Charlie Hebdo and the freedom to offend
“We are avenging Mohammed!” the attackers shouted as they went about their murderous business against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris Wednesday morning, as can be seen on witness videos. Once again, Islamic terrorists responded violently to a routine ritual of the free world—we like to make fun of things.
We make fun of kings, presidents, popes, saints, even prophets. We make fun of Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Obama, Queen Elizabeth, North Korean dictators, and, yes, even Mohammed. Sometimes, that kind of mockery helps us get to a deeper truth. But even when it doesn’t, we’re free to take on whomever and whatever we like. It’s called freedom of speech.
This freedom to criticize and offend is worshiped by millions of people, including, yes, the Islamic terrorists themselves.
[Related: Jewish caricaturist among Paris victims]
You see, here’s what I find utterly fascinating about Islamic murderers who are easily offended: They cherish their own freedom to offend. God forbid anyone should ever try to curtail that freedom and tell Islamic murderers to stop offending other religions or religious groups.
It’s freedom of expression for them, but not for others.
When we accept this dynamic and single out Islam for special sensitivity, we don’t do Islam any favors. Remember how much of the U.S. media refused to publish the Danish cartoons of Mohammed that sparked riots over a decade ago? The free speech junkies who caved into Islamic bullying were also those who blasted Sony recently for caving into the North Korean threats against the film, “The Interview.”
Apparently, when the bullies are not Islamic, and the target is not Islam, our media is fearless.
Now, with this blatant and cowardly attack against free speech in Paris, I wonder: Will the Western media call for a doubling down of Charlie Hebdo-style satire as the appropriate response to those who want to shut us up, just as they boldly called for an in-your-face response to the North Korean threats against Sony?
Or will they resort to form and put on their special kid gloves so as not to “offend” Islam?
We often hear that Islam is “a religion of peace” and that, although more than 24,000 terrorist acts have been done in its name since 9/11, these acts don’t represent the “true Islam.” Rather, they represent a violent and distorted interpretation of Islam. In this view, Islam cannot be held accountable.
But is it reasonable to completely isolate interpretation from a religion?
In his book, “The Great Partnership,” Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks cautions against doing just that.
“Interpretation,” he writes, “is as fundamental to any text-based religion as is the act of revelation itself. No word, especially the word of God, is self-explanatory. Exegetes and commentators are to religion what judges are to law. They are essential to the system, and they can make all the difference between justice and injustice, right and wrong.”
It’s too easy to look at the murderous acts done in the name of Islam and just say, “This is not Islam.” Tragically, for too many Muslims, it is Islam.
Moderate Muslims must stop using “wrong interpretation” as the excuse to let their religion off the hook. It's not enough to condemn terrorism and call Islam a religion of peace. Moderates must fight for that interpretation to win the day. For starters, instead of going after critics of Islam with accusations of Islamophobia, they ought to go after those who are really damaging Islam– the murderers acting in the name of their religion.
What we need is not a Battle of Civilizations, but a Battle of Interpretations. The champions of moderate Islam have no choice but to win that battle, which is an internal battle best fought by Muslims themselves.
We know the moderates will be winning when Muslims feel free to publish a magazine that pokes fun at the world's sacred cows… including their own.
They should dedicate that magazine to the free speech heroes who perished in Paris.