Note: This post contains depictions of Mohammed. If you find such things offensive, do not read this. If you choose to read anyway, don’t blame me.
When I wrote about the Charlie Hebdo massacre a year ago, I headed the post with this quote from Stephen Fry. It remains one of my favourites, and makes an important statement about freedom of speech.
On 7th January 2015, we saw the horror of the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The editor Stéphane Charbonnier, known to his friends as “Charb,” eight other staff members, two police officers and a maintenance worker were all killed by two brothers who proudly announced, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad,” (in French) and, “God is Great” (in Arabic).
Yesterday, French weekly news magazine L’Obs has published an interview with Laurent Sourisseau, who is known by his pen-name Riss. Riss is a long-time cartoonist for Charlie Hebdo, and is now its publishing director. Riss was seriously injured in the January attack, but managed to draw four cartoons from his hospital bed that were included in the 14 January 2015 issue of Charlie Hebdo, published a week after the massacre. Riss talks to L’Obs of what it was like working for Charlie Hebdo before the attack, and the attack itself.
According to L’Obs, Riss told them of an “éditorial rageur” (angry editorial) he has written for the first anniversary edition of Charlie Hebdo:
… pour défendre la laïcité et dénoncer les “fanatiques abrutis par le Coran” et “culs-bénits venus d’autres religions” qui avaient souhaité la mort du journal pour “oser rire du religieux”.
“Les convictions des athées et des laïcs peuvent déplacer encore plus de montagnes que la foi des croyants”, dit-il.
(My translation) … in defence of secularism, to denounce the “fanatics brutalized by the Qur’an'” and “the arse-blessed from other religions” who have desired the death of the magazine for “daring to laugh at the religious.”
“The convictions of atheists and lay people can move more mountains than the faith of believers,” he said.
The first anniversary edition, to be published in France on Friday (Thursday French time) will have a million-copy run and be distributed world-wide. It’s cover is an attack on the violence prevalent within all religions. The caption, “1 an après, l’assassin court toujours,” means, “1 year later, the killer is still at large.” As Jerry Coyne pointed out in his post on the anniversary cover, the figure is wearing a hat that is the all-seeing pyramid with the eye that has been “part of religious iconography for centuries” and is “on every American one-dollar bill.”
The Kalashnikov-toting, blood-splattered god is similar in looks to many representations of the Christian god, but he is wearing a robe and sandals that I suspect are meant to bring Muhammad to mind.
The threat to Charlie Hebdo began in 2006 when they republished the Mohammed cartoons from the September 2005 edition of Danish magazine, Jyllands-Posten. In 2011, the magazine was firebombed, which required them to move to new premises.
Riss told L’Obs:
Un mois avant le 7 janvier, je demandais à Charb si sa protection avait encore un sens. Les histoires de caricatures, tout ça, c’était du passé […] Mais un croyant, surtout fanatique, n’oublie jamais l’affront fait à sa foi, car il a derrière lui et devant lui l’éternité. […] C’est l’éternité qui nous est tombée dessus ce mercredi 7 janvier.
(My translation) A month before 7 January, I asked Charb if [Police] protection was still necessary. The incident with the cartoons, that was in the past … But a believer, especially a fanatic, never forgets an affront to his faith, because he has it backing him and eternity in front of him. It’s eternity that fell on us this Wednesday 7 January.
He went on to describe what it was like that horrific morning:
“Ce matin-là, après le bruit assourdissant d’une soixantaine de coups de feu tirés en trois minutes dans la salle de rédaction, un immense silence envahit la pièce”, raconte-t-il. “J’espérais entendre des plaintes, des gémissements. Mais non, pas un son. Ce silence me fit comprendre qu’ils étaient morts.”
Et lorsque enfin un pompier m’aida à me relever, et après avoir dû enjamber Charb allongé à mes côtés, je m’interdis de tourner la tête vers la pièce pour ne pas voir les morts de Charlie. Pour ne pas voir la mort de Charlie
(My translation) “That morning, after the deafening noise of sixty shots fired in three minutes in the newsroom, a huge silence filled the room,” he recalls. “I was hoping to hear complaints, moans. But no, not a sound. The silence made me understand that they were dead.
“And when finally a firefighter helped me up, and after having to step over Charb lying beside me, I forbade myself from turning my head to the room so as to not see Charlie’s dead. Not to see the death of Charlie.”
This is the original page from Jyllands-Posten that Charlie Hebdo republished in 2006:
According to Wikipedia (which has an excellent article on the controversy in the link), “the newspaper announced that this was an attempt to contribute to the debate about … criticism and self-censorship.”
Perhaps predictably, the Vatican has come out in opposition to the Charlie Hebdo cover. (Once again I have to thank Jerry Coyne – I’m busy writing, so I wouldn’t have known this without my daily visits to his website, Why Evolution is True.) The daily news of the Vatican, Osservatore Romano, said of the cover:
In Charlie Hebdo’s choice, there is the sad paradox of a world which is more and more sensitive about being politically correct, almost to the point of ridicule, yet does not wish to acknowledge or to respect believers’ faith in God, regardless of the religion.
As I said on Why Evolution is True, I’m happy to acknowledge faith in God, but I do not see why I’m required to respect it. All speech and ideas must be open to question, wherever they come from. Religious speech is too often regarded as being separate, even by advocates of free speech. It should be exposed, just like every other stupid idea. What are the religious so afraid of? If what they say can stand up to scrutiny, it will be exonerated. I think they know as well as atheists do that it can’t handle the scrutiny, which is why they’re so determined to protect it in order to protect their power.
Commenter “eric” from that site replied to my comment, pointing out (among other things):
I would argue that society does respect religion; it gives fairly wide latitude for religious practices. Gives religious nonprofits tax benefits and breaks on property taxes, and so on. Heck, our entire western 5-day-on, 2-days-off calendar is a monument to respecting Christian religious observances.
I have to agree with him – there is more respect given to religious speech than any other form of speech, and certainly more than it deserves. In the United States, when the owner of a company believes IUDs cause abortions (they don’t), and abortions aren’t allowed in their religion, they are allowed to not cover the cost of IUDs for their employees. This is because it’s considered a closely held belief. But that terminology seems to only apply to religion. If the same person had the closely held beliefs of white supremacists, no-one would be protecting their right to not employ people of colour.
The Author of Jesus and Mo came up with a great cartoon on the Charlie Hebdo anniversary cover:
When he notified those of us who are subscribed by e-mail, the Author included the comments:
The anniversary is tomorrow, but today’s Wednesday so here’s a comic. I do like the Charlie Hebdo cover, which has rubbed all the right people up the wrong way.
That’s the thing about religious satire – it automatically delivers offence in the right dose: the amount of offence you take is exactly the amount you deserve.
That second sentence about religious satire delivering exactly the amount of offence you deserve is genius and right on the money, in more ways than one. Before the attack by the Kouachi brothers last year, Charlie Hebdo was struggling to carry on. The attempt of the brothers to destroy the magazine in Allah’s name has ensured its survival. That’s the kind of irony I can really appreciate.
The final comments of Riss to L’Obs are pertinent here too:
“Comment faire le journal après tout ça ? C’est tout ce qu’on a vécu depuis 23 ans qui nous en donne la rage”, affirme-t-il.
Ce ne sont pas deux petits cons encagoulés qui vont foutre en l’air le travail de nos vies. Ce n’est pas eux qui verront crever Charlie. C’est Charlie qui les verra crever.
(My translation) “How to do the magazine after that? That’s all we’d lived for, for 23 years, and it made us furious,” he said.
“These two masked idiots will not screw up our life’s work. They will not see the death of Charlie. It’s Charlie that will see them die.”
Those who have the courage to speak out against religious indoctrination, like Charlie Hebdo, are, as Riss says, the ones who will see the end of religion. Religion is not an idea that can stand close scrutiny – that is why so many try to shut down criticism of it and destroy those who do the criticizing. That only exposes religion’s weak underbelly and ensures enlightenment ideals like equality and humanism will spread faster.
Update: 8 January 2016
I like this cartoon from Evolving Perspectives, known to Why Evolution is True commenters as Pliny the Inbetween:
A fitting tribute, Heather. I only take issue with your statement at the end that the intent of the Hebdo murderers was to destroy the magazine in the name of Allah. As we debated at the time, their main motivation was almost certainly to isolate the Muslim community in France and create more recruits to fight in the ME. In fact, that the magazine has come back stronger helps with this goal, which I’m sure was expected too. And the attackers can claim quite a lot of success given the numbers of French travelling to Syria is greater than ever and the French govt leans more rightward than ever. Don;t think for a second they’re not happy with their handiwork.
The Hebdo murders were sickening. Also sickening was the parade of hypocritical leaders that followed who pretended to speak out for freedom of speech, while using the tragedy to pursue their own political agendas that often include the denial of that same freedom of speech.
Thanks Ken. I agree that part of the motivation was to create a divide between Muslim communities, especially the poor ones that already feel disenfranchised, and the rest of France. The leaders of the movement I’m sure could see the inevitable result that Charlie Hebdo would come back stronger, and that would help recruiting. I’m not so sure about the foot soldiers who are sacrificed for the cause – maybe they could, but I personally think these organisations take advantage of those who aren’t so smart, and whip them up into a mental frenzy which, combined with a dose of extreme religiosity makes them want to die for the cause.
So often, those who die for the cause have a history of breaking the rules of Islam re drinking, sex, religious observation etc. I think there’s a bit of a thing similar to Catholic guilt going on in the recruitment of some of these people, making them desperate to atone for their “sins.”
I couldn’t bear to mention the “Je Suis Charlie” march, and I completely agree with your characterization of it and some of the other things that happened as a result. I’ve gone on a bit in the past about the Saudi foreign minister marching in it, but he wasn’t the only one who deserves to be called out for his hypocrisy.
Yes, they absolutely take advantage of other Muslims, who are seen as disposable, and not just those who aren’t so smart. The politics of oppression and injustice is truly powerful and can have a strong effect on people from any socio-economic and educational strata. Many that come from the West to take part in ME conflicts are well educated and well off. Sam Harris, with his largest blinders on, sees this as proof that the only motivator available for such people is their religion. He wilfully ignores the long history of humankind reacting to injustice with strong action, even to the detriment of the self. No doubt some do want to die for the cause or to atone for sins, but surely the fact that so many don’t seem to even know much about their religion belies this for most. Instead, they are moved to fight perceived injustice. The problem is that while the injustice is real, their actions are indefensible and only make things worse. This is the sort of insight needed in Western decision making so that Western actions that exacerbate this situation can be ended.
I agree, except I don’t accept the “don’t seem to even know much about their religion belies this” argument that is used so much and frankly annoys the heck out of me. (Don’t take that personally – it’s not you that annoys me, but the fact that I hear it so much when I think it’s wrong.) I was going to save this argument for a proper post, so I won’t go into too much detail, but we all know the result of surveys of the religious in the US – it’s the atheists who know most about religion, not the most religious. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals within Christianity know the least on average, but that doesn’t make them any less fervent. Knowing about your religion has nothing to do with your level of religiosity.
Fair enough, but in the anecdotes that I’ve read where Western fighters have demonstrated they don’t know much about Islam and jihad, they have also referred to political issues being their main motivator to come to the ME. Surely this is also the case for former Baath Party officials too. It is just too easy to demonstrate as faulty Sam’s logic that it’s mainly about religion.
Yeah. I’m not, of course denying the other issues. I can imagine if I was a young Muslim women with the appropriate qualifications (medical, for example) reading about what Assad was doing in Syria, I might be motivated to go and help on the humanitarian side of things. And I’ve said elsewhere that there are many people involved just trying to survive the best way they know how, and I’ve mentioned other motivations too. I think Sam’s logic is faulty on the motivation side as well. There’s something to be said for the religious side of things when it comes to methods though. Modern Christians, for example, rarely become suicide bombers – that’s a tool available only to martyrdom cults.
You’re right. I guess where I come in is that I feel like there are too many on the left that ignore the religious issue. If the Middle East is going to be “solved” (for want of a better word – you can probably come up with one! 🙂 ) it has to be by the left. The right go OTT on the religious issue, and all their other “solutions” are military. It’s dangerous that the only ones talking about the problem of religion are the right. We need honest dialogue, and for me that means the left has to be honest about the contribution of religion, which I don’t think many of them are. I think that’s a point Harris makes too.
I agree, but not for the same reason. The crux of the issue is indeed how much importance to put on religion vs politics. I think it is self-defeating for the Left to avoid confronting religious questions because it gives those fixated on them reason to fixate further. Rather, we should confront religious questions precisely to argue them into their proper place, which for not all, but most issues to do with the ME is somewhere near the bottom of the list. They are forced even further down the list by the fact that there is so little we can do to address religion directly, while we could begin to change our own attitude and actions tomorrow to immediate direct effect. And doing so would also ultimately affect indirectly those same religious issues by changing a big part of the dynamic that is currently making sectarianism such a powerful tool.
I agree that since religion is a problem we can do nothing about ourselves we should concentrate on the things we can fix, especially where we’re at fault ourselves. We need to be aware of the other issues though, and available to give help if asked for it.
There is help the West can offer re governance, and the ME has the opportunity to look at the West and learn from our mistakes and see what works best. The truth is secular democracy is better, but that is something countries have to work out for themselves. The problem with the US in particular is that they’ve tried to impose their form of secular democracy on other countries. In such circumstances it’s no wonder people have rebelled against the idea. Until the recent past, the imposition of Christianity was part of that too. Humanism is considered and called Christian Values by many, and that’s naturally caused an issue too because there has been this assumption that Christianity is better than Islam – a crusading pov, and naturally the ME linked modern efforts with the Crusades.
“In October, France’s highest court upheld the criminal conviction of activists who advocate boycotts and sanctions against Israel as a means of ending the occupation. What did these criminals do? They “arrived at the supermarket wearing shirts emblazoned with the words: ‘Long live Palestine, boycott Israel’” and “also handed out fliers that said that ‘buying Israeli products means legitimizing crimes in Gaza.’” Because boycotts against Israel were deemed “anti-semitic” by the French court, it was a crime to advocate it. Where were all the post-Hebdo crusaders when these 12 individuals were criminally convicted for expressing their political views critical of Israel? Nowhere to be found.”
I agree with Greenwald in the paragraph you highlighted, and most of the article. However, he also said there was nobody on the left making excuses for the terrorists, then he did it himself. Although I don’t agree with the BDS movement, they should be free to express their views.
I’m assuming, of course, the convictions were for what they were saying and not for some public order offence like blocking access to a store. There are laws against anti-Semitic speech and denying the Holocaust in France (and Belgium and Germany) dating from post WWII. They were a reaction against the Nazi era in those countries. I think they’re wrong, and should be abolished. At least they should stop using them. We have that embarrassing Blasphemy Law in NZ, but at least we don’t use it.
Can you please quote where in the article “he did it himself”? I don’t see it.
I’m talking about where he quoted Olivier Cyran, who said Charlie Hebdo did:
I also find his conclusion offensive, “That’s because free speech was their cynical weapon, not their actual belief.” It pretty much sums up what I don’t like about him, and why I consider him a regressive. He passes judgement on what is acceptable free speech, and what isn’t. If he doesn’t like it, he impugns the motives of the speaker, and even calls them racist, Islamophobic etc. Sometimes, of course, he’s right, but his use of the word “tribalistic,” which is one that is now being applied to NAs, makes me feel like it’s NAs he’s getting at and not those who actually are racist, Islamophobic etc.
So, yes, on freedom of speech I completely agree with him, and I’m appalled that people in France are being jailed for a protest that’s been deemed anti-Semitic. That’s just wrong, and he’s right that more should be said about it. I’m just a bit suspicious of him because of things he’s written in the past, and that may be colouring my judgement for the worse too.
Heather, that quote from the former Hebdo staffer does not even slightly excuse the terrorists; it doesn’t even address the matter. It says that Hebdo contributed to the marginalisation of Muslims in France. You can argue whether that is true or not, but it was not being used to excuse the murders.
I think his conclusion is too simplistic, but it is closer to the truth than what we read in the mainstream media at the time, that’s for sure.
Freedom of conscience means the right to be wrong. I have a right to hold erroneous or objectionable convictions or opinions, and so do you. That’s the difference between my respecting your freedom to develop your own convictions without fear of coercion, versus my endorsing any particular conviction that you may hold.
That being said, I’m not sure it really works in the case of atheism. Some atheists claim to believe nothing, which logically can’t be the same as holding a conviction. On the other hand, if atheism really were a thing, it would be the negation of truth itself, and thus it would be the ultimate falsehood. So whether atheism fails due to nullity or falsity, it’s hard to imagine that it would be respectable.
I would agree, though, that discourse about conscience rights shouldn’t be confined to religious tenets per se. That’s been the context historically, but the principles should be the same for non-religious questions. (In the Hobby Lobby case you mention, the root issue was ethical, not theological, but the only legal argument available to Hobby Lobby was based on a statute — broadly supported at the time Bill Clinton signed it — that aimed to restore minority rights that the courts had taken away.)
Second para, you will have to define your terms, as I think you mean very different things than what most people mean. As a place to start, what is this “truth itself”, how have you determined it to be true, and what would make you question its truth?
I agree with you that people have the right to be wrong.
I’m not quite sure of your reasoning around atheism. As has been pointed out by Richard Dawkins, atheism is only a thing because so many people are theists, despite there being absolutely no verifiable evidence that God or gods exist. We don’t have a word afairyist, or aleprechaunist, or a-any other supernatural being.
In his weekly Salon article, Jeffrey Tayler wrote this week:
(The “hole in the head or an icepick up the eye socket” was a reference to an earlier part of the article where he noted we should dissuade the same friend from trepanation of a lobotomy for a headache.)
The lack of evidence is why atheists are atheists. Most of us will admit that if compelling evidence for the existence for God or gods was presented, we would change our position. (There are probably some who would never accept any evidence, although I’ve never come across one.)
As far as Hobby Lobby, I’m not sure it matters whether it was ethical or theological. The fact remains that it was because of respect for religion that they were able to make their case. Further, science tells us that their view is simply wrong – IUDs do NOT cause abortions. They were able to make their case because of religion – they were able to force their religious beliefs on others.
It certainly is the case that truth must be the standard. Love of truth, and the pursuit of truth, enliven us and make us who we are. But without hope and trust in the final source of truth, it is a futile undertaking.
A free and honest pursuit of truth means following wherever reason, wisdom, intuition, experience, charity, conscience, and the spirit of truth may lead. The kind of atheism that claims to know just enough about God to know what kind of “evidence” to demand of him is like the petulant child who pouts in one corner of the sandbox with his back to his peers, missing out on life and forever digging the same hole.
Regarding Hobby Lobby, the owners forced their beliefs on no one. Every one of their employees made a free, informed decision to accept employment under the terms offered. By all accounts the employees were very pleased to do so. A legal dispute arose solely because the Obama regime’s ideology led it to interfere in a private employment relationship, and to violate the owners’ rights under the law. We’re in agreement that said rights should obtain with or without reference to religion.
Things like intuition cannot reliably lead to the truth.
God, if he was real, and as an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being, is capable of providing evidence of his existence that could be accepted by all. And anyway, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, if believing in God requires faith, and God provides proof of existence, wouldn’t be then disappear in a puff of logic?
Atheists aren’t missing out on anything. There is plenty of wonder in this world without needing to invent a God to provide it. Every time I just look at the world around me (and of course I’m helped by living in a beautiful country) I’m in awe about how all the different things around me evolved over billions of years from a single source. There’s wonder in nature, art, music, literature, love, the pursuit of knowledge and much more. From my point of view, the ones who are limited are those who can’t see beyond the idea of God or gods. The reasons you don’t believe in Odin or Jupiter or Zeus or Osiris are the same reasons I don’t believe in Yahweh/God/Allah. I’m the same as you – I just believe in one less god.
When I was eighteen, I thought I knew everything. Every day since I’ve learned more, and realize how little I still know. I believed there was a god for a long time, but came to realize that the evidence just didn’t stack up. I pursue the truth, and for me it lead to the conclusion there’s no God or gods. I’m quite happy for other people to believe – I’m not about telling other people how of what to think.
Yes, by and large Hobby Lobby seems to be a good employer, but that’s not the point. They got a carve out for a religious belief – religious belief was privileged over other belief. It also seems when that belief is somehow related to women and reproduction that the belief is given extra respect. Closely held white supremacist beliefs would not be treated the same. If the closely held belief was that they shouldn’t pay taxes, that wouldn’t be accepted. There are religions that believe any healthcare is wrong – that it’s all up to God, but they’re not trying it on with the government. And Hobby Lobby are hypocrites. They’re happy to make money selling products from China, for example, with it’s one (now two in some circumstances) child policy, forced abortions etc. They’re happy to make money from customers who don’t comply with their religious rules re contraception. Cases like this are one of the reasons (though a minor one) why a universal single-payer system is best.
No, I don’t believe in one more god, or one fewer. If you’re counting, you’ve got the wrong God.
What atheists miss out on is everything. If one decides whom to trust by coolly weighing the evidence, they’re missing out. If one goes through life denigrating intuition, they’re missing out. If one tries to hold truth captive inside a box, they’re missing out on the whole truth.
Probably the only point we’ll agree on is that maturity brings a growing awareness of one’s own ignorance and limits. (There are oafish exceptions, of course, like Donald Trump and his evil twin Richard Dawkins.) But the rational response to this realization would be to become less settled in one’s convictions, not more so.
Not that it matters, but as you see, unlike you I have no compunction about telling strangers what to think.
I don’t have the wrong god – I don’t have any god.
What’s true is what j.a.m. says is true. He’s blessed, you know.
You’re too kind. (But quite insightful.)
I’m with you totally on that — I don’t have any god. We deny precisely the same gods, and the same number of gods. God is not a “god”, nor a member of any other set or category.
Where we differ, if we do, is that I don’t see how it’s possible to understand anything without acknowledging the meaning, power and majesty of the verb “be”.
I don’t understand where you’re coming from here. Perhaps you could explain what the word God means to you, and if He isn’t some sort of being in your understanding, what is He?
Paraphrasing David Bentley Hart, if one could sort through all the physical objects and phenomena that make up the universe, they might come across any number of ancient gods with funny names (who knows), but they will never find God.
Rather than imagining God as a phenomenon within reality, it would be closer to what is really meant by God to say that God is Being Itself, the transcendent reality upon which contingent being depends. To be God, in other words, is to be, and by the act of being to bring about the “created” world of contingent things.
Moreover, God’s act of being is the wellspring of truth and meaning, inasmuch as truth is essential to reality, and rational meaning is necessary for truth.
Hart: “To speak of ‘God’ properly, then — to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Bahá’í, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth — is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is…”
So you’re a Sophisticated Theologian. (Someone has trademarked that term, but I don’t know who.)
I’ve seen that approach from Karen Armstrong too. I don’t know enough to discuss it, but whenever I’ve come across individual arguments in its favour, none have convinced me.
Further, it’s simply not what most theists think. Despite what STs like David Bentley Hart say, most believers really do think of God as a person.
Hopefully my last post was responsive to your previous request. That was my only intent.
It’s inevitable that any thought at all would seem sophisticated in comparison to the sophomoric cant of the celebrity atheists, who not only remain stubbornly ill-informed but seem to wear their ignorance on their sleeves.
Hart was handy, but I could have cited anyone from Aquinas to Ratzinger. Like it or not, it’s pretty orthodox Western theology. And according to Hart it is “consonant” with other traditions.
As for what lay people supposedly think: So? If you are studying religious practice from a social or cultural perspective, then you would investigate the lived experience of ordinary adherents. If on the other hand you are undertaking a philosophical or theological inquiry, then you care about learned and authoritative opinions, not uninformed ones.
(That said, I’ll go out on a limb and claim that people in the pews — unlike the unsophisticated Richard Dawkins — know that God doesn’t actually sport a flowing white beard.)