Lots of responses to the terrorist attack against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some of it reasonable, some of it not.
Matthew Yglesias said almost the same thing I did:
Viewed in a vacuum, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (or the Danish ones that preceded it) are hardly worthy of a stirring defense. They offer few ideas of value, contribute little to any important debates, and the world would likely have been a better place had everyone just been more polite in the first place.
But in the context of a world where publishers of cartoons mocking Mohammed have been threatened, harassed, and even killed, things look different.
Images that were once not much more than shock for its own sake now stand for something — for the legal right to blaspheme and to give offense. Unforgivable acts of slaughter imbue merely rude acts of publication with a glittering nobility. To blaspheme the Prophet transforms the publication of these cartoons from a pointless act to a courageous and even necessary one, while the observation that the world would do well without such provocations becomes a form of appeasement. And the infection quickly spreads.
Indeed! Ross Douthat, not someone I normally quote favorably, says it even better:
But we are not in a vacuum. We are in a situation where my third point applies, because the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. 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. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed.
For sheer gall, Bill Donohue’s remarks are hard to top:
“All I’m simply saying is this: These guys in Paris… the cartoonists, they’re not champions of freedom,” he said. “They’ve abused freedom for years, and we need to have a public discussion about what is the meaning of freedom. When you abuse freedom and trash other people’s religion with obscene portrayals so shocking you can’t put it on TV, there’s something sick going on.”
He noted that the newspaper’s murdered editor, Stephane Charbonnier, once told an interviewer that Muhammad is “not sacred to me,”
“Well he’s not sacred to me, either,” said Donohue. “But you see, in the little, small, selfish world of this man who was killed yesterday — tragically killed, my heart goes out to his family — but in his mind, he never takes responsibility for anything.
“So just because Muhammad is not sacred to him, therefore I can trash him? No, no. People ought to get it straight,” said Donohue. “Nobody has a moral right, even if they have a legal right, to insult people of faith.”
And just what, exactly, should Charbonnier be taking responsibility for?
If you have ever seen Donohue in one of his television appearances, you know he is one of the most vicious and insulting people in the business. He’s especially rude to atheists. If ever there was someone who has no business lecturing others on the morality of hurling insults, it is him.
But as a way in to what I really want to discuss, here’s Ezra Klein:
But this isn’t about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.
What happened today, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won’t be found in Charlie Hebdo’s pages. They can only be found in the murderers’ sick minds
If this were just a one-off attack then maybe I could buy into this. But the long history of precisely this sort of violence, Muslim extremists reacting badly to trivial slights, makes Klein seem rather naïve here. In 2011 Charlie Hebdo‘s offices were firebombed. In 2006 we had the riots over the Danish cartoons, resulting in two hundred deaths and extensive property damage. In 2005 we had the murder of Theo Van Gogh. And I’m sure no one has forgotten the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, which sent him into hiding for years, and led to the murder of his Japanese translator. These are just a few especially high-profile items.
We can’t just ignore this history. And we can’t keep pretending that it’s always about something other than Islam. The fact is that Charlie Hebdo was insulting and derogatory to every major religion, but it is only from Islam that they had to worry about violence. The terrorists here did not just go on a killing spree. They were not shooting random people on the street. This was a carefully planned operation, and they told us in no uncertain terms why they did it.
It’s not hard to find comparable provocations against other religions. The most popular musical on Broadway right now is The Book of Mormon. It is as vicious an attack on Mormonism as you can imagine. But if you go see the show, as I have, you will note only the most minimal security at the theater. Absolutely no one is worried about crazed Mormons shooting up the place.
Recently Lincoln Center, also in New York, presented the opera Klinghoffer. Many Jewish groups find the show to be offensive and anti-Semitic. The result was angry op-eds in the newspapers, and peaceful protests outside the theater. No one tried to disrupt the show, let alone storm inside with guns. Again, absolutely no one was seriously worried about violence.
Get the idea? Do I need to speculate about what would have happened had either of these shows been deemed anti-Muslim?
Now, this is the point where the self-righteous types will accuse you of Islamophobia. They will lecture you about blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few.
But no one is doing that, and they know it. Almost no one thinks that all, or most, or even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for yesterday’s attacks. The problem, though, is that the attitudes underlying the attack are not those of a small, fringe minority. It is willful blindness to pretend otherwise. There are roughly fifty Muslim countries in the world, but there is not a single one where a magazine like Charlie Hebdo could even exist. Freedom of expression, in particular the freedom to criticize religion, does not seem to be something that’s valued in the Muslim world.
For example, consider this charming data point:
A Saudi blogger who was sentenced last May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes will be publicly flogged for the first time after Friday prayers outside a mosque in the Red Sea coastal city of Jiddah, a person close to his case said Thursday.
Raif Baddawi was sentenced on charges related to accusations that he insulted Islam on a liberal online forum he had created. He was also ordered by the Jiddah Criminal Court to pay a fine of 1 million Saudi riyals, or about $266,000.
Rights groups and activists say his case is part of a wider clampdown on dissent throughout the kingdom. Officials have increasingly blunted calls for reforms since the region’s 2011 Arab Spring upheaval.
Badawi has been held since mid-2012, and his Free Saudi Liberals website is now closed. The case has drawn condemnation from rights groups.
Here’s what I want to know: If that sentence was put to a public referendum, would it be upheld? How many people in Saudi Arabia would vote to let him go, on the grounds that, obviously, no crime was committed? Does anyone think the vote would go well for Baddawi?
Examples like this could be multiplied endlessly. I discussed other examples in this post.
Against this litany, it just seems silly to argue that it’s never really about Islam, or that every religion has its extremists, or that we’re tarring the whole religion with the acts of a few.
I heard someone on television today lament the fact that when a Muslim does something bad, somehow all Muslims are expected to condemn it. This misses the point. The issue isn’t what anyone is expected to do. It’s what moderate Muslims had better do, loudly and unambiguously and with no “buts” at the end, because right now the crazies are the public face of Islam. No one is concluding that something is wrong with modern Islam because two Muslims did a bad thing. The conclusion is based on the chaos and despotism and illiberal attitudes that seem especially rife in the Muslim world.