The pope will punch back, not turn the other cheek

The pope will punch back, not turn the other cheek

Pope Francis was recently asked about the attack on weekly satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Jan. 7 that left 20 dead, including the three attackers who were acting on behalf of al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda said the massacre took place because Charlie Hebdo kept printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and drawing figures of Muhammad is forbidden in Islam. For the magazine, it was a case of freedom of expression, as it has also been drawing cartoons of the Christian prophet Jesus and the Jewish prophet Moses. It has also drawn the pope.

Charlie Hebdo this week published its first issue since the awful attack, with the cover showing a cartoon of an Arab, supposedly the Prophet Muhammad, holding a sign that reads “Je suis Charlie” with tears in his eyes. It was a sympathetic caricature, but it was a drawing of the prophet, regardless of the content.

So it created reactions. The reactions had a lower profile compared to the grief after the Paris massacre, but nevertheless they took place.

In Turkey, for example, daily Cumhuriyet printed a selection from Charlie Hebdo without the cover caricature. However, because two of its columnists reprinted small-sized versions of the cover cartoon in their column, the paper has been targeted not only by religious and nationalist groups, but also by the government. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said his government would not “let the Prophet Muhammad be insulted in this country.” (It has to be noted that Davutoğlu’s participation in the protest rally in Paris after the killings prevented further antagonism in Turkey, as well as in Europe.)

On the day when Pope Francis was asked about the controversy, there was a protest against Charlie Hebdo in the Philippines. The question was posed to the pope on board the Papal plane heading from Sri Lanka to the Philippines.

“It is true that you must not react violently,” the pope began, before finishing in a rather more earthly way. “But if my good friend Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, then he can expect a punch,” he said, pretending to throw a punch in the direction of Gasparri, who organizes his trips and who was standing right next to him.

“It’s normal. You cannot provoke [people]. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others ... I think freedom of religion and freedom of expression are both fundamental human rights. We have the right to have this freedom openly, without offending [anyone],” the pope added.

I believe Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, who hosted the pope in Ankara late 2014, could sign his name under those words.

On the same day, French President François Hollande said in Paris that anti-Islamic acts should be treated and punished just like anti-Jewish ones.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia went a step further and put a ban on cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

We are talking about such a dangerous tension growing across the world that even the pope is ready to throw a punch. This is not quite in the spirit of the Biblical teaching that tells of Jesus turning the other cheek after being hit.

A delicate debate is currently under way regarding the limits of freedom of expression and respect to faith, under the shadow of terrorism sans-frontiers.

Things may turn out very dearly against freedom of expression, as this very political debate is being had with religious references, not rational ones.

Unfortunately, politics - both at national and global levels - is not evolving in a constructive or peaceful direction, at least for the time being.