Outrage over massacre should not blind us to the hurt Muslims feel
The Charlie Hebdo massacre, as it is appropriately termed, has triggered a plethora of reactions - most of them facile and shallow.
Apart from adding another indisputably horrible act of violence to a world already saturated with it, the killing spree has dug yet further the divide between Muslim and Christian communities.
The assertion most often voiced is that freedom of expression must be preserved. Yet, rare are those in the West who have considered the situation - or even tried to - from the perspective of the Muslim world.
The caricatures that were the object of such wrath were - to say the least - tasteless. Beyond that, one could reasonably label them crude reductionist images of Muslim heritage, reflecting nothing ordinary to which Muslims relate, mere echoes of other crude reductionist images - already caricatures - purveyed so often by Western media. It was not surprising then, that so many Westerners could relate to them and even find humour in them, and that so many Muslims would find them repellent.
That huge numbers of “mainstream” or “moderate” Muslims as well as non-Muslims were deeply offended by the first cartoons, published in Denmark in 2005 (and reprinted by Charlie Hebdo in 2007), then by the later ones from Charlie Hebdo, seems irrelevant. Freedom of the press must prevail.
Obviously, we are told, Muslims just can't take a joke. As proof of Muslims' refusal to accept “democratic” norms, one often hears of the repeated effort of several Muslim countries to mobilise the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, then its successor, the Human Rights Council, for a resolution denouncing the defamation of religion. This is a red herring. Even before it got underway, the idea was denounced by innumerable Muslims and non-Muslims alike as stupid.
Such an approach supposes a single, coherent definition of religion that almost everybody agrees with. Even the doctrinally straight-jacketed Roman Catholics cannot manage this. But the futility of the effort does not excuse insensitivity to what others might consider sacred.
The caricatures, both Danish and French, bespoke an appalling ignorance of the Muslim world, its complexity, its subtleties, its anguish in the face of over two centuries of pillage and domination by the West and its suffering at the hands of various “coalitions of the willing” as its great, centuries-old centres of culture and learning are smashed, its peoples turned into beggars and refugees, its resources stolen, all by means of unspeakable violence visited upon them in the name of a certain superpower's scheme of “creative destruction”.
The much disputed international law doctrine of the right to protect (“R2P”) has its origins in Western Europe's nineteenth century machinations to humiliate and dismantle the Ottoman Empire - in the name of protecting Christian communities, many of whom over the centuries had prospered side by side with Muslims within the empire.
First came Greece, then Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria; all “protected”, then detached. The last remaining major Christian community - on strategically situated land moreover - was the Armenians. According to Professor Taner Akçam, who has spent the better part of 30 years in the archives of the Ottoman Empire studying the massacre of the Armenians, the Armenians were the pretext for major French- and British-backed Russian demands on the Sultan. By the summer of 1914, the Sublime Porte had been forced to accept autonomy for the Armenians that would have shortly been converted into independence under Russian oversight.
In reaction, the Ottoman government launched a programme to displace - and, when deemed necessary, kill outright - the Armenians in order to eliminate the justification for the intervention. We know what happened.
As horrible as it was, apparently, it is just another brutal example of the reasons of state trumping human rights, in this case triggered by the threat of more humiliation and dismemberment at the hands of the West. The war's end in 1918 saw further loss of huge territories, assigned to the British and the French as “protectorates”.
Today, of the great centres of Muslim culture, Baghdad is mostly in ruins, one of the most dangerous places on earth to live, and Iraq's other cities fare no better. Fallujah has been used as a testing ground for advanced uranium-based weaponry, its population suffering a rate of cancer and congenital malformations unknown elsewhere in the world and in medical history.
Damascus holds on by a thread, Aleppo shares the fate of Baghdad, while much of the rest of Syria has been lost to the (clandestinely) Western-supported Islamic State. Cairo, under a US-backed dictatorship for over 40 years, steadily moves toward becoming another almost unlivable super-city as Egypt groans under economic regression and spiralling poverty. Palestine, where it has not been simply confiscated and ethnically purified, is under military occupation, its population, dispossessed, humiliated and killed outright, subjected to a slow genocide. Somalia is considered a classic “failed state”. Lebanon is straining under a load of refugees that no Western country would ever tolerate - much less try to help.
Libya, not long ago the most advanced and best developed country in Africa, has been smashed beyond recognition, its almost 150 billion dollars in gold reserves disappeared, its people prey to warlords and their incessant feuds, fuelled by Western arms and manipulated by the string-pullers of Western intelligence services. Afghanistan shares its fate. Pakistan, destabilised by the great “jihad” against the Soviet Union and its record-breaking flood of refugees and illegal drugs, is still hanging on but suffering badly, humiliated by repeated assaults on is sovereignty. Yemen is slowly disintegrating, its population, like that of Pakistan and Afghanistan, victims of repeated drone attacks emanating from the Nobel Peace Laureate's “kill Tuesday” lottery sessions.
Across northern Africa at almost every airport in the region, the US superpower's “Africa Command” has built military bases that do not officially exist, to be activated when needed for “missions”. Everywhere, one finds the superpower's footprint, with the French and the British willing accomplices as the West proclaims the right to interfere in the gangrenous disorder created by its “creative destruction”.
The despair and suffering, physical and mental, among the peoples of this region are beyond words. Little wonder then, that so many - especially the young - turn to those who promise validation and self-assertion through the only apparent way possible within such dispossession, death and destruction.
Notwithstanding the West's claim to secularism, it and its mentality have been thoroughly fashioned by the Western Christianity that arose in the fourth century with the forced Christianisation of the Roman Empire. It is this religious heritage that is the connecting thread of the cultural identity of “Western Civilisation”, even now.
It is no different in the Muslim world, except that their identity is threatened - and with it the very survival of tens of millions of human beings. Their hypersensitivity to the current assault on their lands, their culture, their religion, even their languages, is logical.
Turning the source of their religious tradition into a crude cartoon character could only offend them deeply and provoke a sense of outrage that the alienated youth would feel particularly acutely. In a piece published in Time after the fire-bombing of Charlie Hebdo's offices, in November 2011, Bruce Crumley remarked: “Charlie Hebdo has cultivated its insolence proudly as a kind of public duty - pushing the limits of freedom of speech, come what may. But that seems more self-indulgent and wilfully injurious when it amounts to defending the right to scream “fire” in an increasingly over-heated theatre.”
His was one of the few voices to speak out in sympathy with the outrage felt by Muslims all over the world, one of the few voices to question absolute freedom of expression.
In Saint Paul's letter to the Colossians, Chapter 3, Verse 18, one reads: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is appropriate for those who belong to the Lord.”
Suppose Charlie Hebdo were to use that as a basis of caricatures to demonstrate the “truth” about Christianity in the United States. Picture a battered woman bleeding and bruised, with a sanctimonious Oral Roberts or Billy Graham looming over her, shaking his finger at her and saying, most emphatically, “That's what you get for not doing what you're told! Saint Paul would be ashamed of you! Look at you! Lucky for you, your husband's a righteous man. He'll forgive you - at least this time... But don't let it happen again!”
The outcry against the idea that this is a legitimate representation of Christianity, much less how the United States practices Christianity, would echo around the world. The talking heads would mobilise as they have not since France refused to join the 2003 coalition of the willing to invade Iraq, and Fact-Free Fox and Chicken Noodle Network would once again show French wine flowing down the gutters of US cities in celebratory contempt for the depraved “Frogs” and their degenerate “free” press.
The Psalms in the Old Testament are attributed to King David, a figure of literally mythic proportions whose legendary capital was Jerusalem (the basis of the Zionist claims to it) and the founder of the dynasty that produced Jesus. In Psalm 137, one reads: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
Imagine the outrage if that were caricatured in a Muslim publication. Picture King David, in his regalia surrounded by his troops: “All right men! Who's up for a little baby-bashing today? Let's go, men! It's great fun, once you get in the swing of it! God wills it! C'mon guys! Bash a Babylon baby for God!”
Even “centrist” Jews would be screaming “anti-Semitism!”, and their minions in the US Congress would be threatening hellfire and damnation of the worst sort for those who had dared defame the sacred house of David. The authors would be threatened with the same fate inflicted upon those who question the official version of the Holocaust.
Thus, there is an undeniable double standard in assessing what is acceptable in public.
When the Danish caricatures were published in 2005, it was repeatedly pointed out that the Pope is often caricatured, and nobody is the worse for it. Lampooning the Pope may be outrageous to some, but he is a head of state, a political figure, overseeing an elaborate state bureaucracy, receiving ambassadors and travelling the world with all the diplomatic immunity and privilege of a head of state. His office and title, Pontifex Maximus, come straight from pagan imperial Rome, where the pontiff ruled side by side with the emperor as the super-intercessor with the gods (later, simply the super-intercessor with God), the guarantor of power's divine legitimacy who conferred that legitimacy upon the emperor.
Another point often raised is that the film The Life of Brian harmlessly caricatured Jesus. It is true that Jesus was caricatured, but indirectly (he was adroitly confused with Brian, born next door to Jesus on the same day and subject to a case of mistaken identity). But it was Christians, not outsiders - much less foreigners from a colonising culture – doing the caricaturing in an officially Christian country with an official Christian church.
Even then, there was considerable righteous fury against the liberties taken by Monty Python, and all expressions of outrage were treated as unquestionably legitimate - from repeated choruses of “Blasphemy!” to the film's being effectively banned in the UK and formally banned in Ireland and Norway. (One recalls the advertising pitch: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”). One can only imagine the dimension that the outcry would have taken on - even today - if the film had been a Pakistani, Indian or Iranian production.
As the current outrage against the killings continues and the reactionaries set to work devising ways to exploit the latest abomination attributable to Muslims, journalist Bruce Crumley's closing words resonate with a succinctness that eclipses all the chatter.
“Defending freedom of expression in the face of oppression is one thing; insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can is infantile. Baiting extremists isn’t bravely defiant when your manner of doing so is more significant in offending millions of moderate people as well. And within a climate where violent response - however illegitimate - is a real risk, taking a goading stand on a principle virtually no one contests is worse than pointless: it’s pointlessly all about you.”