Friday, January 09, 2015

Off the top of my head - We are all French (Jan. 9, 2015)

I imagine that most of you are as disturbed by this week’s events in France as I am. I hope we all remember that on the day after 9/11, Le Monde (the leading French newspaper) proclaimed that “We are all Americans. We are all New Yorkers, just as surely as John F. Kennedy declared himself to be a Berliner in 1962 when he visited Berlin. Indeed, just as in the gravest moments of our own history, how can we not feel profound solidarity with those people, that country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, and therefore our solidarity?” 

In the wake of the attacks in France, the rallying cry has become, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo,” or “I am Charlie Hebdo.” (Charlie Hebdo is the name of the magazine whose offices and writers were attacked.) My friend Julian Resnick, an Israeli, wrote an essay in which he declared that he, too, was Charlie Hebdo. Julian made the excellent point that he supports toleration for all except the intolerant: “I want to live in a world where we celebrate all identities with one very clear line: the identities we have cannot claim exclusivity, particularly the exclusive right to truth. I cannot live in a world where fundamentalist ideology is supreme. And here lies the crunch for many of us, especially those of us who want a Progressive world. How do we define those identities which are based on exclusivity and focus on not only othering, but also on a plan of action against others which includes getting rid of the other, or subjugating the other?”

I have said before that I believe the Episcopal Church is a big tent church but not an infinite tent church. Similarly, the free and democratic states of the world can and must tolerate a very wide range of opinions, but we must draw the line at opinions that do not tolerate those who differ from them.

 I would also very much like to say that “I am Charlie Hebdo,” because I believe that all of us must declare our support for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, especially when those fundamental human rights are attacked. However, I am a little reticent to declare complete solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

The excuse (NOT the reason) for the attacks was that many Muslims were offended by cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammed.  I have looked at the cartoons and have to agree. Nevertheless, satire, no matter how offensive, can never justify murder. There are limits to freedom of speech, but they are few and far between.

Ironically (and tragically) the French policeman who was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim. The phrase “I am Charlie” has inspired a companion phrase: “I am Ahmed.” One person tweeted, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed, the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture, and I died defending his right to do so.”

Christians should also remember that our faith has at times given its blessing to violence. Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials, not to mention the willingness of Christians (both north and south) to tolerate and excuse the institutionalized violence of American chattel slavery.

What are we to do, then?

First, even if we must use violence against the violent, we must do so with sadness and reluctance. Violence is never good, even though at times it may be necessary.

Second, we must encourage moderate Muslims to speak out, and we can only do that if we recognize that Muslim extremists represent only a small fraction of the Islamic world. Ultimately, extremist Islam can only be defeated from within the Muslim faith. If we demonize all Muslims, then the terrorists have won because that is exactly what they want to achieve. We encourage moderate Islam by reaching out to Muslims, befriending them, and getting to know them.

I want to conclude with the last words of the article Le Monde published on Sept. 12, 2001: “Madness, even under the pretext of despair, is never a force that can regenerate the world. That is why today we are all Americans.”

And it is why today we are all French.