OF COURSE RELIGION IS the problem.
For anyone who, understandably, would say it’s a political issue and not a religious issue, I aver that so many of our political difficulties exist because of and not in spite of religion. And we muddle the matter if drawn into a debate about whether Religion-with-a-capital-R is ultimately a force of Good or Evil. I know how I feel and you know how you feel. More importantly, religion isn’t going anywhere, so we heretics must remain skeptical, and vigilant. And if there’s one thing that unites East and West it’s the chasm between those convinced more religion is the answer and those for whom the less the better.
It has become a tad too fashionable these days to pit believers vs. non-believers (and there are few things more exasperating than proselytizers playing the victim card). Let me stand up and be counted as someone who respects—in theory and practice—anyone’s right to believe anything they choose. Indeed, I’m relieved we have a handful of commandments, however randomly obeyed, to keep would-be-sociopaths in check, their eyes on an eternal prize. The problem, as always, involves those amongst us who would initiate mayhem, compelled by the imperatives of their faith.
We do ourselves a great disservice by failing to acknowledge the role religion has ceaselessly played as either an instigator of, or cover for, violence. In this regard, a similar impulse connects what happened in Paris and what happened during the Crusades and that disaster porn saturating the Old Testament: perceived righteousness in the name of divinity. Yes, clever commentators can point out that, at least in some instances, religion is a cynical shield for atrocity. It has always been thus.
We have, at least, advanced culturally (one might say we’ve evolved) to the extent where no one can be taken seriously for condoning massacre of innocents. That, in any event, is not the crux of the matter before us. What we see, and what has been polluting the discourse these last two weeks, is a refusal to denounce, without reservation, the religious rationalization signaling—then seeking to explain—such acts.
A single quote resurfaced in several news stories last week, and it crystallizes the cause and effect so many are struggling to see with clarity. Nasser Lajil, a Muslim city councilor in France, had this to say regarding the slaughter of 11 journalists: “I want to make clear that I completely condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I think freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” (Emphasis mine.)
Two simple points need to be made. One, any sane argument begins and ends with a declaration that under no faith-related circumstances is murder of human beings ever acceptable. Two, if your faith is capable of being threatened by a cartoon, your faith is a cartoon.
Which brings us to Charlie Hebdo. Our collective reaction requires more J’Accuse and less Je ne sais quoi. Anything other than a full-throated and unequivocal denunciation of such carnage renders one a coward. When it comes to free speech and matters of life and death, you are either an advocate or an accomplice; there can be no middle ground. Satire is not possible without someone’s sacred bovine being savaged; the complication is that so many of us are equal opportunity instigators until it’s our cow getting cudgeled. Free speech, in short, is not an à la carte arrangement.
It is, therefore, dispiriting to see anyone, especially (if predictably) the liberal intelligentsia, so cavalier about throwing down what’s typically a trump card. Is Charlie Hebdo racist? It’s an interesting question for curious minds to ponder, but irrelevant in this context of assassination and presumptive self-censorship. Even if, however hysterical the argument, we concede that this magazine exists only to offend, does that in any way legitimize the act of murder?
More, it’s precisely because so many of these cartoons are juvenile that we must defend their right to exist. It’s generally painless to rally around literature we consider sacrosanct, and feel smug doing so, but if we don’t allow the claptrap to function as an aesthetic caboose, we risk being elitists as well as defeatists. How revolting, then, to read pundit after political analyst after Op-Ed arbitrator stroking their chins and opining that the images were, after all, in questionable taste. Or, if you provoke certain groups often enough you have to expect some type of reaction. Really?
Any form of suppression, especially as it pertains to someone else’s faith, is an act of accommodation. Full stop. These intellectually bankrupt rationalizations, in effect blaming the victim, smack of our rape-enabling semantics. Some of the self-righteous comments sullying our newspapers and blogs call to mind the familiar formulation: “Yes, she was brutally raped but should she really have worn that skirt?” Translation: Rape is awful, but maybe next time she’ll think twice about the decisions she makes.
It’s situations like this that help me understand what pushed Christopher Hitchens, the erstwhile socialist, over the edge. It was occasionally perplexing to see him stand alongside (figuratively and sometimes literally) the architects of Iraq and unrepentant exploiters of America’s underwear-wetting sensibility concerning all-things-terror post 9/11. But even then, while I couldn’t forgive it, I could fathom it. Here was a dude who talked the belligerent talk, but also walked the uncompromised walk: he spent considerable time in the very hot zones he wrote about, and bore witness to the atrocities we excoriate in editorials.
And while many lamented his ostensible act of betrayal and/or expedience in the years before his death, he had political and creative skin in the game. Also, and this is important: it quite clearly wasn’t a game for him; whatever else one can say about The Hitch, he had the courage of his convictions and they were not easily earned. His good friend Salman Rushdie, one might recall, was targeted for the infamous fatwa—a price on the author’s head equal parts medieval and postmodern—and, it’s quite worth noting, this occurred several years before the first Iraq war. As such, he saw the reaction of the literary community, which ranged from muted to craven. Everyone, it seems, is all for artists’ rights until it’s their ass in the crosshairs.
It obviously galled him, over a decade later, to see the usual suspects, secure in their tenured offices and café latte circle jerks, sniffing about imperialism and why our Big Bad Empire had come to bring all this grief upon ourselves. Nevermind the fact that these internecine quarrels predate the founding of America by several centuries. (Look it up, it’s in the Bible.)
And that is the real (dark) heart of this matter: of course it’s about religion. Invariably, it’s always about religion. (It’s always about money, too, but the two are not mutually exclusive; indeed, it’s arguably the lack of money—and resources, education and democracy or at least unregulated thought—that makes one susceptible, if not ravenous for what religion promises to those who can’t find heaven or even a hint of transcendence here on earth.)
Let’s be clear: our collective hands, in the West, are far from clean as it pertains to policies and actions antithetical to our own beliefs (due process, drones, etc.), and certainly there are myriad dots that must be connected before we can hope to comprehend the resentment we’ve allowed—if not enabled—to fester. In so many ways, we have so much to answer for. Nevertheless, the underlying symptom, religion, was alive and unwell long before our current, clichéd clash of civilizations.
We can respect, or at least tolerate the existence of, cultural mores (see: subjugation of women; lack of walls between church and state, and so on) that seem odious or at least antiquated to our Western eyes. We can also acknowledge that perhaps it’s not our place to interfere, particularly when we have our own complicated quandaries of race, class and sexuality in the states. But we can, and must, judge. If we abdicate our obligation to denounce such archaic attitudes we are derelict, rationally and morally.
Here is an affair, at long last, that should serve to unite the Left and Right: a genuine atrocity that’s at once easy to understand, and revile. It has done so, to an extent, but for the wrong reasons. The only thing more hypocritical than conservative Christians becoming convenient allies of Muslims only because they can’t stomach denigrations of their own faith is the faction of liberals who disparage All Things America even as they bask in the very freedoms their country provides them. (Want a laugh? Contemplate how long any of our textbook radicals would linger in the offices of Charlie Hebdo after the first death threat.)
A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition. Where are we, as Americans, if we agree the KKK must be allowed to legally march, but draw the line at religious satire?
Are we actually in a place, circa 2015, where we unthinkingly submit to X-ray scans at airports but confiscate cartoonist’s pens? We soil ourselves if a color-coded terror alert goes into effect but don’t see that “Terror” really is winning if we let extremists dictate the terms of engagement—artistic or otherwise? If we are at war, even metaphorically, what is the fight about if we can’t agree that unfettered expression is inviolable?
This debate can—and should—continue, but on the topic of faith-based violence, the concern should be plain and pure: free speech is a non-negotiable precept. It has everything to do with everything we talk about when we talk, often speciously, about American exceptionalism. Ironically, or not, it was free speech that enabled early Americans to practice the religion of their choice (!); it is the guarantee of free speech that underpins our Great Experiment and gives Americans the freedom to not believe. It is, ultimately, free speech that ensures the pen is mightier than the sword, and that no one has to die proving otherwise.