Somebody said to me recently that, “There is nothing more reassuring than realizing the world is far crazier than you are.” I think it’s one of those things that sounds terribly witty when said in a drawing room full of dressed-up, unserious people, and especially when it is said from behind a mystifying plume of cigarette smoke; but it withers away sadly when you actually start to think about it. No, I thought, I derive no reassurance from the notion that there are maddened mass-murderers all over the world. I certainly cannot look at the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris and think, “Well, at least the West is experiencing some of the terror we live with every day.”
But as the “Je Suis Charlie” signs swept over protests and facebook profiles last week, I also found myself saying, “No, I don’t think I am Charlie.” Those cartoons are off-putting, to say it mildly. In a sense, they are exemplars of thinly veiled hate-speech, the liberal-secular cousins of KKK pamphlets and Nazi manifestos. But I also believe in the right to think and say whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize another person’s life or property. (My own column is based on that, or I wouldn’t have written to you about condoms and first ladies last week.) Most sane people in our country oppose our draconian blasphemy law for the same reason: what you say shouldn’t get you killed just because it hurts someone’s feelings.
I couldn’t immediately locate my discomfort while reading the plethora of opinions out there on the murders and cartoons. I knew it wasn’t the fact of the cartoons that got those journalists killed. There are thousands of examples of images of Islam’s Messenger appearing in art and texts since basically the 10th century. This should not be breaking news to anyone. Dante’s Inferno (both text and illustrations) is an infamous example of this, but there are countless others, most notably from Iran and Central Asia through the Middle Ages (a dark time for Europe but a bright one for Islamic civilizations). Later still, the Germans made many grand depictions of figures from Islam, starting around the early 19th century. Some even made their way onto matchboxes and packaging logos. There are massive paintings throughout museums in the world made by Prussian artists that show the conquest of Mecca, or the night of the Miraj.
So if it wasn’t the fact of the images that so offended Muslim sensibilities, what was it?
It has now been pointed out enough times that the content of Charle Hebdo’s cartoons was nasty, hateful, racist and xenophobic. I admit I find that difficult to digest.
If some things are sacred (Jewishness in any form, the physiognomy of black people), who gets to draw the line when it comes to Islam?
Satire is one thing, I thought, but given France’s recent swing to the right and the continuing disenfranchisement of its Muslim population (of the entire continent of Europe, if you’re honest about it), it seems a lot like bullying. In essence: an overwhelmingly white editorial board picking on Muslim icons may be construed as racist. Why is it OK for white atheists to repeatedly make cartoons about Islam’s most sacred figure? Is that free speech, or Islamophobia, or racism, or all three? Are they mutually exclusive or do they overlap? How is it that the same magazine fired a cartoonist for making an “anti-Semitic” cartoon a few years ago? If some things are sacred (Jewishness in any form, the physiognomy of black people), who gets to draw the line when it comes to Islam?
This is where I stopped rationalizing and realized that I had fallen into the same trap as everyone else. I had entered intellectual quicksand, meant to distract me so I couldn’t see the Big Picture.
That’s the terrible thing about the Charlie Hebdo “debate.” It polarizes people into two distasteful extremes. By attacking a magazine that produced hateful images, the terrorists have forced everyone to either condone what they’ve done (by defending it, as in the case of so many motor-mouthed Muslim clerics, but even by trying to explain it in political terms, which is what many Western liberals have gingerly tried to do in the past week); or to rally round the spirit, if not the content, of the cartoons. It’s a two-pronged extremism, the prongs arising from the same place. Either way, humanity is screwed. It’s the way religious/sectarian terrorism has always worked, particularly as a construct in the last 60 or so years: divide and conquer. Attack the other side, provoke them into retaliation, and use their action as proof that your side needs to recruit more people.
The attack on the magazine was an attack on the most vulnerable part of French democracy. It exposed xenophobic views in order to make them appear universally held. In order to defend freedom of speech as a concept, many people who would never have looked at those cartoons were forced (in most cases unwittingly) to appear to defend the images. Conversely, any Muslim who didn’t like the images could be assumed to have pro-terrorist leanings. Do you see how messed up that is? This is exactly what the killers wanted. Though the impulse to share the cartoons – to proclaim, “We are Charlie!” – is one that comes from solidarity with tolerance, the optics can easily be misrepresented to show that everyone agrees with the content of the cartoons rather than the right to reproduce them. In attacking such an absurd (French) outpost of free speech, they have forced the world to make it, and its content, mainstream. Recruiters in Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan will use the protests and global reaction to prove that the West really is against Muslims. “See? They defended these awful cartoons; even their leaders marched in solidarity with the cartoonists!”
In essence, this effort to polarize French society is very similar to the efforts of IS in Iraq or Syria, or of madmen closer to home, and we should all recognize it as such.
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