Nine months after the deadly assault on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which saw jihadists execute 10 writers, artists and janitors in retaliation for the paper’s publication of crude cartoons mocking Muhammad, The Financial Times reports the Paris-based publication is facing “regular threats of violence from a worldwide audience.” There were 20 death threats in September alone. “People feel authorized to send us death threats,” says Laurent Sourisseau, the paper’s editor, who took a bullet during the rampage. He and his staff don’t know how long his paper—or free speech—can hold on.
How sad—for religion, for democracy, for civilization.
Setting aside the wars waged by ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram, the violence being committed in the name of Muhammad is becoming such a frequent occurrence that it’s difficult to keep track of all the examples.
After the Charlie Hebdo murders, there was the lone-wolf jihadist attack on a Copenhagen café, targeting a cartoonist who had caricatured Muhammad in his drawings. The attacker missed his target but murdered another man, before murdering a guard at a synagogue. Then there was al-Shabaab’s Easter weekend massacre in April, killing 147 people at Kenya’s Garissa University.
Before Charlie Hebdo, there was the Taliban’s assault on a school in Pakistan that claimed 132 children and al-Shabaab’s shopping-mall jihad in Nairobi, which killed 67 people. In 2012, the airing of a film critical of Islam triggered mob violence that left at least 49 dead in six countries.
In 2006, Muslim mobs attacked a church and diplomatic mission in Beirut, set fire to foreign embassies in Damascus and Tehran, and killed four people in Afghanistan—all to defend their faith from a cartoon.
That same year, many in the Muslim world lashed out over a papal lecture ironically about the compatibility of faith and reason—a lecture presented by a pope eager to promote dialogue between Islam and Christianity. In response, the world’s top Shiite cleric demanded an apology “for this false reading” of Islam. The Pakistani parliament condemned the pope for “derogatory comments.” A leading Turkish official accused the pope of reviving the Crusades. Bombs exploded outside an Assyrian Catholic Church in Iraq. And in Somalia, the murder of a nun was linked to the pope’s speech.
In 2005, reports that a Koran had been flushed down a toilet at a U.S. detention facility—reports that turned out to be false—led to deadly rampages in Afghanistan. In 2004, a Dutch filmmaker was murdered because he dared produce a film critical of Islam’s treatment of women. The list goes on and on.
To be sure, Islam doesn’t claim the Charlie Hebdo killers or the ISIS fighters in Iraq or the Boko Haram kidnappers or the Pakistani Taliban or the Boston Marathon bombers or the 9/11 mass-murderers. But the hard, undeniable truth is that all of them claim Islam. As one of the Charlie Hebdo jihadists shouted after proving his savage piety, “We avenged the prophet Muhammad!”
These violent reactions—some against elements of civil society, others against fictions and falsehoods, all against freedom—open the door to many questions: Where is the Muslim condemnation for those who use the Koran to justify mass-murder and minarets to coordinate slaughter? Does Pakistan’s parliament condemn what its imams incite within and beyond Pakistan’s borders? Where was the Muslim outrage when the Taliban’s self-styled holy men turned Afghanistan into a torture chamber, or suicide bombers turned a Seder meal and a Palm Sunday service into executions, or jihadists turned Mumbai and Manhattan, Bali and Beslan into warzones?
Indeed, it pays to contrast these cartoon jihads with the reaction of other faiths to much more grievous examples of religious insensitivity. Buddhists didn’t torch the embassies of Muslim nations when the Taliban dynamited ancient relics of their ancient faith. Jews didn’t rampage through Europe when scores of synagogues and cemeteries were defaced. Mormons didn’t firebomb Broadway after the “The Book of Mormon” musical was performed. Christians don’t frenzy the faithful to deadly rampages when the cross is desecrated, or Jesus is depicted as a luster or liar, or the clergy is smeared.
Islam is not a monolith. It has many sects and divisions. And just a tiny fraction of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims defend their faith by mass-murder. But what many have termed “Islam’s civil war” is spilling into the rest of civilization. Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim who fled Muslim-on-Muslim persecution, concludes that it’s time Islam’s political and religious leaders answer a simple question: “What is more offensive to a believer—the murder, torture, enslavement, and acts of war and terrorism being committed today in the name of Muhammad, or the production of drawings and films and books designed to mock the extremists and their vision of what Muhammad represents?”
Indeed, other religions, when they have veered off track in their interactions with the rest of civilization, have summoned the courage and humility to look inward, apologize and change.
Pope Francis has apologized for “grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse,” asking for “the grace for the church to weep and make reparation for her sons and daughters who betrayed their mission, who abused innocent persons.”
Speaking to fellow Christians in 2000, Pope John Paul II asked “pardon for the divisions among Christians… and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility.” Speaking to Jews, he said, “We are asking your forgiveness; we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.” And speaking to other faiths, he apologized for times when church leaders showed “contempt” for their “cultures and religious traditions.”
In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention called on its members to “repent of racism of which we have been guilty… We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest.”
The Mormon religion lifted a ban on priesthood for black members and ended the practice of polygamy.
Moreover, since Muslims consider themselves citizens of the “Ummah”—a supranational community of all Muslims—examples of nations that have sought redemption after veering off course are also instructive.
Think of the moving image of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees at a Jewish memorial in contrition for the holocaust his countrymen perpetrated. It was a powerful signal to the world—and more importantly to Germans—of the posture Germany needed to take to rejoin civilization.
Likewise, Japan’s emperor and prime minister repeatedly apologized for Japan waging a war of aggression during World War II.
The U.S. government apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and paid damages to survivors.
Russian leader Boris Yeltsin confessed for the Soviet Union’s “unparalleled brutality” and “dark pages” during the Cold War.
Instead of gestures of repentance, reconciliation or reformation, the world gets rationalizations from too many Muslim leaders.
With Paris still under siege, and the offices of Charlie Hebdo still wet with blood, the foreign minister of Turkey—generally considered a modern, liberal democracy—warned about “the dangers of increased racism, discrimination and Islamophobia in Europe.”
“Publishing insults against a prophet who has been sent as a mercy to mankind is not freedom of expression,” added Turkey’s prime minister.
The French Council of the Muslim Religion condemned the attacks as “barbaric” but then called on the French public “to avoid provocations.”
“We do take issue with the implication that extremism takes place at mosques and that Muslims have not done enough to challenge the terrorism that took place in our name,” the Muslim Council of Britain indignantly declared. Yet public-school teachers in France report that Muslim students contend the attack was staged; some openly justify the massacre. Where would children hear such poisonous ideas, if not from their mosques and/or homes?
Anjem Choudary, a high-profile Muslim cleric based in London, asked, “Why in this case did the French government allow the magazine Charlie Hebdo to continue to provoke Muslims?”
In other words, the cartoonists had it coming, and the French government had a responsibility to do something liberal democracies are not supposed to do: censor free speech, muzzle political discourse, smother dissent.
Don’t misconstrue this as a defense of Charlie Hebdo’s often-tasteless drawings. Jesus wouldn’t want us to make fun of what is sacred to other religions. Instead, He would want us to apply something like the Golden Rule to our interaction with other faiths: to treat their beliefs with the care and respect with which we would want our beliefs to be treated.
However, there’s another principle at stake: the right of free people in free societies to free speech. In free societies—and nowhere are Muslims freer, safer, more secure than in the free societies of the West—problems with the press, offended sensibilities, slander and libel are resolved in the arena of ideas and in the courts, not by bullets and bombs. Any organization or individual unable to recognize this bedrock principle has, by definition, disqualified itself or himself from being part of that free society.
People in free societies don’t have to read or like Charlie Hebdo or the Koran or the Bible. That’s what civilization is all about: people of different backgrounds, people with differing ideas, people of different faiths and no faith at all finding a way to coexist. Christ followers know that the pathway to real peace among peoples is the one pathway to the Father: Jesus. We can pray for nonbelievers, sow seeds, speak the truth in love, lead lives that win the respect of outsiders and trust that some hearts will be changed. But until Jesus returns, there will be profound disagreements among different faiths. The solution to such disagreements is to agree to disagree. The solution is never to force someone else to believe or die.
Think about it this way: The preceding paragraph is offensive to some people and blasphemous to others. Paul reminds us that the cross itself is an offense to many. We’re bound to offend someone when we share our beliefs, when we challenge the beliefs of others and especially when a sacred text is questioned—all of which means this is not a matter of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics and cartoonists simply trying harder not to offend Muslims.
Muslims have the primary responsibility here—a duty to struggle internally for the betterment of their faith, to eradicate the notion that a cartoon can somehow justify violence, to join the rest of us who are trying to remove the planks from our field of vision. The Muslim faith—which helped preserve the discoveries of antiquity, which allowed religious liberty to flourish under the Ottomans, which is honored on the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court as a source of law and reason—must find a way to spark a reformation.
But who are we to call upon an ancient monotheistic religion to reform? We are free people in a free country who recognize that religious freedom and political freedom are at risk, who are not afraid of defending our beliefs in the arena of ideas, who believe that Christians and Jews and Shiites and atheists—and cartoonists—should not have to choose between the gallows and their beliefs, who remember that speaking across cultural and religious divides is what God’s people are called to do. Isn’t that what Moses did with Pharaoh, Daniel with Nebuchadnezzar, Esther with Xerxes, John with Herod, Paul with Athens?
Ironically, the strongest call for reform—at least among Muslim leaders—is coming from the general-turned-autocrat of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. A week before the Paris attacks, Sisi visited an ancient center of Islamic learning and spoke directly to Islam’s leading scholars: “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Ummah to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world… We are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move.”
Sisi may be an imperfect vessel, but what he said needs to be put into practice. If not, Islam’s civil war will tear civilization apart.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.
Photo credit: “Je suis Charlie Strasbourg 7 janvier 2015”, © Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons.