I need to say somethings about the horrible attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. I absolutely condemn these attacks, and I mourn all of the people killed. No one should ever be killed for anything they say, draw, or publish. Full stop. I in no way think the staff of Charlie Hebdo are responsible for this crime.
But there is something more I need to say, and it is prompted by the reactions I've seen.
I'm not talking about the anti-Muslim backlash, which was sadly predictable and which some have argued exactly what the attackers wanted. I condemn any and all attacks on innocent Muslims (i.e., the vast, vast majority of Muslims) and their places of worship.
I am talking more about the entirely understandable lionization of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. I understand the impulse, but it does not sit well with me.
I am a big believer in the power of ideas, and the power of words. One of the reasons I want to publish other people's books is that I want to do my small part to bring more, and more diverse ideas, to the public square. This is also the reason I have gone out of my way to diversify the worldviews to which I listen. That can be infuriating at times, and I wonder why I am forcing myself to listen to people who make me angry. But events like this make me thankful that I've done that, because the many different perspectives help me better understand what is happening.
This event gave me a particularly clear case in point: the best articulation of why those cartoons matter came from Ross Douthat, a conservative writer with whom I rarely agree. Perhaps it is because of his faith (he is Catholic) that he has thought more deeply about blasphemy and when it is needed than I had, and could articulate how the fact that drawing the prophet Mohammed risks death might justify the blasphemy. (Do go read his piece, it is very thoughtful and thought-provoking.)
I'll be honest, when I look at those cartoons, I find them offensive. I am an atheist, but I believe in respecting other people's beliefs, and the lack of that respect in the cartoons offends me. I look at the cartoon that has been circulated so widely, the one with the caption "Love is stronger than hate," and I do not see a message of love. I see a message calculated to offend not just radical Muslims, but religious Muslims in general. Giving offense is not a message of love.
I understand that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo saw elements in Islam in general, and radical Islam in particular, that they wanted to satirize. As I said at the top, I think they had every right to do so and do not think that the offense they gave in any way justifies the actions of the gunmen. I probably even agree with some of the points they wanted to make via their satire.
But I also think that they could have turned their intellects and talents to finding a better, more precise way of satirizing these things. There is a famous Molly Ivins quote about satire:
"Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar."
The problem I see with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the Danish cartoons that caused an uproar in 2005, is that they are so broad in their caricature that they hit not just the powerful imams issuing fatwas but a wide swath of Muslims, who already face discrimination and marginalization in Europe. That is, there is an aspect of these cartoons that feels very much like a powerful group "punching down."
I completely understand that how this looks to me, here in San Diego, is very different from how it looks in Europe. It is obvious to me that the interaction of secular society and Islam is different in the US than it is in Europe, and I would not for a minute claim to understand the reasons for that. I certainly will not claim that we in the US are less racist- perhaps it is best to say that we are differently racist, and that is probably making it hard for me to understand the full context of those cartoons. I acknowledge my ignorance in this regard, and agree with the outpouring of support for Charlie Hebdo's staff that has come from around Europe.
Still, in our rush to defend free speech, it would be nice if we remembered that right now, not everyone's speech is equally free, and tried to make our analyses reflect that.
Since I believe in the power of ideas, I must acknowledge the power of religion, which to a non-believer like me looks a lot like a container in which to gather a bunch of ideas. So I do not discount the role of Islam in these attacks. Yascha Mounk wrote thoughfully about this at Slate. Islam is not to blame, per se, but it is the container into which a group of radicals are putting the ideas that lead them to think this sort of attack is justified and even necessary, so I can see that we need to consider Islam when we're trying to understand the ideas and intercept the actions of these radicals.
But I do not think Islam is the only container into which misguided people put ideas that lead to violence. It is just that some of the other containers are so familiar to us that we do not see them.
This is also how we get people overlooking the terrorizing effect of the bombing of the NAACP office in Colorado Springs. Thankfully, it did not injure anyone- but it still terrorizes.
This is how we get a former deputy director of the CIA making this mistake:
Nope. Anders Breivik in Norway, 2011. 77 dead. http://t.co/NXOZKYLOfs pic.twitter.com/MlDnyj1EMf
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) January 7, 2015
Even the analyses that acknowledge the fact that Christianity has also been used as a container for violence and extremism tend to reference the past- the Crusades, the Inquisition. But we have more recent examples, such as the murder of George Tiller.
The sad fact is that any belief system can be formed into a container for ideas that lead to violence and extremism. There is nothing unique about Islam in this regards.
And yet, we only apply the label of "terrorist" to some extremists, and we are remarkably unaware of the absurdity of this. If I were to list the things that actually terrorize me, as in "make me worry about harm coming to my family," Islamic extremists aren't at the top of my list. I am terrorized more by American gun extremists and by the group of my fellow Americans who hold a toxic mix of "patriotic" yet anti-Government beliefs coupled with conservative social values. I worry more about accidentally posting something online that draws the attention of a group like the GamerGate mob and finding myself hounded out of my livelihood and home by threats than I do being caught up in an attack of Islamic radicals.
I am white, so I do not generally fear the neo-Nazis, the Klan, and the other violently racist organizations that continue to exist in this country. But they are here.
But these groups are not called terrorists.
I don't know what to say should happen next. We should mourn the loss of life in Paris, for certain. We should also defend the right to free speech and a life free from terror. But perhaps while we're doing that, we could also look at how unevenly distributed those rights are right now and at the very least acknowledge that this is a problem, and maybe if we did that we would find ourselves better able to separate the violent radicals from those who are merely angry at their own unfair marginalization, and we could make progress towards a better society.
As I said, this post feels like a stretch for me. I am sure to have gotten things wrong. I welcome corrections and discussion in the comments, but ask that we please all keep our comments respectful to both the people who have been killed and the vast majority of Muslims whose religious beliefs in no way advocate for attacks like this.