Lessons That Charlie Hebdo Teaches Us
by Dr. Abdul Cader Asmal
The showdown at Charlie Hebdo was the first salvo fired in the anticipated ‘blowback’ against the ‘West’ by Isis/Al Qaida trained European militants. The pretext as proclaimed was payback for the vilification of the prophet of Islam. The more likely explanation was the ghettoized mindset of the nominal Muslims who knew little about the prophet and even less about the message he presented.
Irrespective of who the terrorists claim to represent, the overwhelming majority of 1.5 billion Muslims condemn such acts as totally antithetical to the values of Islam. They repudiate the claims of such heretics who seek to justify their actions as a response to the malfeasance (whether real or imagined) perpetrated against the Muslim world by the so-called West. The litany of grievances they include are: the serial provocative humiliations (The Rushdie affair, the Mohammed cartoon caper, the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal); the exploitation of Muslim resources, occupation of their lands, or propping up of subservient dictators; the permissive extermination of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya and Kosovo; the unending ‘disclosures’ exposed in the endless ‘war-on-terror ‘, and the status of permanently despised ‘ghettoized citizens’ in a new homeland. Notwithstanding the merit or scurrilousness of such excuses Islam does not permit vicarious retribution.
In as much as most Muslims, living in states of poverty, war, illiteracy, unemployment and disenfranchisement, are outraged by the mindless acts of terror conducted by heretics in the name of Islam, they are also deeply humiliated by the penchant of Islamophobes and so-called satirists to deride the only single value that means anything to them, and provides comfort and joy in an otherwise hopeless world. That is their religion. To most, ‘free speech’ is an alien concept especially when it is selectively employed to denigrate Islam but circumvented by self-censorship when dealing with issues such as those critical of the Holocaust, or involving the use of the ‘N’ , or the ‘F’ word to depict Blacks and gays, respectively. Derision of their faith which is all-important to their existence is a calumny no Muslim will let pass unchallenged. While most will bear the insult with an expression of contempt for the double standards in practice, and others may indulge in acts of self-destructive violence, the psychopathic terrorists would be the real benefactors from such a propagandist recruitment bonanza. So is there a compromise that permits freedom of speech that at the same time protects the majority of Muslims from needless angst, but does not provide additional armamentarium for the misanthropes it aims to target?
The editor of Aljazeera had noted, “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.” While not addressing the issue of ‘free speech’ when he sent the following greetings to the Muslim world in 2013, Pope Francis was clearly cognizant of the consequences of ‘hate speech’, when he wrote, ‘We are therefore called to think, speak and write respectfully of the other, not only in his presence, but always and everywhere, avoiding unfair criticism or defamation.’ In response to Charlie Hebdo the Pope while supportive of ‘free speech’ emphasized the need for respect of peoples of other faiths. As though in response to the Pope’s decree, Chancellor Merkel, a day after walking arm-in-arm with President Hollande, bore living testimony to the Pope’s embrace of humanity when she proclaimed” Islam belongs to Germany”.
While the above sentiments may sound too much like a capitulation to Muslims, Charlie Hebdo reminds us: that only some (not all, as ‘conventional wisdom’ would have it) Muslims are terrorists; that all Muslims do not need to suffer the indignity of being viewed as one; they do not deserve the blanket opprobrium of satirists; and as frightening as it is for all communities, ordinary Muslims who disagree with them are the primary target of the Muslim psychopaths. While the Prophet Mohammed is highly revered by all Muslims who feel deeply offended by the disrespect shown toward him and absolute contempt for their sensitivities, some Muslims react with a disproportionate outrage to an issue that the Prophet himself had experienced in his lifetime and shrugged off as ‘an occupational hazard’. While graphic depictions of the Prophet by Muslims may be considered blasphemous, similar displays by non-Muslims would not in themselves be ‘blasphemous’, except if the display of Mohammed was deliberately demeaning or hateful. In the circumstance it would better serve the Muslims worldwide to confront the hateful ideology and actions of Al Qaida and Isis, than to display counter-productive behavior about any insult to the Prophet which he himself would have ignored.
The sacrifice at Charlie Hebdo would not be in vain if we act upon its many lessons in the interest of healing our common fractured humanity, from the eradication of those who defile religion to commit heinous acts on a global scale, to the reining in of those who abuse free speech to propagate hatred.
Abdul Cader Asmal MD PhD
Past President Islamic Council of New England