Like many of us I was shocked by the horrific killings that took place recently in Paris where more than a dozen staff and editors of the French publication Charlie Hebdo, as well as some innocent bystanders, were viciously and cold-bloodedly gunned down by Islamic terrorists. In a separate but related incident a policewoman and five other Parisians were killed. Ultimately, the French authorities found and killed the perpetrators of these killings, but not before they had succeeded in bursting the illusionary bubble of security and safety thought to be enjoyed in this modern city and, in fact, in Europe and much of the west. The terrorists, young French citizens apparently trained and supported by Al-Qaida, purportedly acted in revenge for cartoons and articles published in this satirical weekly newspaper seen as insulting to Mohammed and the Islamic faith.
The Western world responded swiftly in showing support and solidarity to what was seen as a vicious attack on freedom of speech and liberty in our modern society—”Je Suis Charlie—I am Charlie,” resounded around the world as thousands took to the streets in protest and support against the terrorists. The intent of the rallies and the protests was to show Islamic extremists/terrorists that we will not be bullied by armed threats, and we will continue to live as free and open societies. To underscore this, the January 15 publication of Charlie Hebdo sold out more than 5 million copies. (Their normal publication rate previously only amounted to about 60,000 copies!) In the end though we are left to reflect on what could cause such a violent and visceral reaction to simple cartoons in an obscure publication. From my own travels I recall an experience that may offer some insight as to what drives these extremists.
While traveling through Europe and Asia fourteen months ago, I found myself in the fascinating city of Istanbul, Turkey. Literally straddling the boundary between Europe and Asia, this captivating city mixes the old with the new, the ancient with the modern in a way that is mesmerizing and at the same time puzzling. In ancient times known as Constantinople, Istanbul has been for centuries a crossroad of civilizations and destination of travelers, traders and adventurers of all sorts. Greeks, Romans, Persians—all had control over the region and its culture, leaving behind many ancient artifacts, temples and other traces of these earlier civilizations. For many centuries a major Christian enclave, it fell to Ottoman conquerors in the fifteen century; and for over four hundred and fifty years was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. During this period opulent homes and palaces of the sultanate were built, along with
major mosques and other Islamic religious and education centers. Ultimately, the opulence and corruption over many centuries led to its decline, ending in the collapse of what remained of the Ottoman Empire, its land in full control of Allied forces after WWI. In 1924 the sultanate was abolished, the Turkish Republic established, and Ankara declared the new capitol. Nonetheless, Istanbul continues to today as Turkey’s major hub of commerce, culture and finance, boasting not only Moslem mosques, but numerous Christian churches and Jewish synagogues.
I was there in part to follow up on the ending of Dan Brown’s Inferno story which I reported on in an earlier blog. I was struck by the extreme friendliness of the Turkish people even in a modern metropolis of over 14 million, welcoming an obvious stranger (a group of young men used their metro card to help me board the metro from the airport and then helped me on to my hotel in the center of town) and often going out of their way to ensure I made my way either to a major tourist site, the market or just a local restaurant. While Islam is the major religion of the nation, Istanbul, at least at first blush, appears essentially secular with men and women in modern dress and even the traditional “burkas” (full body scarves worn by women), while usually black, sometimes were in bright colors and modern materials. The atmosphere of the city was totally non-threatening and I felt welcomed to wander its streets and the many tourist sites, including its beautiful Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) museum, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace, the Spice Market, etc. I was entertained at the call to daily prayer by all the mosques, reveling in the apparently competing prayers sung out by each mosque in turn—a kind of “Dueling of the Mosques” à la the movie “Deliverance.”
One morning while traveling on the modern subway heading to Topkapi Palace district, I heard a public service announcement over the subway’s speaker system. “All passengers should be aware of…”—I was only partially listening, expecting to be told to beware of thieves or pickpockets not uncommon on the trains but instead—”…possible incidents of blasphemy. Please report any suspicious activity or incidents of blasphemy to the nearest transportation official.” Blasphemy?! I was stunned. The announcement was in English, so it was clearly meant to be heard by foreigners. I quickly reviewed in my mind what could be perceived in Turkey as blasphemy (Webster defines it as the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk)—had I committed such an act by staring too long at the strange sight of a woman in full burka with only a slit with her eyes showing? Did I inadvertently swear when I stubbed my toe getting on the tram? Had I committed some other unknown transgression that could be translated into an act of blasphemy? I tried to imagine the consequences of being accused of blasphemy and trying to negotiate my way out of such a problem with various and sundry transportation officials!
Apparently, I was not observed by anyone with committing any “blasphemy” while riding the city’s transportation systems nor during the rest of my stay in Istanbul. Nonetheless I was taken aback by a public focus and, apparently, serious concern for what is seen in the U.S. and most of the Western world as a purely spiritual or religious issue. A secular, modern society does not concern itself with blasphemy. In Istanbul and the rest of Turkey, and, perhaps, the rest of the Muslim world, it clearly does. Which takes us to the issue of understanding and more importantly dealing with what caused the violence at Charlie Hebdo.
In a recent interview on NPR, Jack Miles, author and editor of Norton Anthology of World Religions, was asked about the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo and the response to the mass killings, including the slogan of Je Suis Charlie. An excerpt of his comments follows:
But “Je Suis Charlie” has a double meaning. For the millions of demonstrators saying “I am Charlie” meant, you think you’ve killed Charlie Hebdo but let me tell you – I’m still here. You haven’t killed me and you’ll have to kill all of us if you want to kill off the French spirit of wit and satire and total freedom of speech. Who can disagree with that, you think. But the cartoons that had to do with Islam, you know, portraying a naked Muhammad writhing on his belly and asking the observer, do you like my butt? Cartoons like that seem to say to Muslims, Charlie Hebdo despises you – we despise your prophet and we despise you. And so when all of France rises up and says, “I am Charlie Hebdo,” all of France seems to be rising up and saying to the Muslims, we too despise you, we too scorn you just as the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo did.
And you have to recognize that this is a metaphor and metaphors are always subject to more than one interpretation, and here are two perfectly clear, perfectly reasonable, but fatally contradictory interpretations.
Dr. Miles went on to discuss the tradition of pluralism and tolerance in the U.S. and the need for better understanding and a clearer sense of “etiquette” when it comes to the religious sensitivities of others.
You know, I’m an American, and we have a powerful tradition of pluralism in our country. And the American tradition of pluralism – the American necessity of having people of various ethnicities and religions living in large numbers, cheek by jowl – has given us a different kind of courtesy – a different sense of propriety than operates in France. David Brooks did a column in The New York Times, of which I approved, in the days immediately following. He said, to an American looking at the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, that the initial reaction would be, how juvenile, how puerile. These are, like, naughty cartoons – yes, insulting. Yes, intended to wound, but we would kind of look down on them as a journalism of a bad taste that we, ourselves, would not be guilty of. Taste, you know, propriety, courtesy – these are not laws. They’re unwritten laws, but they do matter for the living of a society.
So when it comes to laws imposed by government on journalists, I’m a free-speech absolutist. And yes, as a journalist, of course I could feel the same impulse to say “Je Suis Charlie” and put the button on my own lapel, but as an American, recognizing that we have accomplished something in our country by a certain – the delicate abstentions that we make. I’m happy to say Happy Holidays in mixed religious company rather than Merry Christmas, which is more religious. I love Christmas. I love saying Merry Christmas. And I always say it, you know, to members of my family and all my Christian friends, but I don’t feel it’s too much to ask of me, in a kind of mood of interreligious courtesy, to say Happy Holidays instead. That principle, operating, could have brought about a restraint. Had it done so, France would be having greater success in managing its own pluralism than I believe it’s likely to have in the months ahead.
Western leaders rightly condemned the killings, called for international cooperation, and moved swiftly to identify terrorists cells in other parts of Europe and even some individuals here in the U.S. Even now as our governments move to counter this threat there are many questions that arise from this event: Who are these terrorists? Where do they come from? How is it possible that young men and women from within our society can be recruited to be jihadists? What can be done to stop them? What as individuals should we do?
Make no mistake. I totally condemn the actions of individuals like the terrorists in France and elsewhere in the world that try to impose their view of religion and God through such extreme acts of violence and rage that seem to run counter to a sane and modern civilization. Like many I clench my teeth in rage at the beheadings of innocents whose only crime is to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I only wish we could act to purge ourselves of such perpetrators of these barbaric acts. At the same time I realize that for individuals in France or England or even the U.S. to be attracted to such ideologies as represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their horrific actions we must strive to understand what fuels such deep emotions. As noted by Dr. Miles, we need to be sensitive to the beliefs of others—what is one person’s idea of a joke or free speech can be another’s idea of blasphemy. We must be tolerant as well even when faced with the intolerance of the other side.
In the end we must show solidarity with our friends and allies against the terrorists, while at the same time we should try to be understanding of the deep societal issues driving their supporters. I realize this may be a bit of a contradiction. However, the Muslim intonation, Allahu Akbar—God is Greatest, suggests to me that God, whether a Muslim God or a Christian God should be able to take a joke —Je Suis Charlie—Paul Maxwell
Author’s note: Shortly after writing this post, the world was horrified yet again by the vicious and atrocious execution of the young Jordanian pilot, burned to death while chained in a cage by the ISIS extremists. No words can describe the outrage any just and humane person could feel on hearing of this barbaric act. Again I condemn the outrageous actions of the ISIS and their actions and fully support any actions taken to eradicate this scourge on humanity.—PM
This document was edited by Carol Feickert, CeeJay Publications, Denver, Colorado. Contact [email protected]