Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Truth in Pope Francis’ Charlie Hebdo Remark

When death threats and riots followed a Danish newspaper’s publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad back in 2005, I found myself in agreement with most Westerners. Liberals and conservatives both argued that Europe’s Muslim communities needed to learn to live with the long-established traditions of free expression in the nations they’d immigrated to. At that time I’d have been happy to see more western European papers reprint the comics, if only in brave defiance of the threats. Likewise immediately following the Charlie Hebdo attack: I found myself agreeing with a friend online that the best thing Westerners could do in response was “draw Muhammad”--keep printing such images until the jihadis realized that the more they attacked, the more their icons would get tarnished.

Then I went and looked through more of Charlie Hebdo’s content in recent years. I no longer felt so convinced. In some ways I could say, yes, “Je suis Charlie”, but in others, no--I was not Charlie at all. The artists working at Charlie have busied themselves not merely satirizing or criticizing the excesses of some Muslims, but aggressively heaping muck on whatever Muslims hold sacred. As they have with any and every other religion.

I think Pope Francis’s recent in-flight comment on the attack, though his words were somewhat ill-chosen, was essentially correct. The right to freedom of expression must be defended, but such freedom has limits. When you wantonly attack what is sacred to millions, you should expect fury in response, and this fury is bound to provoke reaction. As the Pope indicated, reaction is only natural. That the jihadis’ threshold of tolerance is so low, that their resort to physical violence is to be condemned, doesn’t however refute the general truth: there are things people hold sacred, and one shouldn’t trample on them to provoke.

Whereas before I saw Muslim intolerance for such cartoons to be mainly a problem particular to the Muslim religion, I now see these events linked to a wider variety of extremisms at work in the world.

As Westerners we have ourselves fallen prey to certain dangerous kinds of extremism. For one, the extremism of our own market fundamentalists, in the form of neo-liberal capitalism, risks destroying the ecological fabric on which humanity depends. It is obvious to myself and many others that the environmental threats our civilization now poses are much more dangerous than any radical religious movement. And yet how many of us have gotten to the point where we recognize the obvious truth: This is truly a problem of extremism, of radicalism, run rampant in our dominant culture. It is an extremism that insists the planet exists as raw material for a market, and that the planet as well as its populations must submit to the dictates of this “free” market. Submission to the market is called “progress”.

This extremism ultimately threatens all of us and all we hold dear. And the weapons it wields and the forms of ideological persuasion it has in its arsenal far outweigh anything ISIS can muster.

Second, there is the extremism of our mindless faith in technology--an extremism that is now beginning to tamper with the building blocks of life. Genetically modified crops and animals and organisms of all kinds are on the horizon, and it is only our technological arrogance that insists this is business as usual--that it is all for the good of humankind. We really don’t know the monsters we’re on the verge of creating, and our faith that science is good is making us blind to the threat. Science, in service to the technological demands of a capitalism run wild, is no longer a disinterested search for the truth of the universe as much as it is a matter of R&D for huge corporations seeking new and irresistible products. Further, our governments, which should be watching out for our welfare, are all in the pay of these corporations.

And finally, to come back full circle, we have the extremism of our current notions of freedom of speech. We now think it all part of normal political debate to hurl the most offensive insults at those different from us. To willfully knock down anything that may suggest a limit to what we can say or do or be is seen as progressive per se; and of course it goes without saying that anything anyone might consider sacred should be tarnished ASAP so that these benighted medieval people will “finally get over” their “outdated” notions that there is such a thing as the sacred in the universe. Personally, as a Catholic, I believe there are indeed things that are sacred in the universe. And contrary to the thinking of many around me, I know very well that people like myself are not going to go away any time soon. I would certainly not endorse violence against people who desecrate churches, but I do believe there should be strict laws against such desecration.

The Pope’s down-to-earth words on the attack have a basic truth behind them, regardless of being somewhat ill put. One needn’t tiptoe around religious people, but at the same time one shouldn’t intentionally offend them in service to one’s own secular faith. If one does, one can expect, at the very least, to be offended back. And if the offense dealt out to religious people is chronic and repeated, one should not be surprised if, sooner or later, crazies appear out of nowhere to deliver a punch. This is the nature of humanity.

Finally, in conclusion, I’d point out that Europe’s principled support of free expression is not so principled after all. There are many double standards that have long been in play, as argued cogently by Mehdi Hasan in the Huffington Post this week. If you think Europeans truly support absolute freedom of expression, try to publish comic books there downplaying the seriousness of the Holocaust; or try to make a documentary on the joys of sex with children. Freedom of expression has limits, and nearly everyone, religious or not, will have areas that are clearly out of bounds.

I do not think European states should codify laws against depicting Muhammad, but I do think, given that there are millions of Muslims in Europe who are law-abiding citizens, that everyone should show at least a minimum of respect for what these people hold sacred. It is, after all, forbidden for Muslims themselves to depict their Prophet, even if they would seek to show him in some glorious manner. To repeatedly show him as a buffoon, as Charlie Hebdo did, is a kind of double insult.

Living sanely side by side requires some mutual give and take. I know very well the Muslim radicals of ISIS refuse to respect this basic rule of pluralist society. But for most of the citizens of France or Germany or the US it should be second nature by now. Too bad, in this generally extremist climate, that some factions in the West have started willfully breaking this rule.

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