Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie Hebdo, Understanding, and Forgiveness

Today we found out that the first cover of Charlie Hebdo appearing after the violent decimation of its staff features a caricature of the prophet Muhammed, a tear down his cheek, holding up a "Je Suis Charlie" sign. Above the caricature appear the words "tout est pardonnĂ©" (Everything is forgiven.) 

I feel tremendously moved by this cover choice, as I think it so poignantly addresses both of the serious issues staring us in the face in the aftermath of these killings. First, the issue of free speech (which just about everyone, even hypocrites, seem to acknowledge and claim to defend at the moment.) And second, the connection between racial and ethnic disadvantage of non-Westerners in the Western world and Islamic radicalization (a highly complicated and sensitive topic that most people seem to either horribly oversimplify or avoid entirely.)  

Guilaine Kinourani thoughtfully addresses this second issue through her personal experiences as a French woman of African descent in her article "Hatred breeds hatred": Charlie Hebdo, marginalization, and terrorism. She writes: 

"Is it not possible to hold both the position that the Charlie Hebdo killings were absolutely abhorrent and unjustifiable acts, whilst also calling for increased attention to be paid to the marginalisation of entire generations of citizens and its complex link to Islamic radicalisation and fundamentalism in France and elsewhere?"

Racism and ethnic bias are pervasive and breed resentment (or at least defensiveness) from many who suffer (and watch their loved-ones suffer) the consequences. Mass shootings are frequently perpetrated by white shooters, but those are regarded as lone nutjobs, not representatives of an entire religious or ethnic group. We don't see attacks on white men and white-owned businesses after such events, but anti-Arabism is real, and it becomes worse after events such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting, just as Muslim Americans (as well as Sikhs and anyone else who might of been perceived as Muslim) suffered increased discrimination and attacks after 9-11. Even in the small, suburban Quaker school I worked at in 2008, I heard a child in 7th grade casually declare that the United States should "Bomb Iraq and Iran until they are all dead" to solve the problem of Islamist terrorism. 

Howard Dean caught flack for insisting that we stop referring to violent Islamists as "Muslim terrorists", saying: 

"I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They're about as Muslim as I am. I mean, they have no respect for anybody else's life, that's not what the Koran says." 

I agree with the general sentiment and applaud Dean for speaking out in defense of the vast majority of Muslims who are just as peace-loving as anyone else. 

Finding the most appropriate language, that is accurate yet not racially-charged is difficult. Dean is using "radicals", which I don't like because it's so vague it sounds euphemistic, and also not all people with "radical" views are violent. I try to stick to using the term "Islamist" which has been designated to specifically refer to those who use or support the use of violence to establish their own interpretation of Islam and sharia law.  

In 2011, Charlie Hebdo's editor Stephane Charbonnier or Charb (who was killed in this month's shooting) expressed a similar sentiment to Dean. He responded to a  fire-bombing of Charlie Hebdo by Islamists in retribution over another cover depicting Muhammad, calling the perpetrators "stupid people who don't know what Islam is"  and "idiots who betray their own religion". These statements defend Islam the religion by asserting that a truer adherence to that faith would not result in a violent attack on an anti-racist, left-wing satirical newspaper. 

I see many parallels between Islamist and Christian fundamentalists (and I'm not the only one), including the targeting of liberal secularists, who might superficially look like the enemy because our worldview and values seem so counter to a socially conservative religious perspective. But liberal secularists are not the enemy, because as much as our ilk might mock and satirize conservative religiosity, all mockery and criticism is done with the assumption that pluralism and freedom will always remain part of the equation. 

Meanwhile, the real causes of suffering-that-breeds-extremism goes unacknowledged. For example, divorce rates are highest in the Bible belt. This is most likely the result of growing economic instability, especially in more rural communities, leaving so many would-be-bread-winning men under-employed and demoralized, and so many women with children dependent on welfare and charity. And yet frequently feminism and marriage equality activism is blamed for the "decline of marriage." These are serious socio-economic problems and real human suffering. Alas, the blame is misplaced. 

It is so appropriate that this week's cover of Charlie Hebdo will depict a Muhammed who weeps for and stands with the slain journalists, under a statement of forgiveness. The editors offer a hand in the spirit of brotherly and sisterly love, but in a way they know will be taken as offensive by some, because it is the only way to do so in a manner that is also true to themselves. 

There is a French proverb that I have accepted as truth since the first time I heard it, years ago. It says, Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner (If all were understood, all would be forgiven.) 

Or in the words of the Dresden Dolls: