its soil over the last six decades.
The point is: European journalists, writers and intellectuals have overcome numerous hurdles and barriers to secure their hard-won freedom of speech to analyse and present issues that concern their fellow citizens in all spheres of life. Given this kind of evolution, they cannot ignore ideas circulating around them and refrain from commenting on those ideas, whether they emanate from the religious domain or other spheres of activity, just to please sections of their growingly multicultural societies. Yet, this is what is expected of them as regards treatment of religious stuff, at least by some of the believers. It they adjust to such demands, they lose their hard-gained liberties, turning a wilful blind eye to part of the events in the world around them and refraining from stating what they think about those events.
This is what lobbying in favour of religious susceptibilities has produced in the media in some parts of Europe. Journalists have had to set aside their views about real life events in order not to be labelled as “racists” by specific religious lobbies. There has been some sense of guilt in Europe in matters relating to foreigners, which has restrained free speech and forced intellectuals, writers and journalists to keep a low profile. There is quite a lot of self-censorship, a sort of Interdit de Penser which engenders frustration and resentment in a free society.
If anything, satire is expected to fill the void created by censorship, and this is precisely what Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French weekly, has been doing for years, denouncing and exposing issues pertaining to local and world politics, the havoc of wild capitalism, the greed of multinationals, corruption, dictators and so on. The journalists, economists, psychoanalysts and others of this paper were brutally murdered last week while at work in their office in Paris, in the name of religion.
The tragedy for free-spirited people is that many who have immigrated to the continent are out of tune with the historical pace of development of the new space into which they have come. The resulting difference in attitudes has proved to be almost irreconcilable. Hence, the sort of carnage that Paris was witness to in the last week.
* Published in print edition on 16 January 2015