EVEN IF IT’S OFFENSIVE OR MISUNDERSTOOD
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IS ESSENTIAL
We had the cyber attack on Sony Pictures, intended to prevent release of a satirical movie about Korean dictator Kim Jung Un. And now we’ve had an actual, murderous attack on the French humor magazine, Charlie Hebdo, intended to avenge satirical portrayals of Muhammad.
While these incidents represent much different levels of ferocity, they both reflect attempts to impose totalitarian ideologies — in the first case, an ego-driven materialist despotism, and in the second, an extremist vision of Islamic theocracy — on societies that have long traditions of fostering individual autonomy and creative spontaneity.
Those traditions have been compromised in recent decades by the peculiar self-censorship that’s taken hold in the West, referred to by the term, political correctness. Our general submission to PC pressure suggests we’ve lost the stomach for asserting our cultural norms. And I think you could make a case that this impression has helped to convince hostile players that acts of aggression such as we’ve witnessed in Hollywood and Paris can gain them much at modest cost (thus increasing our vulnerability).
At the center of both incidents lies satire — humorous criticism — the genre of comedy which playwright George S. Kauffman once observed “is what closes on Saturday night.” Kauffman made that remark back in 1927, after the failure of the Gershwin brother’s musical, “Strike Up the Band.” If his witticism was ever true (which I doubt), it certainly isn’t anymore. Westerners, Americans in particular, love satire. Leftists are wild about it when it’s directed at anything that smells of Conservatism (less so when they’re the butt of the joke).
Out-and-out totalitarians, whether of secular or religious stripe, can’t stand any questioning of their essential precepts, especially when it’s funny.
The terrorists behind the Paris attack felt aggrieved over cartoons of Muhammad that were the satirical stock in trade of Charlie Hebdo. Were those cartoons offensive? No question about it. Were they blasphemous? From a Muslim point of view I’m sure they were.
But from the Western standpoint — a perspective based on our Judeo-Christian heritage of respect for individual conscience — they were lawful expressions of opinion, against which the attackers had no right to react with violence.
Muslims may have a hard time grasping this concept, in particular Muslims of traditionalist inclination. On the other hand, I think the North Koreans understand our principles perfectly well. They just don’t give a crap.
Writing in USA Today, Anjem Choudary, a prominent British advocate of Sharia law, struck an I-told-you-so posture toward the Paris carnage…
“Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
“Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, ‘Whoever insults a Prophet kill him.’”
Outside the jurisdiction of an “Islamic State,” as in France (since the ISIS fanatics have yet to conquer Paris), Choudary noted that many Muslims may feel called to…
“take the law into their own hands, as we often see.”
Choudary is, of course, entirely right that responsibilities come with free expression. But despite living in the West, he’s clearly not comfortable with the idea that a state should be limited in its ability to curtail what individuals say or publish. He asks…
“So why in this case did the French government allow the magazine Charlie Hebdo to continue to provoke Muslims, thereby placing the sanctity of its citizens at risk?”
One senses that protection of French citizens is not really a high priority to Choudary, who declares rather…
“It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world’s population was protected.”
In other words, freedom of expression be damned. Islamic concern for blasphemy — as defined by Sharia — trumps everything.
I can understand it if Muslims are baffled by what appears to be our lackadaisical attitude toward the sacred. After the Paris attack, a Facebook page for non-believers, indelicately titled the “We F-cking Love Atheism Community,” posted a tweet from British actor/director Ricky Gervais which humorously captures a common Western take on blasphemy…
“Blasphemy,” Gervais asserted, is “a law to protect an all-powerful, supernatural deity from getting its feelings hurt.”
Gervais makes the point crudely, but there’s truth in his quip. While Christians might take offense at blasphemous statements about, or depictions of, God, faith, or the Church — and there’s sure plenty to take offense at these days — we usually aren’t moved to murder in an effort to counter or protest them.
This wasn’t always true, of course. Church history is replete with witch drownings, gruesome tortures, burnings at the stake, and other such measures, all applied in fraternal correction of heretics and blasphemers.
Hopefully, that stuff is behind us now. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find any (sane) Christian who reminisces about the Spanish Inquisition sighing, “Those were the good old days.”
Similarly, we assume that if we should be called to risk martyrdom it will likely be in upholding our own individual faith commitment, rather than in defense of God whom we know is quite capable of defending Himself.
It’s difficult for Westerners to appreciate the position of Muhammad in the religious awareness of Muslims — especially hard, I would imagine, for loyal members of the “We F-cking Love Atheism Community.” Christianity has plenty of prophets (most of whom we share with Judaism), but none who play the unique role of Muhammad in Islam.
Christians may feel affinity with certain prophetic figures or devotion to favorite saints, but we have a binding moral obligation to one person alone: Jesus Christ, whom we revere as not only a prophet but also as our high priest and king. In the Christian view He is the Son of God (or God’s earthly incarnation, depending on how you choose to express His status).
Consequently, we have no one else to defend — a fact which I think has helped us to achieve our current high level of forbearance toward blasphemy. We assume God has final say on the eternal fate of smartass mockers.
I don’t know if the West and the Islamic world can ever come to any mutual accommodation of their conflicting religious views (a true modus vivendi, as the expression goes). But there are hopeful signs, not least the speech by Egyptian President General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi given on New Year’s Day to a prestigious assembly of Muslim clerics at Al-Azhar University. In his truly shocking presentation Sisi called for a revolution in Islamic thought…
“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
“That thinking — I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world ….
“You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.”
Okay. That’s good. Sisi’s words are very encouraging. But let’s leaven our hopefulness with caution, because not everybody has gotten the memo.
Now that the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo have been captured and/or killed (at this writing one is still being hunted down), Andrew Parker, head of Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency, has issued a warning of plots in development for attacks designed to…
“inflict mass casualties in the West, possibly against transport systems or ‘iconic targets…’
…which will likely be carried out by Muslim extremists who have lived in Britain and other Western countries and so are familiar with the prospective targets and local security capabilities.
Reuters reports that in his speech, which had been scheduled before the Paris killings, Parker said MI5 is aware that…
“around 600 British extremists had traveled to Syria, many joining the militant group which calls itself ‘Islamic State’…” and that they are preparing to make “sophisticated use of social media to incite British nationals to carry out violence.’”
We may assume there are plenty from France and the U.S. and other countries too.
“‘The dark places from where those who wish us harm can plot and plan are increasing …. We need to be able to access communications and obtain relevant data on those people when we have good reason.’”
James Bond, call your office.
We live in a scary time, and things are likely to get scarier. But this I see as evidence of the need for faith — and the need free expression as well. We must be able to speak about the nature of the threats we face, even speaking humorously. A good start along that road would be standing against the culturally suicidal, ideologically driven self-censorship of political correctness.
The creators of a puerile movie about Kim Jung Un or some offensive cartoons about Muhammad may seem rather unworthy champions of liberty. But circumstances have given them an unexpectedly iconic significance at this dangerous moment in history.
Let us join the people of Paris in their shout of solidarity with those killed…
“Je suis Charlie!”
(NOTE: With the revisions in my blog format, you can now link to articles by clicking on the media logos.)
Writing in USA Today, commentator Jonah Goldberg complains that the mainstream media have largely ignored General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call for a reform of Islam. He observes that…
“…al-Sisi isn’t the kind of authentic Muslim reformer many Westerners wanted.
“Indeed, he’s too western for some and clearly too autocratic for many (his treatment of the press is outrageous). They wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to succeed in Egypt, not be brought to heel by an Arab Pinochet. Moreover, al-Sisi sees Israel as a de facto ally in their shared battle against Muslim extremism, and that muddies the narrative that Israel is the cause of Middle East extremism, not the victim of it.”
Peter D. Williams, Executive Director of British Right to Life, acknowledges the barbaric nature of the Paris attack. But in a Facebook post he expresses reservations about turning the Charlie Hebdo staff into martyrs for free expression…
“…what I cannot do is go along with the collective renunciation of thought that constitutes the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag and associated campaign. I know it’s meant to be a show of solidarity, but what it actually does is celebrate and identify with a publication that is, not to put too fine a point on it, not real satire at all but simply a form of poisonous stupidity.”
Where Williams’s reservations are essentially moral in nature, the initial reaction of Adam Kotsko to the Paris atrocity was pure political correctness. A professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Kotsko went on Twitter to blast Charlie Hebdo as a paper “devoted to hate speech.”
It’s a healthy sign that people seem to have heard quite enough about so-called “hate speech.” An avalanche of critical tweets soon made this ethics scholar see the error of his ways.