Are We Charlie?

Charlie Hebdo, the now famous satirical magazine in France that is known for its intolerance of all religions and for mocking all believers of any sort, has become a symbol for free speech after the violent attack against it resulting to the death of eight of its staff members and four others on January 7, 2015 in Paris.

And the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”) is born. When one declares that “I am Charlie” it means that he or she identifies with those who were killed at Charlie Hebdo and is a supporter of freedom of speech.

The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie trended on Twitter. Hollywood celebrities at the Golden Globes showed their solidarity as well via button pins and their mobile phone screens. Except for the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), it seems the #IAmCharlie hashtag has not generated that much support among Filipinos compared to #PopeFrancisPH and many variations thereof. Perhaps because the “separation of church and state,” although written in the Philippine Constitution, is not really practiced in this predominantly Catholic country.

Paris-based journalist Scott Sayare, in his article “The Charlie Hebdo I Know,” which came out on the January 11, 2015 issue of The Atlantic, reported that Charlie Hebdo top editor Gerard Biard described Charlie Hebdo as “an atheist paper, a secularist paper, a democratic paper” and “had done nothing prohibited under French law.” Biard emphasized that Charlie Hebdo is a “French newspaper engaged in the defense of French values.”

The French value they are defending is secularism – the view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil and political affairs. Biard, according to Sayare, believes that “you’re not supposed to use religion for your sense of identity, in any case not in a secular state.”

Secularism is definitely not a Filipino practice. The over-the-top government preparations and media frenzy bordering on OA over the visit of a Catholic pope certainly does not feel secular to me. Secularism ensures that the right of individuals to freedom of religion is always balanced by the right to be free from religion. It champions human rights above discriminatory religious demands. Under a secular state, religious beliefs, ideas and organizations must not enjoy privileged protection from the right to freedom of expression. Individuals have rights, ideas do not. So no belief should be so sacred that it is more important than a human being.

So Filipino separation of church and state? Try saying that to a public school student opting out of the “optional” religion class or a government employee who refuses to attend the bible study required by her religious boss. And what is up with religious statues prominently displayed in government buildings? Or with public, secular events that start with the sign of the cross?

So if Charlie Hebdo stands for secularism, Filipinos are not Charlie. Try mocking Jesus Christ or Pope Francis this week of the papal visit and see if you survive. You may not be gunned down, but you will certainly be shot down by death stares from our self-righteous brothers and sisters who believe that it will be God’s will for irreverent ingrates like you to suffer a bad fate later in life as punishment.

“I amCharlie” also means living bravely, defiantly against the oppressive status quo. Speaking the truth and risking being ostracized. Going against the popular choice. Questioning authority. Witnessing against abuse and corruption. Challenging tradition and convention. Daring to be different in the face of ostracism. Continuing on despite death threats.

But how many of us Filipinos actually live that way?  And what do we do to those who do? Well, we admire them, but only from a distance (in case we get hit by a stray bullet intended for them). Sure, we give them support, but only through our prayers (in case the authorities find out we donated money to what they consider “enemies of the state”). Sometimes we give them awards and invite them to be our guest speakers, especially when they are still considered newsworthy. And then we pity them and secretly think they were not being too smart for putting their careers, their lifestyle, their loved ones, their “peace of mind,” their very lives at risk for a cause that is hopeless anyway. Eventually, we forget about them as we go on living our sheltered lives of privilege and convenience. The rest could barely be bothered to care as they try to not die from hunger and poverty.

Being brave is no longer valued the same way today as it was in the time of Rizal and Bonifacio. Oftentimes now brave is considered stupid (“Mga tanga lang ang nagpapaka-bayani!”). That is probably why there are practically no Filipino suicide bombers. And to think our national anthem dramatically ends with “ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo!” (to die for you). Maybe we should amend that first before the Constitution.

The powers-that-be know that about us. We Filipinos are big on talk but we hardly walk the walk. We only exercise our freedom of speech to gossip, to criticize and judge others. And only behind their backs, never face-to-face. Because we actually hate confrontations, despite what our soap operas portray. We’d rather pretend than tell the truth. To be polite. To keep appearances. To keep the “peace.” To belong. Or to be left alone.

So we accommodate. We yield. We defer. We practice self-censorship. We shut up. We avoid conflict through deception, delusion, and distraction. Also through entertainment and advertisement.

We are not Charlie. And that is why in the Philippines, the sword is mightier than the pen.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, January 15, 2015