Just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, another incident happened in Northern Ireland in which it appears religious fanatics took illegal action because they were offended by artistic expression.
A beautiful and impressive statue of the Celtic sea god, Manannán Mac Lir, was stolen from Binevenagh Mountain in Londonderry. In its place, the thieves left a wooden cross with the words ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ More details are available at the BBC website here. The evidence suggests that the statue was stolen by Christian fanatics who took offence at having any God but the Christian God depicted in the vicinity.
There have been many times in my life where I have been offended by the actions of others. I have witnessed animal cruelty, environmental destruction and members of the far-right marching in my very home town, and every time I saw such things, I felt literally sick with rage. All these things I saw went against everything I had been brought up to believe in about respecting life, being kind to people and animals, and tolerating other cultures. The primitive, animal part of me wanted to physically hurt and destroy the offenders, so I wouldn’t have to look at them any more.
But I never did anything of the sort. Instead, in all these cases, I found other like-minded people and together, we raised our objections. We sent letters to the offenders or to MPs telling them what we thought. We raised public awareness of the issue to try and get more people on our side. We participated in noisy demonstrations and protests. But we never did anything illegal. While we all hated what the offending party said and did, we respected that they had the right to free expression within the law, just as we did.
Which is why I disagree so vehemently with some of the comments that are coming out in the wake of Charlie Hebdo saying that the right to free speech has limits when it comes to religion – in other words, saying that those who insult religion are “asking for it.” I say a big NO to this. Aside from hate speech and other speech that incites criminality, by definition freedom of expression gives us the right to offend. It gives us the right mock religion and any other aspect of human culture without fearing either action by the state or vigilante action, terrorism or otherwise. That does not mean that you are free to say what you like without anyone else countering you (expect to lose friends very fast when you spout unpopular opinions) – but those who counter you must also act within the law. There is NO excuse for murder or any other illegal action against those you find offensive.
If someone wants to make fun of me for worshipping a fox-god, fine – don’t expect me to be very nice to you, but I’m not going to hurt you or do anything illegal in response. And if you want to tell me that my religion is blasphemous to you and offends you, that’s fine too – again, you’ll probably make me very unhappy, but you have the right to say it. And if you take offence at a statue of a Celtic sea god, you have every right to tell the world and protest about it and give people a chance to hear why you don’t like it. But you never, ever have the right to take the law into your own hands and actually destroy the statue. When you think about it, it’s just lazy. It’s just refusing to engage in the long process of protesting and slowly bringing people to your way of thinking. And it makes you look barbaric and idiotic.
And no, I don’t think the entire Christian world needs to be condemned for the actions of a few fanatics.
As for a response to the theft of the statue, I think the best thing to do would be to replace it with 100 more statues. I’d like to see someone try to steal all of those…