Listening to reports of the horrific massacre of the staff at Charlie Hebdo in Paris trickle onto public radio as I drove my newspaper distribution route in High Point last week, I felt shock and sadness while struggling to assimilate it into the catalogue of horrors continuing to unfold in the world.
I confess that I didn’t experience the feeling of being personally under attack, or that the massacre was an assault on journalism, free speech or the West. When I heard about news organizations in France putting up money to print the next issue of Charlie Hebdo and people declaring, “Je suis Charlie,” I wondered why I didn’t feel the urge to declare my solidarity. Had I become callous and desensitized to suffering? Am I not the staunch defender of the press that I thought I was? These are icky feelings.
There are numerous points of entry for identifying with the victims in the Charlie Hebdo attacks. For me, the starting point is journalism, and I suspect it was an important filter for the media workers at the BBC and National Public Radio who put together the reports that provided our first composite picture.
I was not familiar with Charlie Hebdo before Jan. 7, but from the description of the magazine’s caricatures, I wondered what was the point of depicting the Prophet as naked or kissing one of the cartoonists. Yes, the cartoon of masked Islamic militants beheading the Prophet holds a certain poignancy and topical relevancy to recent news cycles. But with the understanding that any depiction of the Prophet is offensive to people of faith, what other reason could there be for a publication that is part of the dominant culture to show the Prophet naked other than gratuitous antagonism towards a Muslim immigrant population that is treated as second-class citizens and systematically shut out of employment and opportunity?
When I think of journalism being under attack, the beheading of conflict reporters by the Islamic State in Syria comes to mind. Although international reporters inevitably carry some of the presumptions of their nationality, particularly when their home countries are militarily engaged, I had always believed that most combatants understood that reporters are neutral, that their role is to extract the truth from the fog of war — not to carry the flag for any faction. The murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff deeply unsettled me. When journalists are prevented from collecting and disseminating information in the theater of war, the truth is indeed under siege.
Depictions of the Prophet as satire are one person’s truth — that of the satirist — but it’s hard for me to accept that they belong in the same category. Why don’t we consider such cartoons to be art? As a practicing Christian myself, I admire Andres Serrano’s controversial 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” as a commentary on the cheapening of religion. It adds a dimension of complexity and challenge to know that Serrano is a Christian.
We Americans trying to understand events in France over the past week have begun to sort ourselves into two camps — those who stand in solidarity with the offensive cartoonists as a matter of defending free speech, and those who take a critical stance towards the cartoons while deploring fundamentalist violence.
Some have asked whether expressing misgivings about the content of the cartoons is a form of blaming the victim.
I abhor the murder of all human beings, but particularly murder where victims are targeted for who they are, what they’ve said or what they do. That includes cartoonists who satirize religion, police officers in New York City, abortion doctors and nuns who challenge the abuses of the state. That’s a broad category, not limited to the defenders of the press or free speech.
To some, including dear friends of mine, this rings a bit hollow. A friend in Winston-Salem wrote on my Facebook page: “Perfunctory condemnation of the violence matters little when it becomes clear the author equally condemns offensive speech aimed at religion.”
I would agree with that, except that I don’t think anyone who has expressed misgivings about the cartoons has argued that there’s any equivalency between murder and offensive speech.
I don’t agree with Salman Rushdie’s pronouncement that “religion deserves our fearless disrespect.” I do agree with Karl Marx’s statement that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” along with its oft overlooked companion that it is “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world.” For all the ways religion has been misused to justify violence and oppression, it also provides a sense of dignity to those who otherwise make their way in the world without resources or status.
Much of the argument for solidarity with Charlie Hebdo boils down to the dictum that if we don’t stand in solidarity, then the terrorists will have won. Nothing could be further from the truth: The murderers’ aim was to drive a wedge between secular liberalism and a multicultural sense of decency and compassion towards people of all religions. We can have both.