On the Charlie Hebdo atrocity

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You probably all know that just today, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by gunmen who murdered 12 people, including four famous cartoonists. It is redundant to say that it was an atrocity and a horrific crime against the press. It appears — not entirely confirmed — that the culprits [consumes NYT token] were disaffected Muslim returnees from the Syrian war (the latter surmised from the apparent military efficiency of the killings) who decided to “avenge the Prophet” against the magazine, which was known for producing obscene depictions of revered religious figures, apparently practically as a matter of secular, (French) republican principle.

Naturally, the first order of business — regardless of how often repeated it is — is sorrow for the people who died and their families and friends. But the killing of four political cartoonists is instantly a political matter, especially as it appears to involve Muslims and Islam. In fact, it is a goal of this form of Islamic fanaticism to make the position of Muslims in the West more difficult, as if it were not uncomfortable enough, so as, at minimum, to profit from the recruiting in the resultant social exclusion that follows, particularly for economically marginal parts of the Muslim population. And it is part of their ideology to draw battle lines, and successful Muslim populations in the West blur those lines.

I take the side of the oft-used Voltaire quote and say that those cartoonists had the right to say what they wanted to without being killed or suffering any other personal consequence, even if I found the way they chose to make their point distasteful. And now I hear echoing across the Internet, the demand that other media publish all the Muhammad cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Aside from the gesture itself, I’m not entirely sure what good it would do.

One of Charlie Hebdo’s editors, one of those who were murdered, said that he published such cartoons so that eventually criticism of Islam would be as banal as criticism of Catholicism. The problem is, the banalisation of Catholicism happened mostly at the hands of current and former Catholics, and the current extent of such banalisation is relatively quite recent. If the intent of republishing the cartoons is to “teach those Muslims a lesson in free speech”, considering the protest they released in the Muslim world, it doesn’t work that way.

The truth, at risk of some cultural essentialism, is that non-Western Muslims especially live in environments which are high in sacrality and reverence, where life is lived earnestly and not ironically, and where mockery is often a prelude to humiliation and destruction, not to be taken lightly. Most Muslims know and expect that in non-Muslim countries, the Prophet will be rejected, considered false, criticized, etc. That’s what being a non-Muslim is, after all, to them. But the mockery implied in caricature, whatever the intentions are really, is necessarily interpreted as the thin edge of a wedge of destruction. So they’re not going to be “taught a lesson”, and few are going to start thinking, because of this event or its responses, “Oh, maybe a cartoon is not so bad.”

(And yes, Muslims in France, partly due to some bad decisions whose content is a subject of fierce debate, sometimes live in parallel societies and do not necessarily adopt the French attitude towards this kind of thing. Not to put too fine a point on it.)

Instead, republication of these kinds of cartoons, as permitted as they should be in free societies, can only at best be the sort of gesture of personal solidarity that implies agreement with the underlying sentiment of the cartoons.

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This page contains a single entry by Mandos published on January 7, 2015 7:23 AM.

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