I suppose it was inevitable that the Charlie Hebdo killings would result in an(other) unpleasant swathe of Islamophobia (even though blaming Muslims for terrorism is as logical as blaming everyone in the disc jockey profession for child abuse). I usually read about it second hand, given my general avoidance of comments on the Daily Mail website (not to mention the Daily Mail) and I wasn’t expecting to be confronted by it in Stephen Fry’s blog.
He probably doesn’t see it as Islamophobia, though his phrase ‘reasonable people’s dislike of the faith’ suggests as much. The word he chooses is contempt: whether it is a Christian or Islamic nutter in the news, he tells us, the result is that his contempt for religion increases. Since contempt is what Charlie Hebdo stands for, he sees now as an appropriate time to reiterate his own. (It rather sidelines the issue of freedom of speech, something it is possible to stand up for without either agreeing with or reiterating the thing that was said in the first place.)
I find contempt troubling. Contempt can only exist in the absence of respect or empathy. It is the primary instinct of bullies (and indeed terrorists). I also don’t think it is useful in defining satire, which surely seeks to hold a mirror up to the world and make us confront it: satire doesn’t just mock, it exposes the truth, it asks questions. The enduring quality of The Life of Brian is that it is no mere piss-take but a discourse on faith, and the saddest thing about Malcolm Muggeridge’s smug dismissal of the film was his failure to engage with it, even as John Cleese sat telling him ‘the important thing is that people should be open to the various possibilities and that they should take a critical attitude to them’.
It is equally sad to see a man as erudite as Stephen Fry dismissing Christian and Islamic texts (and presumably all other religious texts by association) as ‘dumb, semi-literate, ill-founded, unreasoned drivel’. It’s as disingenuous a non-argument as Muggeridge’s – moreso, if you consider the wealth of narrative, poetry and history he is dismissing, not to mention that it has inspired. If Anders Behring Breivik and Said and Charif Kouachi increase Fry’s contempt, does he feel it diminish when he hears Bach’s B Minor Mass or sees the roof of the Sistene Chapel? Or is his view of religion informed only by this most selective cross section of Malcolm Muggeridge and the aforementioned deluded pricks?
Because there are plenty of others running food banks or visiting sick and vulnerable people or offering support to those in crippling debt or showing love and bravery in the face of hatred. I know faith is not a prerequisite for any of those activities, but for large numbers of people it is what inspires them. Yes, the same people ought to be able to weather contempt – actually, plenty of us do, though since Fry asks why people are ‘so fucking sensitive about their knowledge’, I would suggest that he of all people should understand how fragile human beings can be when something they care about is laid into (who can forget the haunting sight of Michael Palin on the verge of tears as The Life of Brian is unthinkingly sneered at?).
Which is why contempt is not good enough. Even, dare I say it, when terrorism is involved, because if we make no attempt to understand the human failing that drives ordinary people to such extremes, if all we can offer is contempt, then it will only breed more contempt. Certainly if we don’t show the Muslim community respect, empathy and understanding, it will feed into an isolation that extremists will exploit in recruiting people to their cause, however deluded.
If that’s what comes out of the attacks in Paris, perhaps Said and Charif Kouachi were not so bowel-shatteringly dumb after all.