Much has been made in the last few days about the supposed ‘equal opportunity satire’ of the left wing French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. While Charlie – as the paper has become known to those who have never read it – actually misses many opportunities to mock progressives, or to parody French secularism, or to tease the Pro-Choice lobby, for example, the journal certainly shows complete and utter contempt for organised religion of any and every variety.
Three surprising things have happened as a result of the attack by Muslim gunmen on the Charlie offices in Paris. Firstly, genuine conversations about the very nature of Islam and its violent tendencies have taken place. Conservatives have been calling for this dialogue for decades, but it has always been very limited in scope and duration. The left and the centre always condemn the violence, urge restraint on both sides, decry the latest comic or YouTube upload that ‘incited the violence’, and unfailingly berate fellow westerners as to the peaceful nature of true Islam, and its many virtues in the realms of arts, science, and architecture.
But in the aftermath of the massacre, the usual liberal media outlets have started to ask hard questions of their much fêted religion. Perhaps it’s because Charlie is really one of them. Apart from his failure to genuflect at the altar of all things multicultural, Charlie supports all the right causes and pursued all the right – or left, as it happens – agendas. Maybe the Guardian and the New York Times can let the struggling weekly into the club after all, with a view to enlightening him in the ways of the prophet, of course. Or perhaps the tragedy of Charlie might enlighten the zealots for multiculturalism and the apologists for Islam. Only time will tell, but in the meantime: nous sommes tous Charlie.
Which brings us to the second surprising outcome: free speech, and freedom of the press, is now on the global Western agenda. The day after the attack newspapers around the world couldn’t declare fast enough or boldly enough that – despite, in some cases, their total lack of any content even remotely funny or controversial – they are in fact Charlie. The regional paper Paris Normandie even temporarily changed its masthead to Charlie Normandie. Wisely, our craven Prime Minister resisted joining in the #JeSuisCharlie craze, but from the man who thought it better to appease local Muslims than to repeal section 18C, this tweet: ‘An unspeakable atrocity in Paris overnight. If you don’t like something, you don’t read it; you don’t kill people you disagree with.’ So maybe the placards in the Place de la République and Martin Place are having their desired effect, even on the PM. Certainly it seems to have affected some in the left wing media.
Given these first two, the third outcome really is surprising. In amongst the serious and intelligent treatment being given to Islam and Western freedoms, the usual suspects are still trotting out the familiar motif of an equivalency between Islam and other religions in general, and between Islam and Christianity in particular. Of course, such foolishness is not new, but in this case the left is using Charlie’s ‘equal opportunity satire’ as cover.
But it is foolish, and it makes the talking heads that try it look ridiculous. In the hours after the Boston Marathon bombing some commentators were urging caution about jumping to the conclusion that Muslims were behind it. It was just as likely, they suggested, to be a white, Christian, Tea Party enthusiast, angry on Tax Day about big government. Foolish. Ridiculous. And very few bought it.
Millions around the world have now heard the Paris gunmen’s cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and the claim to have avenged the prophet, so trying to pin the shoot up of the Charlie offices on, for example, radicalised Huguenots was never going to work. But the left can still speculate. Today it was Muslims, but tomorrow it could be Methodists, or so they tell us.
Then there is that most popular progressive trope: the Crusades. Contra Hollywood and most medieval history departments, the original Crusades were more about defending Christians in the Holy Land and protecting the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre than slaughtering Mohammedans. But in any case, unreserved apologies have been issued ad nauseam, the actions of the church and of Christians have been disendorsed and condemned (in language much more rigorous than the usually qualified and reluctant condemnations of violence from Islamic leaders), and the notion of Holy War has literally disappeared from Christian ethics, if not Christian parlance. Still, however, the issue is raised, even where, in one case last week, conservative guests on a talk-show are forbidden to discuss the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi because ‘it was a long time ago’ (2012, as opposed to Pope Urban II’s preaching of the Crusades in 1095).
Again, we are told that the context of Charlie’s pluralistic religious hatred necessitates such pointless and preposterous discussion. That the paper’s cartoons were offensive to Christians and Jews is beyond doubt. The portrayals of papal sodomy were vile. The noses on the Jews would have made even Mike Carlton salivate with anti-semitism. But it was for good reason that the Prophet was frequently drawn brandishing an AK-47 or an explosive vest, whereas Pope Francis was most recently illustrated venerating a condom. Similarly, adherents of only one of the three religions ever firebombed, raided, or shot up the Charlie office. The editor’s police bodyguard was never on the look out for leery looking Catholics.
Possibly the most foolish attempt in recent days at religious equivalency was on a second-tier MSNBC program. Former Rolling Stone editor Eric Bates spoke about ‘religious fundamentalists of all stripes and of nationalities’ and their ‘penchant to say, we want to be able tell you what you can and can’t portray.’ Perhaps. But his example of Christian pastor Jerry Falwell suing Hustler magazine in American courts proved the bankruptcy of his argument. Most Christians have no interest in suing pornographers, or in limiting free expression. Falwell was wrong to litigate, and I’m glad he lost. But his name doesn’t belong in this conversation. I can only imagine the cartoons of ridicule Charlie might have in store for those who think Christians’ lawsuits are even roughly equivalent to Islamic bombings, beheadings, and massacres.
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