Saturday, January 10, 2015

Again, the pen is mightier than the sword

What's this world coming to?

Those were the sentiments of many of us on this side of the pond as we woke up Wednesday morning to the news of the massacre in Paris where gunmen killed twelve people in and around the offices of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.

The tragedy spawned countless real and virtual demonstrations around the world with people expressing their solidarity with the victims, and their disdain of the assault on the freedom of the press, by posting, chanting and carrying signs proclaiming, "Je suis Charlie."

Charlie Hebdo was no stranger to violence. Its Paris offices were bombed in 2011, after they published a cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad, as "guest editor" of a special edition of the paper temporarily re-christened: "Shariya Hebdo."

In the name of freedom of expression, the publishers of Charlie Hebdo were not swayed in the least; they retained their edge since the bombing. Despite the attack and numerous threats, the paper continued to publish articles and cartoons slamming Islamic extremism, among other things.

I for one admire the temerity and the sheer chutzpah of the folks at Charlie Hebdo. They understood full well the risks of publishing work that was critical of radical Islam, work they felt was important to publish. They stood by that work, and paid the price with their lives.

But like most of the burning issues of the day, or any day for that matter, it's much more complicated than that.

One thing puzzles me about the public's reaction to the terrible event, namely, how can anyone in this day and age be the least bit surprised by this act of terrorism?

The staunch defenders of Charlie Hebdo's publishing of their provocative cartoons, including the depiction of the prophet Muhammad,  (which alone is considered a grievous offense to many of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims), is the simple manifestation of the paper exercising its freedom of expression. "I live under French law, not Koranic law",  Stephane Charbonnier, an editor and cartoonist who was killed on Wednesday said back in 2011. M. Charbonnier and his colleagues published work that many people feel was not only biting satire, but also at its root, deeply offensive to a great number of people. From an article in the New York Times published after the attack:
After the 2011 bombing, some were critical of the magazine. In a letter to The International Herald Tribune (now The International New York Times), Celina Maria Pedro de Vasconcelos wrote, “It’s disturbing to see how the principle of freedom of the press in the West continues to be confused with free-for-all permission to target various cultures with slander, innuendo and disrespect. The consequences of mocking the Prophet Muhammad should not surprise us.”
Some might label this sentiment as political correctness run amok. After all, are we to restrict ourselves to publishing only ideas that are offensive to no one? If that were the case, nothing would ever get published.

On the other hand, one needn't live under Koranic law to understand the implications of lambasting the deeply held beliefs of one quarter of the world's population.

Many point out that Charlie is an equal opportunity lambaster, its favorite target is religion of all stripes. There is a long tradition of highly irreverent humor of this type in France dating back to time immemorial. Some suggest that all the fuss over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is simply a clash of cultures. Why not lighten up and laugh it off some people say.

Well I may not know much but if I've learned anything in my 56 years on this planet, it's that people who are deeply religious, no matter what the creed, seldom have much of a sense of humor about their own faith.

But it goes much deeper than that...

I hardly need to list the atrocities committed by extremists in the name of Islam over the past twenty years whose victims were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The big difference here is that the victims of the Paris massacre Wednesday were directly involved in the act that angered their killers; all the victims that is except for the wounded policeman whose execution at the hands of the perps as he pleaded for his life, exists on video for all the world to see. That officer by the way happened to be Muslim.

Whether we like it or not, Islamic extremists, whether they belong to al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban, or any number of similar groups, have declared war on the West, on our lifestyles and especially on our values.

We must be willing to except the fact that not everyone in this world accepts our core values of Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité. As we've seen in our failed attempts at nation building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many who don't share our belief in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Contrary to something President Obama said this week, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to practice, or not to practice the religion of one's choice, are not universally held values. And without a doubt, not everyone in the world believes in equal rights for all, including women, or that people should be afforded the opportunity to live their own lives as they see fit, including homosexuals. There are many in the world, who are not necessarily Islamic extremists, who view these cornerstone values of our Western democracy as morally bankrupt, corrupt, and decadent.

In a perfect world, people with different sets of values would learn to live in peaceful coexistence with each other. Unfortunately we don't live in a perfect world.

Here in the United States, the fragile status quo after the attacks of September 11, 2001 have left many of us complacent about the threat of terror. Our military has taken out key terrorist targets, most notably Osama bin Laden. Despite that, few of us are foolish enough to believe that with bin Laden gone, the threat is over. Fortunately there is strength in numbers and the number of extremists willing to commit unspeakable acts of terror is still relatively small.

That might not always be the case.

"If you give in to the terrorists through self-censorship, then the terrorists win", argue the "I am Charlie" crowd. On the contrary, I believe that the editors of Charlie Hebdo played right into the hands of the extremists by publishing their cartoons portraying Muhammad as a bumbling idiot in stereotypical Arab garb. Nothing could fit better into the master plans of the extremists than to make it appear that we in the West are waging a war on Islam, not the least of which, through our laws that permit the publication of words and images that ridicule what is most sacred to them.

For all their brilliance and guile, the propagandists of ISIS and al Qaeda (who as of Friday has taken credit for orchestrating the Paris attack),  could not have come up with better recruitment posters to radicalize new members into their ranks than the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. "Look at these..." I can hear them shout, "this is what the western infidels think of us, our Prophet, and Allah, may He be exalted." Like it or not, the Charlie cartoons were a provocation, certainly not to all Muslims, but to a volatile, lunatic fringe whom al Qaeda is more than happy to exploit in order to carry out their plans of global jihad.

We can rant all we want about the absurdity of people going on a murderous rampage because of a cartoon, but as we saw this week, this is the reality of our world today. To make matters worse, the Paris murders will no doubt embolden scores of right-wing French in their quest to rid their country of foreign (read Islamic) influence. Muslim businesses in Paris have already been vandalized and we can expect more to come. The survivors at Charlie Hebdo have promised to publish their next issue on time, being as irreverent as always, pissing off and provoking more violence to be sure.

And as this war on Islam, real or perceived, gains steam, more and more bored, anchorless, and disenfranchised, young Muslim men and women looking for meaning in their lives, will become radicalized and join in the fight, precisely the scenario al Qaeda is looking for. From his suite from deep within the recesses of hell, Osama bin Laden surely is pleased today.

We in the West take our liberties for granted. To most of us it is inconceivable that our most basic rights will ever be taken away from us. Perhaps that's why the reaction following the slaughter of the staff of Charlie Hebdo has been so great. For their defiance in the face of threats, the victims are viewed by some as heroes. But to me the real hero Wednesday was Ahmed Merabet, the police officer who was shot in the head by the terrorists as he lay helpless, immobilized on the street after being already shot in the groin. By far the most poignant comment I've read since Wednesday came from a man named Dayd Aboud Jahjah who tweeted:
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.
No, I am not Ahmed, simply because I am not a hero. As for the heroism of the Charlie staff, well personally I'm not so sure. The question for which I have no answer is this: were their intentions in publishing their cheeky and provocative cartoons truly intended to make the world a better place, or were they merely self-serving means to get attention for themselves and their paper? If it's the former, then yes of course they were heroes, if misguided ones. If it's the latter, then all bets are off and their actions have to be characterized as nothing more than foolish and irresponsible.

Along with liberty comes responsibility. Contrary to popular opinion, our freedoms are not absolute. This week we learned just how powerful ideas and the expressions of them can be. In the words of Václav Havel:
I inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
And as somebody else said: "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Why then is it so unreasonable, especially in this world of tenuous relationships between cultures, to expect ourselves to choose our words and express our ideas with care and good judgement?

Despite my fervent belief in freedom of speech, and of the press, in light of the terrible events in France this week, I must regrettably conclude with this sentiment:

Je ne suis pas Charlie.

No comments: