I remember a conversation I had years ago with dr. B.B. Beach. We were both active in promoting and defending religious liberty. Bert Beach was the director of this department for the global Adventist Church, while I was his counterpart in a part of Europe and some other areas of the world. We talked about Scientology. At the time I was rather amazed that Beach was getting involved in defending the rights of this movement in a particular country (I forgot where it was.) I suggested that it might not give positive PR for an Adventist organization to openly defend the rights of the scientologists. I will never forget his reply.He reminded me: ‘It is not difficult to support people whom you agree with to a major extent and whom you sympathize with. But if you are a genuine champion of freedom of conscience and religion you must also fight for the religious rights of people you do not like and people you totally disagree with.
His words came back to me last Wednesday when the media were full with the coverage of the murder of the staff of the French weekly Charlie Hebdo and of some policemen. Of course, I fully agree with all people who believe that a free press is an essential element in a democracy, and that there can never be a valid reason to kill people who disagree with your faith or culture.
On the other hand, such a horrific event as the attack in Paris may not be a reason to put all Muslims in a negative light and to organize anti-Muslim actions. I must admit I see quite a few elements in Islam that I do not like. But I remember the words of my mentor and friend Beach: ‘You can only claim to be a true supporter of religious liberty if you also defend the freedom of those people who have a viewpoint that differs drastically from your own.’
The staff of a magazine as Charlie Hebdo must be able to publish what they want without having to fear for their lives. However, I do not appreciate the fact that journalists ridicule the faith of other people. As a Christian I am annoyed when people ridicule my faith and the Founder of my faith. Therefore, I do not like many of the anti-Muslim cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. I do not find them funny. Likewise, I definitely dislike it when Christian people ridicule other Christian groups, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic. Criticism is all right—and others may also criticize my religious choices. But there must always be respect for the other person, and this may also be demanded from non-Muslims who do not appreciate Islam or Mohammed.
Unfortunately, an event like the attack of last Wednesday further escalates the tensions between the various population segments—in a country like France with a large Islamic community, but also in the Netherlands. The perpetrators of this heinous crime must be punished. But the only long term solution is mutual respect, also when standpoints about religious beliefs and practices diverge widely. For one thing is certain: A lack of respect inevitably leads to increased violence.