The misanthropes

by Phyllis Zagano

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Murder is never the answer, and terrorism is the most cowardly of acts. But physical violence will continue as a reaction to real or imagined emotional violence.

Is it an expression of power to ridicule another's religious belief? It is always the powerless who suffer the consequences. Only the deranged bring bullets to the discussion.

We need to stop hating each other.

Many years ago, I retrieved from underneath the windshield wiper of my car, then parked at a government building near Washington, D.C., an anti-Catholic cartoon tract by someone named Jack Chick. I had never seen anything like it.

It was an angry, nearly incoherent mockery of Catholic teachings and beliefs. I threw it away, but its memory melds with memories of some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons several news outlets -- The Telegraph of London, The Washington Post, New York Daily News among them --refuse to print. The New York Times explained it does "not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities."

They certainly would not print anything Chick publishes. Chick doesn't like Mormons, Masons, or Muslims any more than he likes Catholics, and his operation has grown well beyond putting tracts under windshields. Now 90, he presides over an electronic and paper empire that produces materials in 100 languages. He claims to have sold 750 million tracts.

Chick apparently claims that God directs his attacks against Catholicism and the Catholic church, which he writes has caused most of the world's problems. Chick mocks Catholic belief in the Eucharist and has all manner of comment about clerics. He even has an entire comic book ($2.25) about Jesuits.

Can Chick say what he wants? I suppose so. Parts of the United States and some Western countries have blasphemy laws, but these are no longer enforced except insofar as they cover hate speech. Even then, there seems no governmental will to impose civility or respect for religion.

Muslim countries have stricter anti-blasphemy laws, and even France has laws against "incitement to commit crimes and offenses." It is illegal in France to insult any religious group, nationality, ethnic group, race, sexual orientation or handicap.

We know that all those national leaders were marching against terrorism. What else might French President Francois Hollande, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga have been thinking as they marched along the streets of Paris? Each of their countries (or, in the case of the European Union, most member states) says something about hate speech directed at a religious group.

Have they every actually seen some of the so-called cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have appeared in Charlie Hebdo? I am talking about the rear views of a naked Muhammad on all fours. I am talking about the homosexual postures he has been depicted in. I am talking about vaguely pornographic religious hate speech that rises to the intellectual level of a boys' high school bathroom.

Charlie Hebdo may have satirized other religions, other leaders, other ideas. But too often, it is just not funny.

Who feels better about deriding someone's religious belief? Who wins when the comments get ugly? Who laughs at attacks on what others hold sacred?

Is it foolish to defend anyone's right to say whatever he or she wishes? If you defend such rights, are you defending everything said?

The French citizens who espouse the liberties of satire look toward Moliere, who skewered the powerful. But the French citizens who follow Islam, for the most part, are a powerless minority blocked off in what seem to be state-sanctioned ghettos from which there is little escape to the lights of Paris. They are the ones caught in the vise between free speech and terrorism. They are the ones who suffer.

In this case, the deranged took matters into their own hands. The shooters were not Muslim. They were, as the brother of a victim said, "fake Muslims."

It cuts both ways. Bullets are never the answer, but neither is ridicule. It is one thing to produce satire of a political or religious leader. It is quite another thing to defame or defile the sacred.

Charlie Hebdo is not about rights and retaliation. Charlie Hebdo is about seeing the human in every person. That goes for both sides.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University. She will speak Jan. 23 at the Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies in Thessaloniki, Greece (available online); March 11 at University of Illinois, Chicago; and April 16 at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, Ireland. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Sacred Silence: Daily Meditations for Lent.]

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