I have to be honest: there are times when human behavior makes me want to spend the rest of my days on the moon. Certain news events clearly have no good guys. The recent explosion of deadly mayhem in Paris by Islamic militants over an unflattering image of Mohammed in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is one of these events.
It’s such a strange feeling to empathize with both sides of such a volatile issue, while also feeling so much disgust with the actions of both. Not equal disgust, but no one comes out of this looking admirable nor heroic.
Killing people because they made your prophet-of-choice the butt of a joke? That’s straight-up insane, and cannot be tolerated in any society. I doubt that needs much elaboration. Instead, I’m going use this space to take a position that I’m sure is very unpopular among the privileged balcony seats of post-colonial power in the West –I’m going to call out the jokers at Charlie Hebdo.
You might expect a self-described heretic writer to come out in strong support of freedom of speech, and I do, wholeheartedly. So much so that I’ll use it without reservation to criticize its abuse. My heroes (to borrow from Abbie Hoffman) are those who yell “Theater!” in a crowded fire, not who do it the other way around and expect the authorities to rush to their defense.
Freedom of speech is essential to education, and education is the main ingredient in the prevention of atrocities like what happened in Paris. Satire can indeed be a vibrant and effective means of education…but there is a fine line between intelligent satire and ridicule, and the editors at Charlie Hebdo barreled right through that line.
Sure, we can ridicule anyone we want. We can single out any group of human beings and say “I am not you, and look how stupid you are.” O joyous freedom. But to actually exercise this freedom is to continue a chain of stupidity that didn’t begin with one’s enemy and probably won’t end with their retaliation. It’s as futile as punching oneself in the nuts.
So what did Charlie Hebdo accomplish by ridiculing Islam on their magazine cover? They reinforced identity politics for another extended news cycle. (And by “identity politics” I mean the opposite of what pantheism and the mystics of each religious tradition teach us: that what we are is defined exactly the social labels given to us, and our purpose in life is to improve the lot of those who share our labels at the expense of others. Religion is very susceptible to identity politics because our faiths can define not only what we are now but, supposedly, what we will become in an indefinite posthumous future.) They made the militants dig in their heels and respond the way they were taught to respond to heresy. They’re like the idiots who bomb a McDonalds to get their rocks off at corporate America –in the name of “freedom,” they’ll say– only to watch McDonald’s get rebuilt with a dozen security cameras.
Here’s the thing, folks: It has never been about the religion; it has always been these “us vs them” political agendas cloaked in the robes of religion. There are many, many Muslims living peacefully among us in the West. If it’s all about the religion, why isn’t Dearborn, Michigan a center of jihad activity in America? Because Muslims there are well-established community members (many Muslim families in Dearborn go back to when the Ford Motor Company actually made cars and employed people there). Because they are comfortable. They didn’t grow up in hopeless cyclical poverty, in societies rendered utterly dysfunctional by colonialism followed by despotism. They didn’t have fire-breathing imams stoking the flames of identity politics, arousing resentment of the First World. If any one of you reading this were raised in the hellacious environment of these militants, you’d want to blow shit up too, and don’t even try to argue that because it’s pointless. I sure as hell would.
Apologists for islamophobia like to mention that Christianity is subject to far more ridicule than Islam (and indeed, one of CH’s covers features, in reference to opposition to same-sex marriage, a depiction of the persons of the Trinity engaged in a gay menage a trois; it makes the Mohammed cover look like a valentine to Islam by comparison), yet we don’t see Christian militants retaliating with violence.
This is a valid point, but on closer inspection it speaks to the one I’m making. Identity politics is an enormous problem in fundamentalist Christianity, but a problem of a different kind –everywhere that Christians exist in large numbers, they are part of or are closely aligned with the ruling class. They have everything to lose by destabilizing their society with violence. If conservative American Christians were part of a chronic underclass and not actually floating somewhere among the world’s wealthiest 1%, you might see more of a militant response. As it is, they “turn the other cheek” and pray to their God to lift them away and kick off a period of unmitigated torture of the infidels. Isn’t it fairly obvious that identity politics and a deep-seated resentment of the freedom of heathens is behind the passive-aggressive and completely unbiblical belief in the Rapture? Clearly we’ve fanned some flames there too. It’s just difficult to convince a guy making $30,000 a year as an assistant manager at Chik-fil-A to strap a bomb to his chest and walk into a magazine office or movie studio.
Want to fight identity politics disguised as religion? How about a cover showing Muhammad and Jesus and Abraham and Buddha and a scientist (and maybe Spinoza for the pantheists) standing together, arms locked in solidarity, all being held in the hand of Mother Nature, with a caption like “We’re All In This Together”…..
Oh, but that won’t sell as many magazines, will it?