Charlie, Blasphemer

[Re-posted from earlier today]


You can probably tell I’ve been really sick because I couldn’t manage to write about the Charlie Hebdo Jihadist mass murder. Now that the immediate crisis is past and my fevers are back under some control, some thoughts.

I was actually surprised and gladdened by the response to the slaughter – an overwhelming wave of revulsion and disgust, expressed with great dignity and courage (and yes, it was an absolute disgrace that Obama sent no one of a higher rank than the ambassador). I had begun to think that a defense of free speech was no longer a pillar of the American right or left, but for a while, at least, I was wrong. People do draw the line at the murder of blasphemous cartoonists in the name of God. It seems we have at least achieved a consensus on that. Two cheers!

Was it enough to prompt the New York Times to be a newspaper, instead of a quivering pile of bullshit fearful of offending people? Nah. Baquet is a man worthy to succeed Bill Keller, the editor who refused to use the word torture because it would offend the American government, which was trying to conceal war crimes (and has gotten away with all of it). The NYT is a fantastic paper in so many ways. But it is run by those o-CHARLIE-COVER-570educated in the view that anything that might offend any non-white minority is the worst human sin imaginable. The brutal truth is: Charlie Hebdo employees would last a week at most at the NYT before being fired. A liberal church like that will not tolerate blasphemy either. And can you imagine Charlie being allowed to be published on any US campus? For merely its depictions of Jews and Christians, it would never survive. It is, after all, a “macro-aggression”, right? Students would need counseling for years to recover from such images. Still, hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, and in an America dedicated to rooting out “hate speech”, this is probably as good as we’re likely to get.

Then the deeper disappointment. Even now, many will not concede that religion was the root cause of the attack, and that the name of that religion is Islam. Reading the cartoonishly liberal Nick Kristof was like watching a Monty Python Piranha Brothers sketch (see above). Yeah, they have murdered thousands of Westerners and far larger numbers of Middle Eastern and Nigerian and Pakistani Muslims. Yeah, they did that. They also declared at every one of their slaughters that their motivation is Islam. They have beheaded people, mass murdered school children, flown planes into buildings, cut women’s genitals, employ sex slaves, commit mass rape, and on and on. They have taken over a large part of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts to advance their desire for religious purity.

But Islam has nothing to do with this. There are just a few loonies who are suffering from false consciousness, and their real motivations are economic or personal or secular or just purely violent. You can believe that, if you want. Or you can pretend to believe it because it might be more pragmatic to do so. Or you can open your eyes. This is not to say that most Muslims support this kind of mass murder – and the global Muslim response was particularly encouraging. But it is to say that it is not a coincidence that so much terror and violence all over the world is currently being committed in the name of Islam. Some core parts of it are, quite simply, incompatible with post-Enlightenment thought and practice. And those parts have all the energy right now.

And the core issue here is blasphemy. For almost all of human history, rooting out blasphemy has been the norm. Many Western countries still have moribund blasphemy laws and the Muslim world is crammed with them. The death penalty is common. Prison time is expected. Mob mass murder is another phenomenon. Today, the NYT dutifully cites some verses from the Koran that instruct Muslims to simply “not sit with” blasphemers. There are others:

Those who annoy Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment. Truly, if the Hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not, We shall certainly stir thee up against them: Then will they not be able to stay in it as thy neighbours for any length of time: They shall have a curse on them: whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy).

Or the prophet himself:

The Prophet said, “Who is ready to kill Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf who has really hurt Allah and His Apostle?” Muhammad bin Maslama said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Do you like me to kill him?” He replied in the affirmative.

You can get thrown in jail and have mobs calling for your execution by teaching kids about a teddy bear in Sudan, to give a simple 2007 case. In Pakistan, 50 people arrested for blasphemy over the last three decades have been murdered before they got to trial. In Saudi Arabia, an ally, blasphemy is on the same level as apostasy: it’s punishable by death.

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The map above from the Pew Foundation shows where blasphemy laws are on the books. See a pattern here? Pew notes that 64 percent of the world’s populations still live under blasphemy laws and they are marginally more common than the other deeply anti-Enlightenment prohibition on apostasy.

Again, it’s vital to point out that Islam is the norm for most religions on planet earth since the beginning of time – except for a brief period in the modern West. It is not so much that they have gone backward so much as we have gone forward so rapidly on the question of religious liberty and free speech that some core elements of Islam cannot tolerate it. It’s too great a cultural gulf. I have tentative hope that this vast gap on a fundamental question may take as long for Islam to arrive at as Christianity did. But that means a century at least of more bloodletting – and given the presence of so many disaffected young Muslims in Europe, a series of slaughters to come, and the possible erosion of support for free speech outside these rare moments of cherished unity. I see no other way of getting through this: surveillance, vigilance, an end to invasion, occupation and torture, and patience. And to give not an inch to any infringement on free speech.

The rest is for the Muslim world.