Islam vs Enlightenment

Right Charlies

Je né suis pas Charlie. Being persecuted, or even killed, doesn’t make you right.

By Lyle Dunne

Now that the dust has settled, perhaps we can move beyond our knee-jerk initial reaction to the tragedy that gunmen killed a dozen people in the offices of Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo, and look a little more closely at what’s been said and done — especially by our leaders. 

The sense that attacks on the media are somehow worse than attacks on other mortals (Nigerian schoolgirls, for example) was prominent in Barack Obama’s comments.  Unsurprisingly, it received widespread coverage in the media. 

There is the question of whether the gunmen were “really Muslim” (whatever that means). I understand why politicians want to deny this – though this group are harder to dismiss as “lone wolves” with mental health issues than some.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby made the telling point recently that it’s hard to argue killing people for blaspheming the prophet is un-Islamic when the Islamic government of Pakistan is doing it wholesale. 

Yet the political point is clear: we’d like to encourage the “nice” Muslims, and promote the view that violent terrorism has no place in the tradition of Islam.

Conflicting purposes

This is a defensible aim (though Douglas Murray in The Spectator makes the point that this lets mainstream Muslims off the hook, absolving them of the responsibility for developing a response to this small minority who represent a disproportionate danger to civilisation.) Such reservations aside, however, one doesn’t have to be a zealot on the question of church-and-state to recognise that politicians are the last people who should be pronouncing on such questions as who is “really” Muslim, and whether Islam is in fact a religion of peace. 

Murray argues that there are no “religions of peace” – especially not Islam, on the basis of its scriptures and history. 

But the greater problem is that this careful strategy of encouraging the “nice Muslims”, telling them (albeit on little evidence and dubious authority) that they’re following a religion of peace, not like those terrorists who aren’t real Muslims at all, is completely undercut by a concurrent strategy, often from the same quarters, calculated to alienate all Muslims (and Jews or Christians, who may not care for high-level blasphemy either). 

For a start, there is the “Je suis Charlie” position, wherein outrage at terrorist murders, support for a magazine’s right to publish cartoons offensive to religious believers, and endorsement of the position expressed in these cartoons, have been conflated. 

(Whether or not coincidentally, the same thing seems to be happening on the Muslim side. While some Muslim leaders have condemned the killings but still objected to the cartoons of Mohammed, at a recent Muslim rally in Sydney against Charlie Hebdo, a speaker said 

“We rejected freedom yesterday, we rejected freedom today and we reject your freedom tomorrow.”

The views of the demonstrators on the murder of Charlie Hebdo staff were not reported – but a cartoon of a dog urinating on their graves was circulated.) 

The conflation of objection to terrorism with the defence of unlimited freedom of speech is particularly ironic coming from Australian and British politicians who support the retention of “anti-vilification” laws that would prohibit Charlie Hebdo being published in Australia. 

In fact we had the Australian Prime Minister, who had previously claimed that ISIS were “neither Islamic nor a state”, observing that he “rather liked” the cartoon on the cover of Charlie Hebdo immediately after the murders – a weeping Mohammed  holding up a “Je suis Charlie” sign, and declaring “all is forgiven”. Presumably he’s aware that any depiction of the prophet is deeply offensive to Muslims? 

“… politicians are the last people who should be pronouncing on such questions as who is “really” Muslim, and whether Islam is in fact a religion of peace”.

Je né suis pas Charlie. Being persecuted, or even killed, doesn’t make you right. I sympathise with the victims of Chinese persecution, but I’m not about to sign up to either Falung Gong or Tibetan Buddhism. 

The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo were vulgar and offensive before their authors were killed, and they remain vulgar and offensive. There is an argument about whether such cartoons should be legal, and I certainly don’t think the authors should have been shot – but I wish they had never been published, and I can understand why Muslims were offended. 

Surely any attempt to keep moderate Muslims on side could find room for such an acknowledgement? 

Dubious good guys

Instead, the conflict has been characterised as a battle between “the values of the enlightenment” (often explicitly including secularism) and its enemies. The Editor of Charlie Hebdo has even claimed that “secularism guarantees democracy and assures peace”.  

It’s not generally spelt out who the bad guys are, but if the good guys are “secularism”, then working it out isn’t rocket science. There are the good guys, who believe in secularism, enlightenment and democracy, and everyone else, who believe in God, darkness and despotism.  

A number of commentators have taken the line that the attacks were aggravated by the fact that they were in (and on) France, a country which US Secretary of State John Kerry actually claimed “gave birth to democracy itself”. 

I suppose reducing complex conflicts to heroes-and-villains platitudes is a universal temptation — especially for veterans of Presidential campaigns. 

Nevertheless you have to ask, “What was he thinking?” 

If we rule out simple ignorance — surely this wasn’t an unscripted remark: did nobody mention Athens? – or the hope no-one would notice, we have to conclude he has an unusual idea of democracy. 

I suppose it’s some inchoate notion of the American and French revolutions merged: a mélange of liberty-equality-fraternity, no-taxation-without-representation, the enlightenment, secularism, the Boston Tea party,and the elimination (by unspecified means) of hereditary monarchy.  

(US conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh certainly thought Kerry was talking about the American and French revolutions: his main beef was that he seemed unclear about which came first.) 

He may not have thought of democratic monarchies, or undemocratic republics. But it takes a particular kind of imagination (or lack thereof) to associate the Committee for Public Safety with democracy, even subconsciously. 

Now, one can be forgiven at such times for waxing sentimental about shared history – Australia has its own memories of battles on French soil, unforgotten on either side – but there’s an agenda here that needs to be brought into the light. 

The dark side

It’s one thing to stand in solidarity with the French in their present sufferings, but quite another to endorse the entirety of their revolutionary history. In particular, those who do so seriously undermine their credibility in objecting to the use of violence in pursuit of revolutionary aims. A dozen murders is a tragedy – but not one remotely comparable with the thousands committed in the name of name of “Liberty”.  

Before accepting this rolling-up of revolution, democracy, secularism and enlightenment into a single package of unalloyed good, we should perhaps reflect on when and where the term “Terror” first entered the language of political discourse. 

The problem here, though, goes beyond historical inconsistency, even at the level of howling hypocrisy. 

Charlie Hebdo belongs to an old and largely discredited European leftist tradition of virulent secularism, which in France was historically directed mainly against the Catholic Church; Islam is almost collateral damage.

Societies like Australia and the UK generally bend over backwards to suppress speech that might hurt the feelings of minorities. 

It would be particularly regrettable if, as a result of this atrocity, we came to regard these deliberate and tasteless blasphemies against all major religions as not merely a kind of “necessary evil” – something which we reluctantly recognise it would do more harm than good to ban – but as heroic acts in defence of freedom of speech. 

Do we really want to revive the old sectarianism as well as developing new ones? 

And it would be tragically ironic if our horror at this atrocity drove us to destroy any chance of making common cause with moderate Muslims against its perpetrators. 

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