We live in an era exposed to a broader range of ideologies than ever before. The internet revolution leaves us just a click away from discovering Marxism, Fascism, Capitalism, Atheism, Islamism, Christianity, Buddhism, Nationalism, Multiculturalism, Liberalism, Judaism, and Anarchism, to name but a few. Each is honoured with its own dedicated Wikipedia page, offering a limited, yet handy introduction to its core tenets, and from our own personal experiences – what we see on the television, hear on the radio, learn from our friends and families – we as individuals are each tasked with the challenging responsibility of understanding with which of these complex, nuanced and often contradictory forms do we identify? In what do we believe? For what do we stand? And who am I?! What story can I tell of myself that makes sense amongst the chaos?
One approach is simply to let go of the idea of ‘I’, for there is no self. If we can agree that our existence is only understood in relation to all other things, then to talk of a self removed from context, just like trying to tie down the meaning of a word outside of a sentence, is impossible. We can only be understood in relation to all other things. Who we are in our family, for example, is different to who we are at work, with our school friends, or with our partners. The self is therefore not fixed and separate, to be examined on its own, but in a constant state of flux. Just as the Ganges will always be the Ganges, yet you can never step into the same river twice, we may be called by the same name today as yesterday, but this doesn’t mean that we remain the same.
Considering the absence of self can be illuminating. It doesn’t do enough though to help those, myself included, searching for something that brings them closer to who they are from day to day. A story to tell that makes sense right now. It wouldn’t be particularly helpful if someone asked, “Who are you?” And you were to say, “I’m like a river, in constant flux … ”. Eh?! Exactly. It’s likely to be met with waves of confusion. Unless you’ve fallen into the right crowd at Glastonbury. What we need to discover, and what we long for, is a story that helps to explain our current existence to the people we tend to spend our time with. One that finds sense in the chaos and gives meaning to our lives. One where we belong.
This question of identity is central to the tragic and horrific massacre of the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris on 7 January 2015. Two Muslim fundamentalists born in France, in response to a series of illustrations mocking the prophet Mohammed, stormed into the offices of a collection of satirical cartoonists and shot dead fourteen people. Once the news broke, we as individuals tuned into the global network were left working out what to make of it all.
Many in the West immediately clung to the idea of ‘Free Speech’, believing it to be the pinnacle of civilised society. Before realising that absolute free speech is an absurd idea: we can hardly imagine a utopia where it is ok to shout obscenities in the cinema. Apart from anything, it would remove the virtue of judgement. We do, indeed, in Britain, live in a nation where we can broadly say what we wish, yet there is still a duty to say what is reasonable, to employ some tact. What is ok to mention in one situation isn’t in another, and choosing what is appropriate is the privileged task of judgment.
It was in the name of judgement that some chose to criticise the Hebdo journalists. It was said that they incited violence by making fun of the Prophet Mohammed. To be fair, if Hebdo singled out and derided anyone reading this sentence with the same vigor that it mocks most of the subjects of its cartoons, then it would be unnatural for that person not to take offense, or at least feel some pain. Of course this is not to say that the killings are a justified, proportional response. The playground bully may ridicule you for being you, and that is hardly fair, though it would be even more unjustified to seek vengeance by viciously murdering that bully.
What must it take then, for two people to believe it is appropriate, good judgement, an honour even, to fire a machine gun at a group of journalists. What story did the two gunmen find that led them to commit such atrocities? The simple answer, from a broadly western perspective, is that they found no story, that they are pure ‘evil’, subtly implying that others are not. Notice how the word itself – evil – spelt backwards is live. Evil therefore lies in those who live; the devil in those who have lived. Perhaps that’s what the two gunmen felt? Alive.
One British citizen who left for Syria is quoted to have said that fighting for ISIS is “better than playing Call of Duty”. That fighting for Mohammed offers a sense of purpose to a lost soul. Let us imagine for a moment being born in England of Syrian descent. Seeing images on the television of your ancestors’ homeland being destroyed by drones, often fired by Western Generals sitting safely away from the frontline. Might you decide that something has to be done to fight this force? Might your hands clench? Might you be propelled into action by how you feel alienated in the country in which you were born? Letting this last question linger, we are brought to why British society ought to shoulder some of the responsibility for not providing meaning to those who leave her shores.
At its core, what we are seeing here is a conflict between identities: one that puts freedom as its highest form of development – freedom not to have phones tapped, freedom to have a free press, freedom to believe or not believe in God; the other, one that doesn’t value freedom, but rather follows a particular form of Islam, where infidels – those who do not believe – ought to be killed. The question is this: how do we bring these identities together in harmony? It is certainly not possible for them to coexist in their current form without ongoing suffering, for families, for communities, and for the world as a whole. But for them to live together, it requires flex on both sides.
Those who strive for freedom must realise that paradoxically to be free requires being less free. If we wish to live in a society where it is ok to follow Islam or Christianity, then we must be ready to forgo some of what we are free to say. Not everything will fit with our world view. Some people may take offence. Manners matter. Drawing cartoons that mock Mohammed and saying ‘if you don’t like it, don’t buy it’ or ‘Muslims need to learn to take a joke’ is poor taste and doing little to close the divide between the two extremes. Especially as it is coming from the opposition.
If there is any hope for harmony to be found, identities need to be plied from within. The people most capable of changing our point of view on a particular issue tend to be those who agree with us on the majority of other issues. We think, “Well, we agree on x and we agree on y, for sure, I trust this persons perspective. Perhaps I’m wrong.” As a story to illustrate this idea, take yourself to a time when it was ok to duel to the death. Mano vs Mano. It goes on for centuries. Until, one day, the sons and daughters of the duelers notice that the whole ordeal is ludicrous and persuade their parents that it just isn’t worth the angst. This is what needs to happen across the globe. We need those who have a foot in the door of multiple ideologies to bring people in from the edges. Only then can we imagine a world where there are fewer acts of terror.
Bio: I find it difficult to give a back story, especially as I’ve just been writing about identity. If forced, I’d say I’m fortunate, educated, white, British, and prefer to see the world as shades of grey rather than black or white.