'Je suis Ahmed' brings to the forefront a life worthy of emulation

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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France's collective mourning this past week over the slain staffers of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French weekly, rode on deep currents of religious solemnity: massive popular demonstrations, collective solemn silence, flickering candlelight and the tolling of bells. Some details, like the bells of Notre Dame and the dimmed lights of the Eiffel Tower, required official cooperation, but for the most part, the expressions of collective grief were natural outpourings of popular emotion.

On social media, in a cry reminiscent of the French "Nous sommes tous Américains" ("We are all Americans") on 9/11, French citizens tweeted "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie"). France 24, the international broadcaster, made the parallel with 9/11 clear, headlining its broadcasts "Nous tous sommes Charlie" ("We all are Charlie").

In the classic phrase of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, the crowds were engaged in the rituals of "civil religion," a nonconfessional manifestation of national solidarity. Religious practices -- silence, candles, bell-ringing -- were adopted to honor their faith in the French Republic, its version of liberal democracy, and especially its distinctive version of freedom of speech and press.

Just as in the U.S., legislative and judicial history color freedom of expression in France. It makes exceptions, proscribing anti-Semitic opinions or pro-Nazi, anti-Holocaust views. Anti-religious opinions, however, are generally tolerated. The Catholic church has been a frequent target of Charlie's cartoons, and Catholics have instigated many lawsuits against the magazine.

Another dimension of the French civil religion is secularism, what French call laicité, with its overtones of anti-clericalism. The French Revolution, after all, was fought in part to free the people from the oppressive power of the church. So along with defense of the republic and freedom of speech, public demonstrations these last days entailed a defense of secularism, including its opposition to a public role of religion in society. For the aging generation of the 1968 student rebellions in particular, Charlie is a talisman of their anti-authoritarian, freedom-loving spirit.

In some settings, Charlie Hebdo's transgressive humor would be regarded as hate speech. In French society, it represents the tolerable extreme of free speech. As we have learned in the United States, commitment to free speech is very often proven by our response to the hardest cases where we may find ourselves offended by the content of speech our principles require us to defend.

Plato remarked 2,500 years ago that the loss of reverence was a symptom of the decline of civilization. Today, there is still something disquieting about a group of adults who devote themselves to relentless mockery of what others hold sacred. A steady stream of sarcasm has a coarsening effect on society.

Friday New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of professional satirists this way: "After a while [ridicule] seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. ... Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult."

Many ought to be ready to join Brooks in proclaiming, "We are not Charlie Hebdo." We should not allow our horror at a terrorist massacre to coarsen our attitudes by overidentifying with Charlie's smug derision of others' dearly held beliefs. As Brooks wrote, "In most societies, there's the adults' table and there's the kids' table." We should be able to take our seat at the adults' table, where civility and respect are the norm.

Out of the tumult of the last several days, another cry went out over Twitter that the adults of this world should retweet: "Je suis Ahmed" ("I am Ahmed"). The tweet refers to Ahmed Merabet, the 40-year-old French policeman of North African descent assigned to protect the Charlie Hebdo offices. He was first wounded then executed by the Charlie murderers.

Unlike Cherif and Said Kouachi, the suspects in the shootings, Officer Merabet had assimilated to French society to the point of offering his life to defend Charlie Hebdo, its editors and their opinions. In death, Officer Merabet calls not only for our sympathy; his life calls for our emulation. He represented those whose adult responsibility makes it possible for others to behave as adolescent rebels.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 30-Feb 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: 'Je suis Ahmed': a life worthy of emulation.

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