The relentless march of time generally affords humankind, which happens to include folks in the media, the chance to reflect on events and acquire wisdom. But the weeks passing since the massacre in Paris of the highly talented Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have only granted a good number of commentators the opportunity to bedork themselves time and again, as they pen columns and make on-air statements that both spread confusion and betray commitments to untenable, morally reprehensible extenuative positions concerning Islam. This is tragic, for, if anything, the slaughter of European artists exercising their lawful right to self-expression in the capital of their own country offered us all a “teachable moment” sans pareil about the nature of the threat lurking within – in fact, innate to -- the “religion of peace.”
Rarely have murderers so clearly manifested their motive. With the exclamations they made as they carried out their atrocity -- “Allahu Akbar!” and “On a vengé le prophète Mohamed, on a tué Charlie Hebdo!” (The prophet Muhammad has been avenged, we have killed Charlie Hebdo!) -- the attackers explicitly told us they were killing for Islam, and imparted precisely the lesson they intended: Do not insult or ridicule our faith or you will pay the supreme price. They wrought violence against innocents who dared transgress the commandments of a religion they did not profess. What’s more, they de facto succeeded in imposing sharia tenets well beyond the confines of the Islamic world. How many major publications or networks dared even publish the anodyne drawing of a teary-eyed, forgiving Muhammad that graced the cover of the post-massacre issue of Charlie Hebdo, to say nothing of the other images satirizing the Prophet that presumably led to the fire-bombing of the magazine’s office in 2011? That so many Western media outlets shied away from doing so is more than scandalous. It unambiguously signals one thing: terrorism works. More lives are likely to be lost as a result.
Those whose profession it ostensibly is to enlighten found ample grounds on which to rebut reality and muddy the waters around the matter at hand: the faith-motivated murder of cartoonists for doing nothing more than drawing cartoons. Serial Islam-apologist Reza Aslan appeared on Charlie Rose's show and admitted that the Quran has “of course” served as a “source of violence” for terrorists, but then resorted to his usual tiresome Derrida-esque double-talk when it came to discussing his religion’s material role in the killings. “We bring our own values and norms to our scriptures; we don’t extract them from our scriptures.”
The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, an unwitting recidivist “useful idiot” for Islamism, cautioned us to avoid “religious profiling” and contended that “The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who ‘otherize.’” He is apparently unaware of Islamic traditions dividing the world into Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam, or Muslim regions) and Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War, where Muslims must strive against, and even do battle with, infidels, in order to convert them. For Kristof, a “strain of Islamic intolerance and extremism” is the (mere) “backdrop to the attack on Charlie Hebdo.”
Susan Milligan, writing in U.S. News and World Report, opined that news outlets should feel no pressure to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, since “This isn’t about religion or respect, and it insults every peace-loving practicing Muslim to suggest otherwise.” Wow. Has she converted to Islam? What gives her the right to speak for “every peace-loving practicing Muslim?”
There are other examples, but foulest of all were the excretions emanating from James Zogby, president and founder of the Arab American Institute. I’ll cite in full the opening paragraph of his Huffington Post op-ed:
“The perpetrators of the horror at Charlie Hebdo were not devout Muslims outraged by insults directed at their faith. They were not motivated by religious piety, nor did they seek to strike a blow at ‘freedom of expression.’ Rather they were crude political actors who planned an act of terror -- seeking to create the greatest possible impact. They were murderers, plain and simple.”
Every sentence here, with the partial exception of the last, is so transparently counterfactual that no refutation is warranted. But it gets worse. Zogby goes on to spew toxic drivel he will never live down, informing readers that he believes in “freedom of expression, but” -- the “but” here portends the most insidious kind of “blame the victims” slander -- “with freedom also comes responsibility. Pope Francis got it right when he noted ‘You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others’. . . . As Francis added ‘one cannot offend, make war, kill in the name of one's religion -- that is in the name of God. To kill in the name of God is an aberration.’”
(Except that in Islam, a faith long spread by the sword, it isn’t. Dozens of Quranic suras and texts from the Hadith call upon Muslims to commit violence against unbelievers in the cause of jihad, including, of course, those who insult the Prophet Muhammad.)
Zogby continued, complaining of the “prejudice against the religion of Islam” evinced by some commentators, and bemoaning the “hurt . . . Muslims have felt at the insults directed at the faith by the dominant secular French culture.” He concluded with boilerplate gibberish, declaring that those who kill for religion “are not Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist murderers or terrorists. Rather they are murderers or terrorists who defile the language of religion in a vain effort to justify their violence.”
Zogby’s is by far the most disgraceful, twisted, retrograde commentary on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy I have come across. Yet in adducing Pope Francis’ admonition to those who would insult faith, he unintentionally makes a point: Representatives of the world’s major religions usually stand together in calling for respect for their institutionalized fables, and they still, even now, usually get it. After all, respect, at least of a sort, is just what theocrats of old exacted, on pain of torture and death, when they ruled during the brutal millennium before the Renaissance that was once (and justly) known as the Dark Ages.
We are accustomed to reflexively deferring to “men of the cloth,” be they rabbis and priests or pastors and imams. In this we err, and err gravely. Those whose profession it is to spread misogynistic morals, debilitating sexual guilt, a hocus-pocus cosmogony, and tales of an enticing afterlife for which far too many are willing to die or kill, deserve the exact same “respect” we accord to shamans and sorcerers, alchemists and quacksalvers. Out of misguided notions of “tolerance,” we avert our critical gaze from the blatant absurdities -- parting seas, spontaneously igniting shrubbery, foodstuffs raining from the sky, virgin parturitions, garrulous slithering reptiles, airborne ungulates -- proliferating throughout their “holy books.” We suffer, in the age of space travel, quantum theory and DNA decoding, the ridiculous superstitious notion of “holy books.” And we countenance the nonsense term “Islamophobia,” banishing those who forthrightly voice their disagreements with the seventh-century faith to the land of bigots and racists; indeed, the portmanteau vogue word’s second component connotes something just short of mental illness.
The herd inclination of progressives to exculpate the canon of Islam and the role faith in general plays in inciting violence insults those with even a superficial knowledge of history. There is nothing commendable about covering up how religious convictions motivate killers, be they Christians (think of the Serbian Orthodox “cleansing” of Muslims in the Yugoslav war), Jews (recall Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 murder of 29 Palestinians at a Hebron holy site), Hindus (memorably, the Gujarat massacre in 2002 and, of course, the epochal Hindu-Muslim bloodshed accompanying Partition). Religion in each of these barbaric episodes (and many, many more) was the universally recognized primum mobile. Why should we not admit the same about the Charlie Hebdo slaughter?
Worse still is the offense that denying faith’s role in atrocities inflicts on commonsense. No one doubts people when they say their religion inspires them to attend mosque or church, make charitable donations, volunteer in hospitals or serve in orphanages. We should take them at their word when they name it, as did the Charlie Hebdo assassins, as the mainspring for their lethal acts of violence. We should not toss aside Ockham’s razor and concoct additional factors that supposedly commandeered their behavior. The Charlie Hebdo killers may have come from poor Parisian banlieues, they may have experienced racial discrimination, and they may have even been stung by disdain from “the dominant secular French culture,” yet they murdered not shouting about any of these things, but about “avenging the Prophet Muhammad.” They murdered for Islam.
No doubt, some commentators contort themselves to avoid blaming Islam because they personally know Muslims who would do no harm to anyone. But as regards the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Islam’s innocuous votaries are irrelevant. The problem lies with the incontrovertible calls to violence in the Islamic canon that derive from a sense of supremacy as God’s final, irrevocable words to humanity, and with those who take them literally.
This all leads us to an overarching issue of critical import. Adherence to any of the Abrahamic religions -- that is, to the trumped-up doctrines of systematized, unverifiable fables mandating certain kinds of behavior and outlawing others -- is, to repeat Kristof’s silly term, “otherizing,” or divisive, provocative, and ultimately inimical to social harmony. Traffickers in such fables, or those who provide cover to those who do, deserve to be disinvited from every forum convened to seek solutions to the problems they themselves have helped create. Or perhaps they should be invited, but only as court experts in the particular variety of mass psychosis they and their ancestors have engendered. “Dialogue between religions” -- a perennially popular yet doomed endeavor often proclaimed as necessary by religious potentates -- should be eschewed in favor of rational discourse among reality-based individuals. Please, let’s give the shamans and witchdoctors the day off.
What to make of Western leaders’ reluctance to indict Islam in the Charlie Hebdo massacre? Cowardice must be involved -- better to deride a few bad apples “perverting a great religion” than risk angering large, and growing, Muslim communities at home, or inciting attacks against embassies abroad. And as a practical matter, convictions held as passionately as they are irrationally cannot be challenged without peril. That Obama and Hollande have gone to great lengths to avoid implicating Islam in the Charlie Hebdo massacre constitutes implicit recognition of the innate insolubility of religious conflicts – such beliefs cannot be disproven on an evidentiary basis, but only fought over, eye for eye. Once faith stands accused, the guns come out and the bombs go off, and death and mayhem ensue. Best to steer clear of all this.
Yet risks, to say nothing of honest discourse, are essential to true leadership. Faced with this, yet another crisis involving Islam and the violence it tends to beget, the only real options are unified defiance (as embodied in the Je Suis Charlie marches across France) or surrender, as exemplified in news outlets’ widespread reluctance to publish the eminently newsworthy Charlie Hebdo cartoons. By accepting the bald casuistry and specious analysis offered by religion’s apologists, or by denigrating, à la Zogby, the (wonderfully) muscular French version of secularism known as laïcité (no Islamic headscarves or Christian crosses allowed inside schools, no burqas to be worn outside), we are collectively opting for capitulation, and jettisoning our precious patrimony -- freedom of expression, an essential element of any open society. If we do this, we should be ashamed of ourselves and do not deserve to be free.
We need to turn the tables and refuse to let the faith-based or their smooth-talking accomplices set the terms for debate; refuse to cower before the balderdash term Islamophobia; refuse to let faith-mongering fraudsters, from the Pope in the Vatican to the pastor down the street, educate our children or lecture us on morals or anything else. If we do not believe the Bible is true or the Quran inerrant, we need to say so, loudly, clearly and repeatedly, until the “sacred” sheen of these books wears off. And it will. Behaviors change as beliefs are adjusted. We no longer burn witches at the stake or use ghastly vises to crush the skulls of those suspected of being “secret Jews” (as was done in Spain and elsewhere during the Inquisition), and none but the insane among us would enact the gruesome penalties prescribed in Leviticus as retribution for trifling offenses. We have progressed, and we will progress again, if we, for starters, quit worrying about political correctness and cease according religion knee-jerk respect.
Some time ago, the meme “Islam – the religion of peace” began circulating, originating, apparently, in an erroneous translation of the Arabic name for the faith. Islam means “submission” (to the will of God). The brave cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo faced down threats and refused to submit -- and paid with their lives. For their deaths to mean anything, we need to show similar guts.
We need, after all, to tell the truth. If we don’t start doing this now, our next question must be, who among us will be the next victims?