Je ne suis pas Charlie

Last night, at the Place de la Republique in Paris, and at French embassies in capitals around the world, people gathered with signs reading “Je suis Charlie,” or “ I am Charlie,” demonstrating their solidarity with the slain staff at the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo that was attacked yesterday by Islamicist murderers.

I am not Charlie. I am not as brave as the editors at that newspaper were, continuing their satire even after the death threats and after their offices were fire-bombed. To point out another obvious difference, I am not a satirist and I do not go out of my way to poke fun at other people’s religion. But, they did and - you will pardon the expression - God bless them for it.

Most of the people in the squares protesting last night were also probably not so brave. But, those gatherings of ordinary men and women, holding up their signs and their pens, were different in kind, not merely in degree, from the ubiquitous outpouring of emotion when, say, Diana, the Princess of Wales, died in a car crash. The identity was not with celebrity, but with an idea, and that idea is that freedom of expression is a value in our civilization that we prize highly, even when what is expressed annoys us or is distasteful or is disrespectful. I do not commend disrespecting other people, but I commend even less a culture that does not permit it.  That is the sensibility that brought the normally aloof Parisians into the streets with their signs. It is a sensibility at the heart of the kind of liberalism I still hold on to as something to be cherished.

Those signs, and the depth of identification with Charlie Hebdo and its staff, are a moment of much needed candor in assessing what used to be called “the war on terror.” You can’t wage war on a tactic and terrorism is a tactic. Indeed, the thing we need to confront is not really the kind of thing for which war is suited at all. Surely, thirteen years in Afghanistan have taught us that. But, our lack of effective weapons cannot blind us to the threat that we in the West do face. There are people in this world who wish to kill our culture and they are willing to kill us to make the point.

This morning, I received an email from a friend in Paris to whom I had sent condolences last night. He is a journalist who knew one of the editors slain in yesterday’s attack. After thanking me for the expression of sympathy, he noted, “It is a very dangerous situation that will boost the far Right.” Sadly, I am sure my friend is correct. In the near term at least, the embers of xenophobia will be stoked by yesterday’s slaughter. Last night, the chicken hawks at Fox News were shouting out their battle cries. I note in passing that these chicken hawks also lack the bravery of the editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo but prat on about the need to stand up to Islam even if they leave it to French satirists to do so, then return to mocking French politics and culture. I am glad I do not have to pay for the insurance against whiplash for rightwing pundits. 

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The political and religious left, both in France and in the U.S., tries to move quickly past the brute, and brutal, fact that a certain type of fundamentalist Islamicism is evil and contagious. The absence of any candor on the left leaves the political and religious right as the only ones who even seem willing to acknowledge the problem and increases their appeal. This dynamic could bring on Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations, unless the left in the West finds it voice and its courage. 

So, let us be clear. The values of a culture that says it is fine to behead homosexuals are worse values than those of a culture that says it is not fine to behead homosexuals. The values of a culture that seeks to keep women in third-class status are worse than the values of a culture that seeks to open opportunities for women. The values of a culture that demands adherence to a strained, fundamentalist reading of a religious text are worse than the values of a culture that acknowledges pluralism and seeks to find peaceful ways for people of different religions to live together amicably. These values are not merely different. Cultural relativism only gets you so far. Our values, our liberal values, are better. I do not have to like this cartoon or that essay, I may regret the sense of license our commitment to liberty allows and even encourages, many and deep are my reservations about the seraglio of the Enlightenment, but I would rather be a citizen of the Fifth Republic of France than a slave in territory governed by ISIS. So would everybody except the evil and the deranged.

Our commitment to our liberal values in the West cannot blind us to the prices we should be prepared to pay. I hope the next time Edward Snowden makes an inflammatory accusation against the United States, people will pause and check their reflexive concern about government intrusion. If yesterday’s attack could have been prevented by listening in on my phone calls, I wish the CIA had been listening. If the lines at the airport grow longer, and the occasional insanity of frisking a grandmother continues, so be it. And, please, let those reflexive critics of Israel understand that yesterday’s attack had nothing to do with settlements on the West Bank.

The struggle that must take place, however, is primarily a struggle within Islam. Just as Catholicism has had to break from its own barbarisms, haltingly to be sure, and insist that its faith be expressed in humane ways, indeed that inhumane expressions of the our Catholic faith are a contradiction of that faith, so too must our Muslim brothers and sisters find the arguments and the ideas and the critical mass of supporters to break their faith free from these murderers who claim to act in their name. The thing that we Catholics can do, especially those of us who are not afraid to call ourselves liberals, is create relationships with humane Muslims, work with them for the common good, highlight their culture and its contributions, and encourage them as they seek to remove the cancer that is currently eating away at their religion. We can share with them the ups-and-downs of our Catholic history in this struggle, noting that sometimes those ups-and-downs occurred in the same person, as when the venerable Saint Thomas More sent heretics to the flames. History, the catalogue of humanity, is itself a great humanizing force in any culture, whether its study prepares a person for a job in the 21st century marketplace or not.

The great temptation today is to turn sadness into anger. That is what the Islamicist murderers want. We may recoil at the prospect of this attack strengthening the far Right, the xenophobic right, but the Islamicists do not so recoil. That was their aim. They want the clash of civilizations. Only a civilized and humane response, unabashedly clear in defense of the liberal values we hold dear, will prevent that clash. Part of that humane response must come from the Christian faith - and from liberal humorists. “Whom the gods would make bigots, they first deprive of humor,” wrote Fr. Gillis many years ago. Most of the hard work, however, belongs to the Muslim communities around the world, deciding what kind of faith they want theirs to be. 

I am not Charlie. But, I am proud to be associated with a culture that celebrates Charlie.

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