Today marks one week since the Islamist assault on the anti-clerical satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, a publication which has published — and continues to publish — cartoons mocking Mohammed, the founder of the Muslim religion. The world reacted in horror at not just the senseless deaths at the hands of madmen but at the symbolism of the attack: that in a free and secular society, the freedom of expression might be held hostage to fanatical barbarism.
Many of those who condemned the attack were quick to point out that the publication was not merely anti-Islam but anti-Catholicism, anti-Judaism and anti-any non-secular belief system (examples of such cartoons can be viewed here and here, but warning: some are quite graphic and sexual in nature). What's more, despite being a generally Left-wing outfit, Charlie Hebdo was frequently accused of indulging in racism in the process of staking out its positions. An excellent appraisal of their cover depicting the kidnapping and rape victims of Boko Haram as welfare queens is explained here, and I promise never to link to Vox again if you promise to read it.
But for all of the high praise given Charlie Hebdo for its defiance in the face of violence — its offices had been firebombed for portraying Mohammed before, with no casualties — there has been criticism, as well. Yes, the killings of the magazine's staff were unjustified, the critics argue, but so too was their mockery uncalled for. And here we are faced with the question: Just because we can do something, does it mean we should?
The loudest (and I quite literally mean loudest) American voice on the matter has been the Catholic League's Bill Donohue, who immediately laid the ultimate blame for the killings at the feet of the victims. In short, Donohue argues, there may be a legal right to blaspheme, but there is no moral right to do so. Just so all of you understand the sort of individual we are dealing with: When a study about victims of clerical sexual abuse was released, Donohue immediately lambasted the media for calling it paedophilia, because most of the victims were post-pubescent and therefore, the priests in question were really predatory homosexuals going after minors. Except most of the victims were under 14, so not only did Donohue slander gay men with the trope that they are all sex-crazed child abusers, but he minimised a very serious problem in both the Church and the secular world.
His obtuse summary of Charlie Hebdo as merely a pornographic outlet for religion-bashing is also off-base. Again, any jokes about the Church, even clever, inoffensive ones, draw this man's ire. He has been at war with The Simpsons for the better part of two decades now. Charlie Hebdo was a part of the great French tradition of satire, a multi-layered, brutally honest strain of humour that requires more than a casual glance to understand. Its cartoonists were and are cultural institutions, and many French grew up and learned the basics of comedy from them.
But all of that aside, Donohue makes a separate, vital argument: That which is legally permissible ought not be morally permissible. In other words: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. As a broader point, he is right, but his response undercuts this. When your response to offensive caricatures is to become an offensive caricature, you have already lost the argument.
The corollary to the you-can-but-you-shouldn't argument is that if you do choose to do something wrong, you have to live with the consequences. Pretty much anyone over age five at least somewhat understands this. What is disturbing, however, is this argument devolved into, "Well, of course the expected response for mocking Islam is getting killed. What else would it be?"
Case in point: radical Muslim activist Anjem Choudary. Some of you may be familiar with this fellow from his recent
shoutfest interview with Sean Hannity. Because I love all of you too much to subject you to Sean Hannity, I will not expose you to it. Instead, I will direct you to his recent USA Today opinion piece, in which he notes that the proper Islamic punishment for insulting one of their prophets is death. Keep in mind, Choudary wishes for all people to live under sharia, or Islamic, law, so in his ideal world, the magazine staff were lawfully punished. He has also called the September 11 terrorists "magnificent martyrs" and strongly implied that Pope Emeritus Benedict should be killed for remarks he made about Islam.
Choudary is not alone. Many young French Muslims either support the Charlie Hebdo killings or just don't care about them. Unlike other religious populations in France and elsewhere, Muslims, who have more children than those of other faiths and no faith, are becoming more devout as they age out, rather than less so, which poses a problem for a country where secularism is a cherished virtue. A result of that devotion is that many young Muslims, in France and other countries, are disturbingly supportive of terrorism.
France is often called the "eldest daughter of the Church", since the Catholic presence there dates back to at least the second century, when the Bishop of Lyon and others were martyred in A.D. 177. An uncomfortable fact many in the West would like to forget is that the victory for secularism in the modern age was not bloodless. The Communist takeovers of Eastern Europe and much of Asia, the Mexican Revolution and yes, the French Revolution all targeted the Church and punished those who did not conform to the new, secular order, often with death. Today's secular Left is the heir to this bloody tradition, and the cold reality is, Charlie Hebdo and its staff are a part of that same movement.
France's approach to secularism has been to create an unofficial State religion. It is illegal for the government to take demographic information, such as race and faith, in its census, because acknowledging any sort of division would undermine the notion that all French are French, nothing more, nothing less. The country's infamous headscarf ban in public schools led many Muslims to send their children to the nation's Catholic schools where they actually had more religious freedom.
So, imagine the reality of the young French Muslim. The Church, as in the rest of Western Europe, is in rapid decline. Contemporary society tolerates faith but generally sees it as, at best, an anachronistic nuisance and, at worst, a handicap on social progress. With the Catholic Faith a seemingly dead option, his choices are secularism or Islam. Which should he choose?
If he goes with the first option, he must shed all of what he knows and holds dear to his heart. His values are just another way of life amongst many. His belief must no longer define him but be reduced to a mere hobby on Friday evenings at mosque and hidden in the shadows of a janitor's closet or an office cubicle at lunchtime. He is French now. It is not that he no longer has a God, but rather, his private God is Allah. His public God is the State.
This is why choosing between secularism and the Faith is a false choice. Anything can be made a religion, even irreligion. We all have our rituals, our superstitions, our scripture, our heroes, our saints and our sinners. But if one is raised in a faith and suddenly told that it is wrong or shameful or otherwise too "loud" for society to tolerate, it is unreasonable to expect him to shrug it off and conform with the ease of changing from one set of clothes to another.
It is too much to hope that 1.6 billion souls might change their minds about Christ overnight, but it is astounding how much of an opening the Faith gives to the Muslim people. Much of Islam's scripture is essentially a modified Judeo-Christian text. In the Qur'an, there is even an Islamic Nativity story and an entire chapter dedicated to Mary. In Lebanon, a sheik successfully lobbied to make the Feast of the Assumption a national holiday, because Mary is a point of unity between Christians and Muslims. There is a reason why Dante saw Mohammed as a schismatic, similar to the way the Church views Protestants today, rather than the founder of an entirely new religion.
Contrary to what many in the media assert: No, Islam does not need a "reformation" like in Christianity. The so-called Protestant Reformation was a force for evil. It shattered the Body of Christ, just as the Great Schism did. No, Islam requires conversion, and so do we.
What Muslims outraged by Charlie Hebdo and others who mock their faith have right is that relativism is not a viable belief system, because it is a celebration of nothing as something. That may work as the thesis for a popular sitcom, but it makes for a lousy way of life. There is no glory in nihilism, only futility.
One of the murdered cartoonists, affectionately known to the public as Charb, said back in 2012 that he would rather die on his feet than live on his knees. There is something admirable about that. Charb and his colleagues' worldview was certainly defective: It was one where the profane was sacred and the sacred profane. But if men with nothing to look forward to after this life can be so bold in the face of death itself, what excuse do we who believe have for lacking such bravery? The secular martyr may be wrong in belief, but he need not be wrong in action.
In an interview earlier this week, Charlie Hebdo editor Caroline Fourest noted the irony that much of the sympathy and support for her slain friends came from the very people whose faith they mocked: "My message to my colleagues — you know, they were very strong atheists, so they didn't believe in Paradise — but still, I give this message to them, just to tell them what is going on, what crazy stuff we can see, since they are gone, that the Church of Notre Dame rings the bell for them, that so many religious people are praying for them."
That is the Faith in action. The response to violence, even if we must resort to self-defence, must always be prayerful. All that we do must be for Him, not for us.
So, are we really Charlie? Yes. We are Charlie every day, because we sin, every day. We are no better than Charlie, because we are all bound by our humanity, the humanity that gives us the free will we can use for good or evil. Confusing our gifts with rights is primarily why it is so difficult to separate what we can do from what we should.
Bad ideas deserve criticism, and a free people should not be cowed into silence by violence. The Church has withstood persecution before; she will withstand worse in the future. There is a reason Christ coupled the peacemakers with the persecuted in the Beatitudes.
Je suis chrétien. (I am Christian.)