JE SUIS CHARLIE and the Threat of Absolutism

The Prophet Mohammed?

“I am Charlie,” people are saying around the world, since the massacre of the twelve staffers who worked at Charlie Hebdo, the satirical Parisian periodical.

I am not terribly political by any means, aside from my ritual viewing of The Daily Show and the late great The Colbert Report, but I have had first hand experience in matters of fundamentalism and censorship. As an author who promotes an unorthodox and, for some, offensive lifestyle, I am mindful of those who would silence me. I fret over censors at Facebook and Google, over people who cannot differentiate between tasteful, artistic nudity and pornography. And, having been raised in a stringent Baptist school and having married into a Moroccan household, I am all too familiar with radical religious viewpoints. But what happened last week in Paris is symptomatic of a much larger problem. Philosopher Sam Harris and biologist Richard Dawkins, among others, will no doubt blame religion. Those apologetic toward people of faith, like CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria, will lay the blame solely on fundamentalists and a false interpretation of Koranic verse. A third group will only see the suffering and violence and say: this is evil, pure and simple. None of these people are wrong. And yet, the issue runs far deeper, for the massacre at Charlie Hebdo reflects a fundamental difference in culture, between East and West, and it dates back thousands of years.

Western civilization is largely informed by Greek thought. It was in Athens, the birthplace of democracy, when, some 2500 years ago, humanity recognized the need to honor and respect dissenting opinion. It can be seen in the way the Greeks practiced their religion, in the veneration of different gods, most of whom did not agree and often warred with one another. Thanks, in part, to Socrates, who was condemned to death for “atheism” and for “disrupting the youth,” but who is today one of the world’s greatest historical figures, we learned the value of doubt and questioning beliefs. From these ancient foundations, European and American society was built, and later, the scientific method, a key part of which is skepticism.

Coming out of the East, at around the same time, we have a burgeoning adherence to the absolute. The Hebrews worshiped ONE God, who was all powerful, all knowing, and infallible. God makes no mistakes in the Torah. There was no Middle Eastern Socrates, to suggest that the gods may be unjust, or if there was, his/her influence vanished long ago. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, there is a central historical figure, Abraham, from whom we can understand all of “western” religion and Eastern thought. Abraham argued to save his nephew, Lot, from God’s wrath at Sodom, but God is never at fault. When Abraham is commanded to kill his son, Isaac, he illustrates obedience to God. The moral? God is absolute and is never to be doubted. Absolutist thinking continues to permeate Islam, and to some extent, radical “Westboro Church” Christianity. Even among the Egyptians and Persians, the notion of the absolute can be found in how the pharaohs and kings were portrayed, not as men, but as gods themselves. When King Xerxes invaded Greece, Eastern ideology clashed with that of Western philosophy. To be fair, the Persians were never as violent or barbaric as the film 300 portrays, but the idea of a god king was abhorrent to the Greeks. It wasn’t so much democracy the Spartans were defending, who were themselves an oligarchy ruling through terror and intimidation, but the freedom to hold a dissenting voice, even if that voice was found to be obscene or offensive. This is what the staffers at Charlie Hebdo represented, and in defense of this very Western idea, they lost their lives, because the radicals storming into their offices did not value dissent, or doubt, or understand the necessity of offense. Like most people born into a culture of absolutism (and this includes countries outside geographic East, including, sadly, the U.S.), their way of thinking did not allow for it. We struggle to rationalize the violence, to find common ground, but fundamentalists do not rationalize when it comes to matters of faith. Like Abraham, you obey God and do not question, even if it means murdering innocents.    

We get a glimpse into Eastern culture with the Arabian Nights, a book of fiction compiled between 700-1200, during the Golden Age of Islam. In one story, a groom does not properly wash his hands after eating garlic. The bride, who is from a much wealthier and more powerful family, is so incensed, she orders that her husband have his hands cut off. Only after her servants plead for mercy is the punishment lessened to removing the thumbs. This is not to suggest that Arab people are unusually cruel. Equally horrific tales can be found throughout medieval Europe, like in the writings of the Grimm’s brothers, where Cinderella’s step-sisters cut off their own toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper. But Arab culture stands apart in the way in which its people are expected to behave. In such a culture, proper speech and polite action is crucial to civil society. Normally, my mouth is at liberty to spout whatever pops into my head, but in Morocco I learned to censor myself. In 2013, during the holy month of Ramadan, I thought it’d be funny to make up a song about Mohammed’s camel, set to the tune of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. As you can probably imagine, nobody was amused, my wife especially. If something so innocent could cause offense, I cannot imagine making perverted jokes at the expense of the Prophet, as the people at Charlie Hebdo often did.  

The difference between Western and Eastern attitudes are deeply entrenched, dating back centuries, and it is unlikely to change any time soon. But while I do not wish to value one view over another, the matter ultimately comes down to ethics. Does freedom of expression lead to a better and more just society, or does respect and tradition? Mind you, this is not a question of offense. Everyone has the right to feel offended, especially Muslims when their Prophet is slandered. Though I champion free speech, I am often offended by the wanton cruelty I see on TV. But the only ethical response to words is words. The only way to defend against incendiary cartoons is to make incendiary cartoons of your own. This is how Free Speech functions. The right to question, to dissent, to doubt, and sometimes to offend, means much more than allowing people to do and say what they want. Free speech works, because only in a society where free speech is protected can truth come to light. If your society, your government, your religion, is cruel or unjust, without freedom of dissent, it can only remain that way forever. And if your philosophy, your politics, your faith, is right and just and true, then there is no need for guns and violence. If your ideology cannot endure by the strength of its own ideas, it is not worth defending.

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