I was unusually proud of Obama today when I saw that he was making a full-throated defense of free expression in the wake of today’s savage attack of the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It’s good to see Obama standing up for human rights, and more importantly for the core values of our civilization: the values that have lead to unparalleled freedom and prosperity for billions of people globally. It is sad to see these values under threat today, in today’s attack and others, by those who think that being offended is a justification for murder.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this particular brand of Islamist violence around the world in the last couple of years in response to “offense to Muslims.” A YouTube video allegedly provoked the protesters at Benghazi. Deadly riots ensued in Afghanistan and elsewhere after Terry Jones declared his intention to burn Qurans in Florida. Of course, we all remember when Danish embassies around the world were violently attacked, and riots broke out over the Muslim world where almost 200 people were killed, because Danish newspapers published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammed.
It is one thing when this violence occurs abroad–in mob protests encouraged and sanctioned by corrupt regimes to score political points–it is quite another thing when violence hits the source. Therein do we we see the true contrast between the values of those who, despite what the apologists may think, wish to create a theocratic dictatorship, and those who seek to uphold civilized values of freedom of religion, expression and thought for all people. When Salman Rushdie was forced into exile by a fatwa issued on him and the assassination attempts that followed, the apologists on the left and the right condemned his alleged offense of Muslims instead of the hit put on him by a foreign preacher and the people who attempted to carry it out. We have seen Lars Vilks, Theo van Gogh, and others been murdered for offending Muslims, or in the case of Hitoshi Igarashi, murdered for translating a work alleged to have offended Muslims. We have seen attempted assassinations and death threats against Kurt Westergaard, Ettore Capriolo, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others.
And now, we can add to the list of victims of Islamist violence the 12 cartoonists and journalists who were murdered in cold blood today by home-grown crazies shouting Islamic phrases in unaccented French as they proved, quite sadly, that the sword can be mightier than the pen. What happened in Paris is sickening and inexcusable, and it is good to see a near-universal condemnation of this violence as well as a full-throated defense of free speech.
But rest assured, the apologists have already started to come out of the woodwork. Ezra Klein–before the bodies were cold–wrote:
Their crime isn’t explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won’t be found in Charlie Hebdo’s pages. They can only be found in the murderers’ sick minds.
It’s as if these people thought, “we should murder a bunch of journalists in cold blood,” and only then decided to research some religions, luckily finding one that offered the precise pretext they needed to accomplish their goals, and went about creating an elaborate backstory whereby their murders would now be justified because the victims had insulted their new ideology.
Klein goes on to say “can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do.”
Except people do do it. They do it when they are instructed to by their religion. And it isn’t even a difficult leap to make: they said they did it to avenge their prophet. Why is that such a difficult pill to swallow?
Over the next couple of days, we expect to hear a predictable response from Klein and others like him: most Muslims are peaceful, Islam is not a religion of violence, this is all about politics, not religion, etc. And for the most part, these points are a distraction. Because of course most Muslims are peaceful. Of course most people–of any religion–only want to live their lives peacefully and prosperously.
But it’s a straw man. The question is “do we have a problem with the way Islam is understood and practiced by an unacceptably large number of people?” The answer is clearly yes. Are there crazy Christians and Jews and Hindus? Absolutely. But that, too, is a distraction. Islam is unique in the world today as a religion with a large number of followers who believe in values contrary to modern conceptions of human rights. Over 90% of Muslims in Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Malaysia believe that a wife is always obliged to obey her husband, according to Pew. The same poll found that over 70% of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan support the death penalty for apostasy.
Although most Muslims in the US are far more tolerant, 8% of American Muslims believe that suicide bombings are “sometimes” or “often” justified to defend Islam. That’s a scarily high percentage. It only takes one person to do something deadly.
This may sound like fear mongering, but it isn’t–I could put all the usual disclaimers in here: most Muslims are peaceful, I have Muslim friends, etc, etc. The fact is, that this has little to nothing to do with Muslims as people. It has to do with whether the civilized world–and that includes most Muslims–are doing enough to combat backwards thinking and medieval values. Are we truly doing what needs to be done to stand up for tolerance that allows people to practice their religion freely, but not intolerance that allows them to impose their religious beliefs on others through violence and intimidation?
The US probably has the best constitutional framework for this, in that, as a strictly secular political sphere with religious practice guaranteed freedom by the first amendment, we are able to strike a balance between the political and the personal. We should not follow the prescriptions of lunatics who think that banning Muslims from entering the country or outlawing religion is the solution. We should, however, be OK with enforcing our secularism to the benefit of Muslims, worldwide, who share the same values. These are the people who are most in danger–those who are actually tolerant and free-thinking, who are living under regimes or in societies that put them at risk for their beliefs. We need to stand up for the victims of Islamofascism, who are usually Muslims themselves, and protect them–let them emigrate, defend their rights abroad, call out their oppressors and support their revolutions.
The apologists will not get us there. The xenophobes won’t get us there. We need a third way.
Here’s where it starts: it starts by insisting that the values of the first amendment are not just American values, but global values. That people should be allowed to practice their religion freely as well as believe what they want to about anything, and that includes other religions or not having a religion at all. Most of all, people must be free to offend people who don’t agree with their ideas, because that’s the point of free expression. The first amendment doesn’t exist to give people the freedom to state a popular opinion. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Or, to put a finer point on it, from Rushdie himself: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Then, these values must be disseminated somehow, maybe through a combination of political and cultural ambassadorship.
At this point, though, I have to admit that I don’t know what’s actionable here. What can we actually do? Other than be on the right side of the debate, and standing up for values of modern civilization, how can we actually turn back the tide of an ideology that, if anything, is getting stronger and its followers more numerous? We can’t go to war against every nation whose values we don’t share. We can’t round up all Muslims because of a few bad apples. We are at risk of being impotent while we get bombed and shot at by an enemy that is far more motivated and bloodthirsty than we are.
So I don’t have the answers–I just think it’s important that we realize this is a problem, and that true liberals get on the right side of history to help come up with a solution.