The Sole Religion Charlie Hebdo Has Yet to Mock

Last week’s attack on the editors and staff of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, carried out by Islamic extremists looking to avenge what they regarded as blasphemous depictions of the prophet Muhammad in cartoons the newspaper had published, was a barbaric and brutal act that can only elicit profound outrage and grief from those who adhere to the most basic principles of morality and civilized society. 

What meanwhile has been the subject of increasingly robust debate, especially as the days have passed since the horrific attack, has been the question of how much appreciation is merited by the work and the principles of those at Charlie Hebdo who died.  A relative few in the western press and social media have made the unfortunate suggestion that they more or less had it coming to them.   In a piece widely criticized by people across the political and religious spectrum, Bill Donahue of the Catholic League accused the newspaper’s editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, of being narcissistic, and observed, “It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” The obvious problem with Donahue’s statement is that it makes the attackers less than fully culpable by placing some of the blame on their victims.   

Much more common have been articles and posts that regard Charbonnier and his colleagues as heroes of freedom and civilization.  Even those who would not themselves rush to offend others’ religious sensibilities have been led by the hideous attacks against Charlie Hebdo to champion the right to offend and blaspheme, and even to raise it to the level of a duty.   “The right to blaspheme (and otherwise give offense) is essential to the liberal order,” wrote the generally conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who by the word “liberal” was speaking of course of the classical Liberalism that undergirds western democracies.  “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something,” Douthat goes on, “then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

It is essentially this perspective, less fully articulated, that is reflected in the “Je suis Charlie” hashtag that immediately spread through social media in the aftermath of the attack.  One can understand how this way of showing solidarity with the victims, in mass defiance of the terrorist threat, could strike so many as the best and most compelling response and how it has continued to have broad resonance – witness the ubiquitous placards displaying the phrase at Sunday’s rally in Paris in which more than a million people marched, and the statement “Paris est Charlie” projected in block letters onto the façade of the Arc de Triomphe at night.  But there have also been criticisms, well worth considering, of the impulse to identify oneself too closely or fully with Charlie Hebdo as an icon of what our culture stands for at its heart. 

At a certain moment last week, newspapers and magazines across Europe and elsewhere were being urged by Charlie Hebdo supporters to run the very images of Muhammad – in one or more of which he is depicted pornographically – that Charlie Hebdo had run that had generated death threats and eventually served as the motive for the murderers’ brutality.  Suddenly, the idea in many people’s minds was that publications uncomfortable with running these same offensive images were cowards.  Not to participate in ridiculing Muhammad was now to “let the extremists win”.  An impressively lucid editorial in London’s The Guardian saw through this fallacy:

“[S]upport for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments. Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words. . . . [You] can defend – and defend absolutely – the necessary diversity of press voices along with an editor’s right to offend. But the best response is not to be forced to speak in a different voice. The Guardian felt that at the time of the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy, and we feel it now. As Simon Jenkins argued on these pages on Wednesday, terrorists’ chief goal is to make us change our behaviour. It’s best to deny them that victory.”

At least as insightful were reflections of Matthew Yglesias in the online magazine Vox: “It's clearly one's legal right, as an American, to go around flinging offensive racial slurs at black people or to stage a neo-Nazi march through a Jewish town in Illinois. Many foreign countries take a narrower view of such things, but I think the United States has this correct. Still, while I want to live in a world where people can use racial slurs, I would have absolutely no problem with a world in which nobody did. Free speech is a right, but politeness is a virtue. . . . You shouldn't publish racist cartoons! That's not free speech, that's politeness and common human decency.”

When indecency is elevated to the status of a moral good, then what we have is a dangerous conflation of a merely legal/procedural value with an inherent value.  In the absence of true and authentic values, a culture of procedural Liberalism will be tempted in this direction, tempted not only to defend but to celebrate as if it were good what it is committed to preserving as a legal right.  But what we may permit legally and what we affirm morally are two different things.  When as a free society we have defended the legality of Hustler magazine or a KKK march (the analogy goes only so far, certainly, since the Klan’s history includes lynchings that have no equivalent in Charlie Hebdo’s past, and Hustler’s images have none of the potential intellectual or political value that satire can have), this typically has not carried with it much risk of our actually admiring or affirming the content of what we have permitted to be expressed.  Nor, if the anti-semitic or racist rants of Klansmen had ever resulted in their murder by extremists from the minority groups demeaned by them, would our absolute condemnations of the killing have led us to feel any obligation to carry the Klan’s torch ourselves.

Would those today expressing their proper horror at the deaths of the Charlie Hebdo contributors by adopting the “Je suis Charlie” mantra be saying “I am the KKK” if Klansmen had been the ones murdered?  And if people in massive numbers did raise placards at marches and send messages through social media with the hashtag “I am the KKK,” would this not be a rather disturbing phenomenon for Jewish and black people to see?  Again, the analogy has its limits – Klansmen, unlike the writers and artists at Charlie Hebdo, care less about free speech as a general principle than about expressing their own specific contempt for ethnic minorities – but how, still, does a Parisian Muslim today who utterly abhors violence look without profound inner discomfort at an officially sponsored sign at the center of town identifying his city with the publication that blasphemes his faith?

There is, in fact, no moral requirement whatsoever to keep doing boldly and fearlessly whatever is likeliest to tempt militant zealots to commit acts of violence, as if anything else would be to "let them win".  The right to unfettered freedom of expression is not at all to be pursued and cherished humanly and interpersonally, as it is legally.  Christians are very far from understanding themselves as having no restrictions on their own speech.  “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Mt. 12:36).   

Certainly there is no possible justification from a Christian point of view for retaliation against others who say even the most insulting, offensive, or blasphemous things.   Jesus did not condemn those who chose to disparage him – “anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven” (Mt. 12:32) – and singled out blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the only unforgiveable sin, which seems to mean that some who remain open to what is good and right and true may yet speak ill of Christ from some misunderstanding about Him.  Muhammad himself seems to have been similarly placid and restrained in the face of those who accused and insulted him.

If, however, those who mock and blaspheme are to be treated with humanity, love, and restraint, this is not to say that Christians, even in staunchly defending the freedoms of liberal democracy, might not have good reason to decry in the strongest possible terms instances when humiliating words and expressions are directed toward others in the public sphere, especially toward those whose dignity is already seriously injured, as may be said in a general way of the Muslim population in French society.  Not all Americans, for whom freedom to malign religion and freedom to exercise religion are both firmly held as essential rights, are aware that Muslim women in France are banned from wearing headscarves in government buildings, that another French law (upheld by the European Court of Human Rights) prohibits Muslim women from wearing the veil in public and that a Muslim mother cannot accompany her child on a public school field trip unless she first removes her headscarf.  Far from speaking out against these limitations on the religious freedoms of Muslim women in France, the editorial staff at Charlie Hebdo has seen itself as coming to the aid of Muslims by urging them to shed their religious identity altogether.  Scott Sayare, writing in the Atlantic Monthly last weekend, recounted his 2012 interview as a New York Times reporter with the top editor of Charlie Hebdo, Gérard Biard (who was not in Paris last week during the massacre at his publication’s offices), in which Biard had suggested that while all religions are subject to the newpaper’s satire, Islam is, from his point of view, “in need of especially caustic treatment . . . insofar as it has prevented its followers from full integration into French society.”  Sayare’s reporting on the views of Biard goes on:  “‘You’re not supposed to use religion for your sense of identity, in any case not in a secular state,’ Biard said. ‘In principle, the Arabs in France are not Muslims,’ he contended—that is, Arabs in this secular, assimilationist nation are citizens like any others, and would be well served to renounce whatever attachment they may feel to Islam. ‘How is it going to help these people to make them believe they’re Muslims?’ he asked.”

Charlie Hebdo cannot fairly be said to stand for pluralistic freedom but for an imposed and remarkably narrow form of secularism – laïcité, as it is called – a kind of religion of secularism, as may be seen in these further words of Biard:  “Laïcité,” he said, “is not just some abstract idea. It is a moral value, and I believe today, one must recognize that laïcité is perhaps the prime moral value of our Republic. Because without it, Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité isn’t possible.”

At least one commentator has suggested that the spirit of Charlie Hebdo has always and only been anti-idealist and iconoclast, and that the last thing the murdered cartoonists and editors would have wanted would have been for us to “sacralize them as embodiments of some abstract ideal of free speech,” but that analysis does not square with Biard’s words above.  Biard’s words show, on the contrary, that the newspaper’s slain contributors and their surviving colleagues did and do live and work according to something they have believed to be transcendent, an ideal, as indeed every human being does if he or she is to go on living and working at all.  The ideal in which they have believed has been the, to them, transcendent ideal of laïcité, what Biard considers to be the highest value animating the French Republic – an ideal so sacrosanct that Muslims’ right even to dress according to their own religious convictions is thoroughly overridden by it.  Charlie Hebdo’s own absolute faith in laïcité represents the one system of belief it has yet to find the freedom or the courage to mock.

Is, though, the publication’s current cover, showing Muhammad with a tear on his cheek – and the artist’s own tears as he spoke this past Tuesday of the cartoon’s profound, and apparently non-satirical, message of forgiveness – a small chink in Charlie Hebdo’s otherwise relentlessly anti-religious armor?  May we all wish it so as we mourn the deaths of those slain and pray for the souls of their persecutors.

Will Cohen is Associate Professor of Theology at the Univerity of Scranton, where he teaches on the Bible, Byzntine theology, Latin American theology, and issues of work and rest in light of faith.