Murder, blasphemy, and the limits of intolerance

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 10, 2015

Let’s stop the posturing, shall we?

You say, “je suis Charlie.” But would you have published the cartoons that made the editors of Charlie Hebdo the target of jihadist killers? Would you publish them even now?

Let me put the question differently. You say that you will fight to defend freedom of the press. Good. So will I. But would you fight to defend an edgier, nastier version of Mad magazine?

The editors of Charlie Hebdo knew what they were doing; they realized that by poking fun at Islam they were painting targets on their own backs. They were brave enough to stand on principle, in defense of freedom of expression. We can and should applaud their bravery and defend that principle without embracing the way in which they chose to apply it.

What lesson(s) should be learned from the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo? Most commentators agree that we must reject violence and defend freedom of expression. That’s the easy part. Must we—should we—also defend deliberate attempts to insult?

Charlie Hebdo has a long history of insulting people, especially people of faith. When it came to religious beliefs, the French satirical journal was an equal-opportunity offender, mocking the beliefs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Christians and Jews sometimes reacted with disgust at the mockery. Muslims, and only Muslims, reacted with violence.

So there are the two critical factors in this tragic episode. Charlie Hebdo offended many people, and radical Muslims responded with gunfire. The massacre, we all agree, was a moral outrage. But some people—many people, in fact—think that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were also an outrage. The one outrage does not retroactively justify the other.

The safe, conventional response to the murders in Paris is a pious statement that we must all reject intolerance. But there’s a logical problem with that bromide, isn’t there? Are we to be intolerant of intolerance?

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has been roundly chastised for a public statement that, in the eyes of many readers, seemed to suggest that the Charlie Hebdo staff had brought this massacre upon themselves. Yet Donohue did clearly say that violence against journalists “cannot be tolerated.” He went on to say: “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”

So in Donohue’s view, the satirical cartoons in Charlie Hebdo represented a form of intolerance. That is certainly a minority viewpoint, expressed at a time when so many earnest columnists are admonishing us to join the cause of Charlie Hebdo in the name of tolerance. Yet Donohue has an important point.

What Charlie Hebdo did not tolerate was public piety. The editorial cartoons jabbed at religious believers, obviously hoping to prompt reactions. Understandably, then, even as they denounced the killings in Paris, religious leaders stopped well short of defending the Charlie Hebdo approach. When French Catholic prelates and Muslim imams joined in a public statement deploring the violence, they added that the media should “offer information that is respectful of religions.” 

Needless to say, the editors of Charlie Hebdo would reject that instruction. But then, so would most people living in a free society. Do we really believe that journalists should adopt a uniformly respectful approach to religious faith? To any faith? What about a religion that involves child sacrifice? More to the point, what about a religion that demands the murder of its critics?

No, we believe that journalists should be free to question and criticize religious beliefs. We may think that the criticism should be expressed respectfully (thus the widespread reluctance to reproduce the Charlie Hebdo cartoons), but we would not suppress it. And since even the most respectful criticism will appear to some believers as blasphemous, we reach the conclusion that we cannot have freedom of expression without tolerating some degree of (real or perceived) blasphemy.

But what about deliberate blasphemy—that is, the expression of views that are not designed to persuade or criticize, but merely to offend? The problem, again, lies in determining what sorts of statements fall into that category. In a healthy secular society, people who cross the line are punished by public scolding or social ostracism. This sort of response embodies the proper meaning of tolerance: a willingness to disagree intensely but not violently, to fight words with words.

But tolerance is an outgrowth of Christian culture, unfamiliar to Islam. As Pope Benedict XVI gently observed in his famous Regensburg lecture, the Muslim world has never fully accepted the primacy of reason as a means of resolving disputes. For the past millennium or so, in the Islamic world, the men with the swords have won all the arguments.

This approach—the readiness to resort to violence—is something the secular world cannot and should not tolerate. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it well:

If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.

Taken at its best, the message of Charlie Hebdo is that we cannot allow fear of Islam to restrain our free speech. On that point, yes, je suis Charlie.

Unfortunately that is not the lesson that most editorialists are drawing from the tragedy in Paris. Instead a great deal of fashionable commentary is proceeding down two dead ends.

One cadre of columnists rejects intolerance, and hints—or in some cases states forthrightly—that all religious beliefs should be regarded as threats to freedom of expression. This group regards blasphemy not as the price we must pay for free speech, but as the delightful consequence of that freedom. Thus do the proponents of tolerance show their intolerance of faith.

And not only of faith. In Paris, all the respectable leaders of civil society drew together for a public meeting, in solidarity with the victims of the massacre. But leaders of the National Front were not invited. They were, apparently, regarded as “intolerant.” But the National Front, whatever its shortcomings, has not used violence to promote its views. Shouldn’t the message of tolerance be that all viewpoints are welcome, as long as they are expressed peaceably? Apparently not.

The second cadre of columnists (sometimes overlapping the first) regards the killings in Paris as a provocation to the West, to which we should respond by escalating our public attacks on Islam. There are calls for stronger doses of the medicine administered by Charlie Hebdo: more satirical cartoons, more mockery of cherished Muslim beliefs.

And what will that accomplish, apart from driving more Muslims into the arms of the jihadist recruiters? In a sober analysis for First Things, John Azumah writes:

To denounce Islam as a death-loving religion—or the Qur’an and Muhammad as a constitution and example, respectively, for terrorists—provides excuses for twisted zealots. It reinforces their deluded belief that they and only they are the true Muslims.

Still it is impossible, and imprudent, for reasonable people to dismiss the reality that the killers in Paris were fanatical Muslims, not fanatical Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Sikhs. Most Muslims, obviously, are not violent extremists. Yet just as obviously, Islam has a problem with violent extremism. This is a problem based on the willingness to resolve debates by force rather than reason, the problem to which Pope Benedict alluded at Regensburg.

Yet one more problem must be mentioned here. The confusion of the Western response to the Charle Hebdo massacre illustrates that the modern secular world does not really understand what a free society is, what it entails, what it requires. We speak of tolerance without understanding what it means, or what limits (if any) our toleration allows. We demand respect for the views of others, while proclaiming the right to blaspheme. We say that violence is a threat to our culture, without having reached any common understanding of what “our” culture is.

David Warren, in his observations on the reaction to the killings in Paris, makes this mordant comment: “A great deal of blather has been expended on ‘the defense of our values.’ This plays right into the fanatics’ hands, for they know we don’t have any.”

Islamic zealots—and not just zealots—look upon the Western world with disdain, seeing it as a godless society, in which the elite regard faith as nothing more than a target for blasphemy. The West, meanwhile, regards the Islamic world as a greenhouse of unreason, nourishing exotic and unpredictable strains of violence. Sadly, there is some truth to both views. The killings in Paris are the latest bloody evidence of a societal conflict that will not go away until we—both the West and Islam—grapple with the challenge that Pope Benedict issued at Regensburg.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 10, 2015 2:54 PM ET USA

    Well said. No one has mentioned the dependence that totalitarian regimes (like Al Quaeda) have on the appearance of legitimacy. It's how they recruit followers, by giving them a reason to vent their spleen. Charlie (et je ne suis pas) gave them that in spades. Besides, while they were free to risk their own lives, what gave them the right to endanger the public at large, as they certainly did? This is the fruit of extreme individualism. Who better to confront it than Catholics?

  • Posted by: visions - Jan. 10, 2015 12:25 PM ET USA

    Wall Street Journal Saturday, January 10-11, 2015 The Mocking Tradition behind Charlie Hebdo The magazine is the heir to a French school of thought that has made fun of religion from Catholicism to jihadism............ After more than 500 years of ridicule, Catholicism has finally become "banalized"(that is, lost its status as a taboo subject), in a neologism coined by Charb himself in 2012. He says, "WE have to keep at it until Islam is as banalize as Catholicism."