The events in Paris in the last few days, in which several young Muslims have acted out with extreme violence, specifically against a magazine that had repeatedly caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, have once again raised the profile of the conflict between Islamic and secular values that has been building worldwide in the last generation or so.

I don’t justify for a minute taking up guns to solve our problems; I have no sympathy for terrorists or extremists, because they diminish life for everyone, including themselves and their own children. Sayyad Hassan Nasrallah, a Lebanese Hezbollah leader, said, “extremists are more offensive to the Prophet Muhammad than cartoons . . . The behavior of these takfiri groups that claim to follow Islam have distorted Islam, the Koran and the Muslim nation more than Islam’s enemies.” A representative of Hamas said: “Differences of opinion and thought cannot justify murder” (cited by AFP).

The actions of the terrorists were abhorrent but they didn’t materialize out of nothing. In the minds of the attackers, these killings weren’t gratuitous or frivolous – there was a reason and a purpose behind them.

Anywhere from 5 –10 % of the population of France is Muslim, and that population is growing rapidly. Like other Western nations, France is trying to adjust to a new reality. France has been for many years one of the most secular nations in the world, and Islam is not the only religion to come under attack there. Since the Napoleonic era, the age of the French Revolution, the Church has been subjected to much hostility, and the practice of Christianity at times very restricted – churches closed, priests executed or exiled, etc. The result today is a country where only about 5% of the population attend church, Catholic in name only. Any thoughtful person might well be concerned about societies which choose to create such a toxic environment for people of faith – any faith.

“Liberty, equality and fraternity” was the catch-phrase of the Revolution, and I am sure many French believe this to be true now, but certainly many French Muslims are not feeling the love, as they say. Muslims who have lived in France for generations still routinely experience exclusion, prejudice, abuse and ridicule, not the least of which is that directed toward the prophet Muhammad.

A caricature is an over-simplification, a distortion, “ludicrously exaggerating the peculiarities or defects of persons or things” as the dictionary says. A caricature of something is by definition something inferior to the real thing, a quick and easy way of diminishing someone’s image and prestige, and sometimes that can be an amusing and even helpful function.

If you are caricaturing someone you are not taking them seriously – you are not treating them with respect or honour – in fact the usual object is to cause insult in some way.

The magazine Charlie Hebdo took apparent delight in creating caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, a figure sacred to Muslims around the world. Hebdo cartoons showed the prophet in various sexual and demeaning positions and situations. Think about what you consider sacred, perhaps your grandmother or your spouse or perhaps even the person of Jesus, and imagine how you’d feel if that person were to be publically treated with contempt, ridiculed, and portrayed doing lewd things, so that a few elitists might have a little chuckle about it.

In some countries, that kind of caricature of the prophet Muhammad might come under scrutiny from hate laws. In France it is considered by some to be not only acceptable, but the freedom and the right to do so are apparently seen as key elements of French culture – “Je suis Charlie,” as so many French people are keen to proclaim, as they react to the horror of the attacks.

I think we need to recognize that the frustrations and grievances of many Muslims are at a boiling point. And I think we need to know that somewhere, somehow, someone is viewing their actions as heroic, as the oppressed striking out against the oppressor, the good against the evil. Some are seeing themselves as defending the honour of God. Some are seeing these actions as an expression of war – a holy war of the righteous against the unrighteous, faithful warriors rising up against those who mock and despise God, and who put material things ahead of the spiritual.

It’s just a cartoon, right? Why can’t they just laugh it off, the way Christians have been expected to – or people of colour — or the Irish – or whoever is the target of the moment? That’s easy to say when your core values are not being threatened or mocked.

I noted a recent interview with a Jewish cartoonist, who was speaking out in favour of unlimited free speech and expression, but as he spoke I was reminded of the ugly caricatures of Jews in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s, picturing Jews as rats, worms, snakes, pigs, spiders, cockroaches, devils, etc — ugly, poisonous and hateful caricatures that were not funny at all, and contributed directly to the negative mindset against Jews that led to the Holocaust. So I have to say I agree that we must have the right to free speech, but it is a gift that is all too easily abused, and can be used in ways that reduce the freedom and rights and dignity of others.

The early Christians were caricatured. One of the most ancient cartoons we have is a crude drawing making fun of someone for his Christians commitment. That too no doubt contributed to an environment in which Christians were routinely imprisoned, tortured and executed without cause.

Laughing AT people is not the same as laughing with them – that should be common sense, and an aspect of common courtesy. As author John Le Carre said about Islam, “You make light of the Book [the Quran] at your peril.” Christians have apparently become de-sensitized to the insulting, offensive and undermining things that now appear routinely in the media. Muslims clearly have not.

Many if not most of these Muslims live on the edges of French society, ghettoized, isolated in terms of language and culture, their educational credentials not recognized, relegated to menial jobs, or living on welfare, and obviously ridiculed and resented by mainstream French society.

For many immigrant Muslims, their religion, their faith, emerges as their single source of self-worth or dignity or purpose in life. To see their main source of pride and self-definition repeatedly scorned and mocked in the mainstream media is obviously something that at least some if not many Muslims are unable to tolerate. The men who shot the Charlie Hebdo staff were heard shouting that they had avenged the honour of Allah and of the prophet.

The whole situation speaks of the sad state of public discourse: our tendency to caricature and demean others; the disrespectful and hostile tone of public life; the ignorance and intolerance regarding people of faith; the elitism expressed in condescending and superior attitudes; the insensitivity to minorities; the sense of entitlement that allows some to expect impunity when they despise and reject others.

Perhaps above all I see the failure of some to appreciate the fact that we live in a very diverse world and that there are many in this world who see themselves as victims and as being oppressed by an overbearing and corrupt elite.

Ridiculing and singling people out is the essence of bullying. People do it when they think that they can get away with it, and when the victim is unlikely to retaliate. People who have always been part of the mainstream or lived in the realm of privilege have very little idea of what it feels like to be isolated and targeted for abuse, especially for things you have no control over, like your race, or religion, or physical characteristics, etc.

I don’t think ridiculing people for a living is particularly heroic. I seriously question the wisdom of those who persist in publishing deliberately insulting and offensive material when they are quite aware of the damage that it is bound to cause. In fact, it is now well known that publishing such extreme, unnecessary and provocative insults is going to cost people their lives. A helpful guideline might be: Is this cartoon or article or comment making the world a better place? What good will this do? Or perhaps, “What harm might this cause?”

Anybody can be a critic – it takes almost no talent at all. What we desperately seem to need is people who are able to ignite and inspire in us a vision of harmony and mutual respect and inclusion that does not leave some people out on the margins feeling nothing but contempt from the majority.

Raul Quintana wrote (in the article “Dangerous Satire” September 24, 2012, in the Harvard Crimson): “it is … important that we remember the purpose of free speech. Free speech exists to defend a minority position. It does not exist to discriminate arbitrarily against a group . . . The purpose of free speech does not just depend on its initial context. It also depends on the use of that speech in the public sphere where any group may manipulate its use. Repeated attacks on the sacred images of those who already perceive themselves to be marginalized, deprived and disrespected are obviously not going to be appreciated for their limited comic value, but as another sign of the West’s disdain for Islam, and in a larger sense, God.”

In the Western world, we make much of our freedom, and yet we are never free to do whatever we feel like. Any society puts guidelines around people’s behaviours (and this takes the form of common law, social norms, ethics and morality, etc.) so the excesses of some do not compromise the freedom of others to participate in society. It is a simple, necessary and obvious aspect of living in a community, and any society has to rely on the common sense of its citizens, who simply have to know better than to purposely demean and degrade others. Journalistic and artistic licence has in many cases been seriously abused by people who seem unable to comprehend or care about the potential harm their “freedom of expression” is bound to cause. Racist, homophobic, violent, sexist, and demeaning material is often censored, because it impinges on the freedoms and rights and dignity of others, but hateful anti-religious material seems to get a free ride.

As Jesus warned, a community divided against itself cannot stand. Sectarian and factional thinking needs to be replaced by a more global and holistic vision, one that recognizes the truly diverse communities we are now part of – a vision that does not persist in isolating and shaming those who do not fit the mold fashioned by the few who have power and control.

As the people of France gather to grieve this latest atrocity, it is in the full awareness that this is not over by a long shot. I hope we learn from this, and do not just react in self-righteous outrage, so that it may serve as a kind of wake-up call to begin to address the fragmentation, injustice, inequality and hostility that exists in much of the Western world, including Canada.

I suggest we might do well to stop blaming Islam in general and take a good look at a society that thinks that ridicule and abuse of things certain people consider sacred is an acceptable thing. Let us be aware that thousands of Muslims (including one of the policemen killed in Paris) have been victimized and diminished by the same kinds of terrorists, losing their lives and their children and their livelihoods destroyed.

I hope and pray that we may seek and find ways of becoming better informed about others and establish new ways of connecting and relating across inter-faith boundaries and divisions. Being aware or becoming aware that we are living in community is a necessary task in our time, and the community is much bigger than we have been accustomed to seeing.

The Book of Genesis begins by painting a very bleak picture of darkness and emptiness to express the faith that without God, there is chaos, an endless void. But God comes into the picture and suddenly there is life, purpose and a sense of the unity of all things. This is the kind of input religious people need to be making in our world, because without it, we could be headed back to the darkness and the void.

The Venerable Grant Rodgers+

The readings:

Genesis 1:1-5 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Acts 19:1-7 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — altogether there were about twelve of them.

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


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