I’ve been following the news with tremendous sadness that Stéphane Charbonnier and eleven of his colleagues and bodyguards at Charlie Hebdo in Paris were killed by Islamic fundamentalists the day before yesterday. I’ve been following the news and much of the commentary since then.
This morning, a friend sent me a link to an article by Arthur Goldhammer, of the Center for European Studies at Harvard, urging that we not “sacralize” Charlie Hebdo. The friend added the comment: “balance is what I seek.” Both my friend and Arthur Goldhammer are informed, erudite people, and all things being equal I would normally defer to their opinions. On this issue, however, I think they have both swung and missed. The real issue at the heart of the assassination of French satirists by Islamic fundamentalists last Tuesday should not, in my opinion, be a quest for balance. Nor should the response by people around the world to honor Charlie Hebdo’s Stéphane Charbonnier by doing as he did and republishing his offensive cartoons be seen as an attempt to “sacralize” the publication (or, by extension, those who worked for it.) If I understand Goldhammer’s point, Charlie Hebdo’s goal was not to support free speech, but to be offensive. Fine. He may know Charbonnier’s mind better than I do, but Charlie Hebdo’s real goals, it seems to me, are secondary to its actual accomplishments, which were to make the point that free speech is most conspicuously defended when the limits are tested.
I had a passionate exchange with my favorite niece the other day after I made the comment that I had no respect for Islam. This put me, in her eyes, in bed with racist conservatives, and we were off and running before I could backtrack with a clarification that I was not referring to the tradition of art and beauty, poetry and spiritual seeking that fall, for many, under the rubric of Islam. As is usually the case, we would have been better to define our terms before engaging in a debate. I was referring to a system of thought that starts with the assumption there is an invisible being greater than ourselves to whom we should submit, and whose dictates we should follow without question. My values are humanist values and I have no use for deities or religions that require followers to try to impose their set of beliefs on the rest of us. What I was really after was a criticism of religion. It just happened that we were talking of Islam at the time and I took a step too far, according to my niece, when I suggested Islam was perhaps more problematic than the other Abrahamic religions because it has never had its teeth pulled. In the cultural space it occupies, radical forms of the faith run wild because there has been no secular humanist counterforce developed to contain it.
Actually, I would not want to waste time arguing which form of organized religion is better or worse than others. My real point in bringing up the subject is that I believe, in this day and age where we are jerked around by fears of terrorism, that we should keep our focus on our rights as citizens living in a democracy, and not on whether Islam – or any other religion – should be defended.
The U.S. Constitution lays out the rights and obligations we have as citizens, and over time the trend has been to extend those rights. To citizens. Not to groups. The constitutions of other democracies do the same. You have every right, in a modern democracy, to practice a religious faith. But the religion itself has no rights. If you are insulted personally, you have recourse to the law – to anti-hate crime statutes, for example. But your religion has no such protection. Nor should it have. A law that would prohibit criticism of a religious institution or set of beliefs would only enhance the power of that religion to act aggressively and ultimately facilitate the breach of our constitutional right to protection from religion. When a Turkish immigrant from rural Anatolia takes his family to Germany and insists his daughter should follow the practices of his religion, as he understands it, and stay home from school, German law requires that the father and his ways take the back seat to the German right to universal education. The girl’s individual right is greater than a religious right or social custom. We tend to call this a “complex” issue, but actually it is quite simple. Rights belong to individuals, not to institutions.
Prudence is a virtue. Lying is wrong, but we tell white lies all the time because it is prudent to tell a mother-in-law her pie is delicious when it is not, to keep peace in the family. It may also be prudent not to antagonize religious fundamentalists, particularly when they are prone to violence, just as it is prudent to deny that you are gay when faced with a violent homophobe out to do you harm. Prudent. But not right. One should give you understanding and support if you act out of prudence, and extra credit if you stand up to bullies instead. Prudence should not take on the same moral value as courage and honesty. Practical should not be with set on the same plane as right, true, or good.
When to act prudently, and when to stand up to bullies is, of course, a judgment call. Many are rushing in now to claim that Stéphane Charbonnier is at least partially to blame for his own death. He went way over the top to be offensive to organized religion. He might have held back. If he had, he might be alive today, they are saying.
And the bullies would have won. The power to intimidate would have found justification. And democracy, already weakened by our decision to let fear rule our lives since 9/11, would have suffered another blow. I think the loss of the satirists at Charlie Hebdo is a devastating one. I feel it personally, and for that reason I cannot side with the defenders of prudence in this instance. I think there is something unworthy in watering down the courage of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo by criticizing them for not being more prudent.
Arthur Goldhammer’s argument that we should not put on a pedestal those who knock people off pedestals misses the point. The point is that Charbonnier’s lifetime goal of speaking truth to power, however he may have chosen to do it, was a goal worth supporting. Now that he is gone, we should be picking up where he left off. Those following their instinct to get offensive where once they might incline toward prudence are on the right track.
All things being equal, the Buddhist wisdom of seeking the middle way should apply. Balance is almost always better than going off half-cocked. But sometimes, in our quest for balance, we fail to think through the consequences of compromising. The issue is critical in dealing with the massive immigration of Muslims to Europe. All too often, the emphasis has been on how to integrate Muslims into a previously Christian cultural space. This should not be the focus – and definitely not the focus of government. Government should be assuring that individual rights are maintained, and not whether “Islam” is compatible with French (German, Dutch, etc.) values.
We should not waste time arguing over whether the “real” Qur’an is the parts where love and compassion are stressed or the parts where believers are urged to slay unbelievers. We should be setting Islam (and all religions) outside of politics and the work of democracy. Exclude it, not defend it. And put all our energies into defending the rights of Muslims and all religious and non-religious people to security and to equality before the law.
“Islam” to the majority of its followers, may suggest peace. In its ideal form, I’m sure the claim is justified. But we still have to contend with the fact that many carrying its banner are quite often violent, and those folks are center stage and creating the actual lived meaning of Islam in the world today. Islam is as Islam does. We need to carry on the tradition of people like Stéphane Charbonnier and keep religion – or any other non-democratic idea – from limiting our rights as citizens and as human beings.
Photo credit: Jeff Darcy