Earlier this week, The Open University published a report titled Religion, Security and Global Uncertainties. It concluded that politicians and the media are taking an overly simplistic view of the causes of terrorism and religious violence and the authors called for a much greater level of religious literacy. Just 24 hours later, staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by men shouting Allahu Akhbar . How can we, as Christians involved in education, respond?
Is it time to follow France’s example and become a secular state? Or is that just to succumb to a bunker mentality? Certainly, many RE teachers felt uniquely placed to lead reflection and discussion on religious violence in a way that teachers in a secular state cannot.
But it goes deeper than that, because it speaks to the very values that unite groups within our society – the freedoms that we have to speak, and write, and think as we wish because we live in a democracy. The debate is not about belief, or religion. It’s about values and the problem created by those who perpetrate violence because they don’t share those values.
Writing in News Letter, Ben Lowry contrasts the difference in response between Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ and Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, both produced in the same year. Both were equally offensive, but the responses from those offended were very different. And why, at least until it was removed following discussion on Question Time, did BBC guidelines state that ‘the prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form’? Are all other faiths fair game? Or does freedom apply to some beliefs, but not others?
Interestingly, despite a call for European solidarity in which every newspaper, broadcaster and platform should publish Charlie Hebdo covers to show that violence and intimidation won’t work, only one newspaper has so far published. Why? What are we teaching our children by tacitly accepting that any one group can limit freedom in a democracy?
Because if democracy means anything, it means the freedom to satirise, the freedom to say and do things that might be offensive and the acceptance that sometimes we will therefore be offended. But when I am offended (which I sometimes am by trolls who attack me for allegedly believing fairy tales), I don’t deal with it by murdering them, because I am a decent human being who accepts that living in a democracy means that they have the right to say what they wish. I wouldn’t knowingly cause offence – others don’t care. That’s life.
So what should we be discussing with our pupils? Is it about developing religious literacy and a vocabulary that increases understanding? Is it about tolerance and acceptance of everyone, even if they murder? Or is it about returning to the core values of our democratic society (with all its inadequacies and inequities) and insisting that those who choose to live in a democracy must respect its values, even if that means they sometimes feel offended?
There is no easy answer, but we need to find an answer which doesn’t include allowing our free society to become dominated by those who use violence to intimidate. We wouldn’t allow intimidation in our playgrounds, so to send a consistent message, we shouldn’t be allowing it in our society either.
So, hands up everyone who remembers The Big Society. It was Dave’s 2009 blue skies thinking idea for the brave new world of his post-election Britain. Underpinned by its philosophy of autonomy and sense of social purpose, he rode the crest of a wave. Has he shaped a socially creative society?
Well, judge for yourselves from the Prime Minister’s new year message for 2015. He says nothing about the morality or humanity of a burgeoning social capital. At the start of a year when he has to go to the polls, the message is almost exclusively about money in people’s pockets, complete with behaviourist overtones of reward (although, notice, no mention of punishment, the flipside of the reward coin). It’s a simple equation. Work hard. We will reward you. Money not morality.
But embedded in the message is one brief phrase, breath taking in its arrogance and its damning assumption about our current culture: ‘we are changing the values of our country’. From Big Society to Big Brother. From autonomy to control. Because any administration which thinks that it can change the values of the society which it governs is one which fails to understand freedom, individuality, diversity and its moral responsibility.
Now, I know that the word ‘values’ had to be in there somewhere because that’s the current mantra. But here’s what Mahatma Ghandi had to say about values:
‘Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values.’