Charlie Hebdo and Half of History: How We Must Proceed

The Charlie Hebdo attack today was obviously a brutal assault on freedom of expression. It was an evil and cowardly act. The reason why I call it cowardly is that those people transparently found it easier to shoot people than to open a dialogue with people they disagreed with. No creative person should take this as anything but an attack on art in general.

Seeing people die senselessly and seeing others pervert their faith… It depresses me deeply.

But I must admit, I have been having a lot of ambiguity as to how I feel about this attack.

As I reviewed many of the Charlie Hebdo covers, I saw a pattern emerging: While the magazine certainly was willing to satirize everyone, there was an overwhelming trend toward criticizing Islam qua Islam.
In the West, people can say things about Muslims that would be publicly denounced if they were about Sikhs or Christians or Buddhists. People can utter comments about Arab or Turkish or Iranian culture that are ignorant and based on almost no familiarity with the region without being worried about being criticized.
I’ve found this trend to be especially worrisome amongst the militant atheists. Those people do of course criticize Christianity, but when Hitchens turned against Islam, it was right at the moment when it was politically convenient to do so.

Now, to be clear, most of these covers were making arguments that are utterly reasonable. One showed a reincarnated Mohammed being killed by a fanatic for being an infidel. Given that the prophet commanded his followers (rather in line with current ideas of just war) that they should “in avenging injuries inflicted on us, do not harm non-belligerents in their houses, spare the weakness of women, do not injure infants at the breast, nor those who are sick. Do not destroy the houses of those who offer no resistance, and do not destroy their means of life”, it seems fair to say that those who kill in the name of Islam are not Muslims. Similarly, another cover shows Mohammed decrying being worshiped by idiots and jerks. While both these depictions were of the Prophet which is against the Muslim faith, the depictions are rather like many depictions of Jesus: A wise person having followers who lack their wisdom.

But one cover had a Muslim person saying that someone should receive a hundred lashes if they didn’t laugh themselves to death. That’s just randomly picking on Islam to make a joke. Yes, it criticizes brutal corporal punishment practices in the Muslim world in a tongue-in-cheek way, but was it really necessary?

And of course modern Islam has serious problems. Violence, misogyny, repressive regimes… Everyone knows the litany of issues.

But a millennium ago, it was the same Islam, the same text in the same region, that was the bastion of civilization while Europe was mired in darkness and poverty.

Christianity is no more inherently violent because of the Crusaders than Islam is because of these terrorists.
Buddhism is no more inherently repressive even given its association with regimes in Asia that were often repressive than Islam is because of its current repressive governments.

The sexist prescriptions and proscriptions in Judaism and Christianity no more tarnish those faiths than Islam’s present highly sexist interpretation does.

See, the fact that we know the litany of problems is exactly my point. The crimes of Islam are publicized in the West. The crimes of other faiths are generally not.

I was offended by Charlie Hebdo’s covers that satirized Islam. I felt that it was a cumulative attack on a group that is easy to attack. I could see why others would get so angry.

And that context can’t be removed from the context of today’s attacks. Of course no one ever deserves to be gunned down just for speaking their mind. Of course satirists have to piss people off, and we as a society have to allow them to do so. And I am sure Charlie Hebdo was doing some great work, both making people laugh and making them think. And I hope that the magazine continues, even with many of its creative people killed by assholes.

There’s a reason why it’s easy to criticize Islam. Right now, we have a relationship with the Middle East of violence and imperialism. Those people sit on the oil, so we have to find a reason to justify overthrowing their governments and tampering with their economies. The fact that they have a different faith and a different ethno-racial background is a good rationalization. The fact that they treat women awfully is a really great one.
As Tim Wise has pointed out repeatedly: When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City, no one was racially profiling white dudes with shaved heads. Ted Kaczynski’s crimes didn’t lead us to begin suspecting white academics of violence. But the actions of three people will now be offered by many, even those who are not on the far right in Europe or America and are otherwise more centrist and sober, as an example of what the faith of hundreds of millions of people is like.

So we criticize Islam for violence even as America spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, Germany, Japan and India combined. We criticize Islam for misogyny when we still have a pay gap and when our bombs kill plenty of widows.

Again, the Middle East and the Muslim world have huge social problems. That tends to happen when whole regions have been colonially assaulted. Of course there’s a lot more behind Wahhabist radical Islam than the influence of the West, but again, there’s a history here, and we only ever see half of it.

But put yourself in the mind of a French Muslim. There’s massive anti-Islamic, anti-Arabic, anti-immigrant hysteria in France already. When even the seemingly progressive satire newspaper keeps on depicting your whole faith as being comprised of turbaned terroristic fanatics, can’t we see why that would be a daily assault on their humanity?

I would ask anyone today to read the Nasruddin Hodja stories to see the wisdom that is possible from within the bounds of Muslim faith. I would ask them to think if ISIS and al Qaeda are any more representatives of Islam than Christian Identity white supremacists are representatives of millions of Christians who go to work and get along fine with their neighbors.

And I would certainly ask everyone to open up dialog with people different from themselves rather than condemning others. It’s up to us to make that the legacy of these attacks.


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