We could be heroes
“To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune…”
Three hours driving from where I am now two men, barely men, executed their divine mission to retaliate against editors, cartoonists, journalists and bodyguards at the offices of “Charlie Hebdo”. Please raise your finger if you had heard of this magazine before the infamous shooting. I bet most of you didn’t seeing as it’s French and most of you …. well you know: it’s French! I for one had only once linked through to their website coming from, I think, the Jesus & Mo site. It amused me, but not enough to actually go and read anything. I was on a job-interview the day of the shooting and learned of it rather quickly through CNN’s breaking news on the screen in the lobby. It felt really close to home, literally!
I’m sure many were quite satisfied with the global reaction to this multilayered tragedy. Anyone who was known by anyone else had to do a group-selfie holding up a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sign. Schools posted pictures of smiling children proudly holding up a sign to voice “their opinion”. An opinion in a matter they couldn’t possibly begin to grasp. Hardly a government in the world missed-out on voicing unanimous condemnation for the violent attack. And Muslim advocacy groups were quick to join the condemnations and wash the hands of Islam from any French blood. I’m sure that many of the survivors and for that matter, had they lived, the slain at Charlie Hebdo would not have missed, and would actually have been revolted by, the sarcasm surrounding all the support. With the lifting of the gun-smoke it had become politically correct to support those that died because they voiced opinions in spite of political correctness. The same people that prior to the shooting were ever quick to condemn the drawings printed by this leftist magazine, were now the first in line to defend it. The hypocrisy got so painful that one of the widows wrote a ‘you are not Charlie’ blog in the midst of grieving. Removing any doubt that the begrieved where slowly being crushed by the weight of the worlds “massive support”.
“…or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them: to die, to sleep no more; and by a sleep, to say we end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?”
But actually it was worse. For the crime was so heinous that everyone with half a brain knew it would spark outright public condemnation. It was the happy-hour of politics, a pyramid game where the first to cash in some “we are so against this”-chips would leave a little less righteous indignation on the table for the following. Politicians in all the Western countries were vomiting remarks to illuminate how their opponent was more like the terrorists and somehow morally responsible for what had happened while they claimed some record for themselves as if they actually were ‘Charlie’. Twitter hashtags and facebook pictures were quickly adapted to demonstrate how superficial we had all become in dealing with tragedy. Just think now about how quickly the world has moved on since. We should all be very ashamed!
“For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time”
And then it got even worse.
Because the spin-doctors quickly grasped that so much righteous indignation could be a bad thing given the level of integration of Muslims in Western Europe. Already some mosques had been tagged and some windows trashed. Politicians wanted to cash in on the parade, but outright religious riots would hurt the stock indexes so they decided there would be none of that. Therefore the liberals (and I AM a liberal) were quickly recruited to help wash the stain of Islam. A Muslim police officer had also been killed in the raid so #JeSuisAhmed was juxtaposed to #JeSuisCharlie. The selfies were quickly retaken with enough of these flyers visible so no one would venture a remark that the persons in the picture just might have any ‘beef’ with the religion ‘An Sich’. Was that wrong you ask? I rather think it was. For starters it meant that an innocent coincidentally Muslim bystander got 50% of the support just for being religious while those actually standing for the principles of our secular society got the remaining 50%. It means religion got 50% of the support in a tragedy that happened because brave people were trying to denounce our overt catering to religious sensitivities. And all they got in their honor was hypocrisy and a corrupting usurpation of their message.
You see, #YouAreNotCharlie and neither am I. As any 1960 Hollywood-Roman-Soldier can tell you, the 64th to yell “I am Spartacus!!” is neither believed nor in added peril because he yelled it. Only the people at Charlie Hebdo where “Spartacus” and we all are not.
Indeed, like some banners I’ve seen lately say, “Islam ≠ Terrorism”, Islam is not terrorism. And they are right. Islam is just a religion that inspires terrorism. Another example of such a religion is Christianity, which’ doctrines (while without scientific basis) inspire the assassinations of doctors working in abortion hospitals. To extend the list somewhat further: Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology…. While atheism has joined the list of ‘isms’ it does not belong to this list simply because it’s followers don’t take anything you say about Richard Dawkins (whom every theist knows is actually a God atheists worship) or about our ‘kafir’-ness personally. And yes, few of us don’t recognize that there are scores of theists out there who were simply raised to be decent people, were comforted that God would take care of them and will generally speaking do good things for the rest of their lives. Good Christians, moderate Muslims, I know you and I count some of you among my friends. But I would do The Slain a disservice by tip-toeing around the fact that you support texts that, if not selectively ignored, which demand heinous things of you. Religion. Poisons. Everything!
So yes, all those whom never spoke up against religion and all that support a religion that requires ‘unpleasantness’ to rain down on their fellow man, I deny you the right to call yourself “Spartacus”. Want to believe in God? Fine, be that way! Do it like quitting a smoking habit for all I care: a different attempt 7 times a day. Would it hurt you physically to suggest to your fellow theists that perhaps these texts were not as immutable, that perhaps passages about ‘Eye for an eye’ or the mandatory mutilation of genitalia can be stricken from the holy books? (Disregarding the fact that much of religions ‘unpleasantness’ is not actually IN the holy books, just in the writings of the scholars of said books).You know, because of what we learned since and what we have come to get used to and all? And if the answer to that question is an terrified “Yes!!”, as that Saudi Arabian blogger who is being whipped 1000 times probably would say, can you really say “terror” is not imbedded in your religion?
Don’t be too alarmed that I blame you, yes YOU, the moderate tolerant modern believer for the events that happened in Paris. Don’t take it too hard, I also blame you and me for the thousands of traffic-fatalities that will occur next year because we all decide to partake in an transport-system that is not foolproof. Off course traffic has a beneficial purpose that is absent for religious literalism. But the responsibility remains.
“But that the dread of something after death,
the undiscovered country, from whose bourn
no traveller returns, puzzles the will,
and makes us rather bear those ills we have,
than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all”
All of the above aside, I don’t know if you have noticed, but we have a problem.
You can draw a cartoon of Jesus sulking at the holes in his feet and you will get laughs from most but the most ardent Christians. Since the inquisition there has grown a lot of middle field in Christianity. (Clearly, judging by his latest remarks, the Pope is not in that field). Draw a cartoon of Mohammed however and the best you can get is find a moderate Muslim that thinks it is ‘childish’ and a whole lot who think it is wrong but perhaps not quite deserving of ‘being shot like a dog over it’. ‘Maybe!’ -That is not exactly a middle field.
Us anti-theists have been focusing on the violence that is preached in Islam but that is not really a fundamental problem. Western Europe LOVES violence! We fought two world wars to see who was best at it. We have things called ‘The 80-years war’ and ‘The 30-years war’ in our history. But in our violent history of oppression and revolution we have also adopted a value that served us well as a way to reduce violence: ‘non-censorship’. The idea that you can express any idea freely and, if it is a good idea that becomes shared by many others, that this idea might do something, change something. It is the idea that there should be free competition of ideas and opinions so that you get to feel utterly isolated or moderately supported on the merits of that idea. Any prejudice against any idea should be halted since the prejudice itself would be an idea that was exempt from competition and given tenure without foundation. A Darwinian economy for ideas, ‘survival of the meme-est’.
The problem with Islam is not (only) that, like many other religions it contains a dose of intolerance and unpleasantness to enforce itself. This is something that common decency of non-psychotic theists knows how to deal with. There is a big middle field of Muslims that, for instance, don’t believe EVERY infidel needs to be beheaded. The real problem is that Islam has evolved to include an uncompromising censorship. Making images is a ‘no-no’, selfies are sinful and depicting the “Prohet” is not even on the table. Mohamed is not to be depicted. This ranges from a porn-movie starring an actor intended to impersonate the mythological Mohamed in unspeakable acts involving animals of the porcine persuasion over a XKCD stick-man identifiable as such or even to a glorifying portrait by the hands of Leonardo Da Vinci himself. None of it goes.
Well obviously there is a gradient in the depiction of anything and all can count on your personal appreciation or lack thereof. The question is if/why all or some of these depictions should be outlawed. This seems a hard choice to decide but it is actually not unlike choices we work with on a daily basis. For instance in the gradient between tapping somebody on the shoulder and shoving or punching them into ‘grievous bodily harm’ there is a flue line that is crossed into illegality. We accept this flueness. We will clearly not all agree if or how hard one should be punished for grabbing someone by the collar or slightly shoving them.
The same is true for the freedom of speech. Should you be able to disagree with the leader of your country? Should you be able to make a cartoon in which his ears are even more humongous than they usually are? Can you expose facts about someone that he or she does not want exposed? Can you expose those facts only to discover you had them wrong? Can you tell lies about someone? Can you deny historical facts such as the Holocaust? Can you insult someone? Can you threaten someone?
As in all the hardest conflicts, the history of which is always written by the victor, and in this case, as is often the case, it is a battle of freedom against … freedom.
« #JeSuisMuslim et j’aime mon Prohet! » “I am Muslim and I love my Profet!” This was the tag that appeared shortly after the bulk of the righteous indignation had passed. It also goes to the heart of the problem. Because on any moral gradient, in order to judge if an action is wrong, we tend to look at the consequences of an action. Insulting Santa Claus would upset a good range of non-voting people but by the time they are old enough to vote or even write blogs they are usually over it. It is therefore not illegal to insult Santa Claus. By contrast I live in a country where it is most definitely illegal to insult the King. It is, mind you, not illegal to call this a medieval law or to advocate for the country to become a republic. With regard to Mohamed this is exactly where the problem lays. Muslims, even though this wasn’t always the case, are taught to love their prophet. A love, like you have for your mother or you latest mistress, only stronger and perhaps more sincere. Western society, especially Atheists, don’t see the difference between Mohamed, Jesus or the Easter Bunny. And while they would not volunteer to hand out flyers depicting Easter-Bunny-Porn, they don’t mind if you do. For those however who actually believe that this ‘Easter Bunny’ is an actual historical person that currently lives with Allah in the sky, this flyer is worse than insulting their mom.
And if things weren’t bad enough there is a structural problem we haven’t even addressed yet: how it is simultaneously impossible to draw Mohamed as well as not the draw Mohamed. First it is impossible since no-one knows what Mohamed looked like and for obvious reasons there has not evolved an artistic canon like was the case with the equally ectoplasmic Jesus of Nazareth. If Mohamed actually existed, which is not set in stone historically, ‘an Arab with a beard on a horse’ is about as precise you can sketch it. You simply cannot draw a good enough resemblance to him even if you life depended on it. On the other hand it is impossible not to draw Mohamed since any depiction of a Arab-on-a-camel can be interpreted as being him and before you know it, off-comes-your-head…
Also don’t believe for a second that some Muslims are beyond drawing Mohamed themselves to frame you. Such was the case with the three most insulting drawings that were fraudulently attributed to Danish cartoonists. Just in case you were under the mistaken impression that all this was purely about genuine religious sensitivities and not at least in part, about real-politics driven by the pencil.
To be clear also on the other side, the predominantly atheist side, politics is involved. Unless ‘draw Mohamed day’ should be an utterance of emergent collective artistic shallowness it is just a political maneuver to exercise freedoms that are attractive mainly because they are denied us. I’m not saying it is wrong. I’m saying it is political and it is non-compromising.
Still when all is said and done I find it hard to find middle ground. Freedom for the one is limited to the freedom of the other. It is our freedom not to be compelled to follow the religious tenets of religions we don’t adhere to. Yet I can also understand that if one has strong emotional ties with an idea, what religion is basically all about, that any reduction of that idea causes emotional distress. I do not maintain that it is in anyone’s right to cause constant emotional distress to anyone. But when that “distress” is also caused by possibly the most reconciliatory cartoon of Mohamed ever, holding up a sign saying “All is forgiven” (with the beautiful and witty double meaning of the Charlie editors whom forgive their assailants as well as ‘Mohamed’ who forgives Charlie Hebdo) I can only question how much of this distress is real and how much is actually feinted righteous indignation.
Ad extremis it doesn’t really matter since I maintain that structurally the issue is with the very nature of religion and theists unreasonable demand that everyone tip-toe around their sensitivities. As an anti-theist this is just one of the reasons I feel religion must go away, Jesus and Mohamed and Easter-Bunny included. I’m sure no-one will be very upset by that. J
Still it seems to me that both sides could do with some growing-da-fudge-up! A ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoon should not spoil your breakfast and if it does, that is really a clear sign you should be on Xanax. On the other hand we atheists actually can survive a day without drawing a pig-riding Mohamed or Jesus having anal-sex with himself (as in “Jesus-fudging-Christ”). Because while on both sides people seem to think this is an issue worth dying for I notice everybody seems rather eager to let someone else do the dying for them.
You are not Spartacus, but the Hebdo people who one –by-one stood when their name was called, they may very well have been. They stood for what they believed in. To draw or not to draw, that is the question…. and the battle rages on.
“Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.”