As I write this, Al Qaeda in Yemen has taken responsibility for the recent terrorist attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as well as today’s attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. While I only recently learned about the existence of Charlie Hebdo after Wednesday’s massacre, its “blasphemous” cartoons seem to be in the proud skeptical and anticlerical tradition that was forged more than three hundred years ago during the Enlightenment philosophes. In fact, I’d have to say that no one does anti-clericalism better than the French; I guess having the honor of being the denizens of “The Eldest Daughter of the Church” will inevitably lead to some major rebellion. From Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie to Notre Dame de Paris (AKA The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to the long tradition of convent pornography, the Catholic establishment hasn’t been sacred to many French for quite some time. This distain has also been extended to the two other Abrahamic religions (France has Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations).
There has recently been a lot of discussion on progressive and left-leaning blogs and news sites about the allegedly racist nature of much of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons. In particular, I fell down a rabbit hole last night reading the back and forth on this thread about whether the Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoonists were iconoclasts challenging the system or hipster racists who reinforced the status quo:
Personally, I don’t feel comfortable projecting an American racial history and consciousness onto the French context, and I realize that that’s exactly what I’d be doing if I took the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that I’ve seen on face value. While I do know some French and can read much of the text of the cartoons, my knowledge of French culture is limited to eighteenth and nineteenth century French novels read in translation. I’ve heard from actual French people that Charlie Hebdo was very supportive of racial minority groups, but I don’t feel competent to evaluate this claim either way.
But even if we assume that Charlie Hebdo‘s output was racist and was beating down an already depressed minority group, does that make the attacks justified? There’s a lot of material in the American media that consists of racist dog whistles and tired stereotypes that date back to the days of the minstrel show, and yet it has never occurred to me (or the vast majority who find such things offensive) that the best way to show my displeasure is by going postal. The Simpsons said it best when they said that to kill a media monstrosity, the best thing to do is “just don’t look.” These killings weren’t about racism, France’s colonial past, or a lack of economic opportunity in the minority communities, but about avenging the “honor” of a man who died over a thousand years ago. To paraphrase the immortal Huck Finn, these terrorists were a-bothering about Muhammad, which was no kin to them, and no use to anybody, being gone. All these attacks will do is make life much harder for those in French Muslim community who just want to lead ordinary lives.
There are those on the right like Bill “Catholic League” Donohue who see the deaths of the Charlie Hedbo staff as some kind of karmic retribution for their “narcissism” and irreverence towards religion:
I was initially somewhat surprised by Donohue’s response, since I was sure he was just use this incident as an opportunity to show how superior Christianity is to Islam. However, given how often Charlie Hebdo skewered Catholicism, I guess his wounded Catholic honor overwhelmed whatever anti-Islamic sentiment he might be feeling.
Contra Donohue, I think that religious ideas should not be set up on a pedestal, immune from criticism. Indeed, I think that religion should be criticized more than other ideas, precisely because of the irrational hold they have on individuals and societies. This isn’t the seventeenth century, where the ordinary believer was illiterate and depended on his or her priest, rabbi, iman, or other religious leader to decipher the world for them; I probably have more books in my bathroom than the average medieval scriptorium possessed and I can access even more information (often of dubious quality) through the Internet. This is why fundamentalist religious groups make a point of isolating their followers from information and even people outside of the group because their fragile beliefs crumble in the face of reason and empirical evidence. In the year 2015, there needs to be a better answer to life problems than, “My god/prophet/magic book says so.” If your god is so small that his or her “honor” is damaged by cartoons, then your god is pretty pathetic.