Q: As an occasional writer, a firm believer in freedom of speech and a former editor of my junior high school newspaper, I’m not a race-baiter, an Islamophobe or an anti-Semite. I also don’t stand up in a movie theater and shout “fire” unless there’s actually a fire. This world already has enough trouble without stirring the pot under the shaky guise of freedom of speech. What are your thoughts about the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris?
– F., Bakersfield, Calif.
A: Like you, I’m crushed by the recent carnage in France. My sorrow and outrage are, first and foremost, for the families of the victims, whom I pray may, in time, find the solace that certainly eludes them now. I’m also outraged at yet another example of how radical Islam has perverted moderate Islam, turning it into a murderous abomination.
The primary fuel of violence is not poverty, but ignorance, and the worst ignorance is ignorance of people who are not exactly like you. What Father Tom Hartman and I tried to say for almost three decades as The God Squad was that we know enough about how we’re all different, but not enough yet about how we’re all the same.
Motivated by that mission, Father Tom and I became friends with several pious and patriotic Muslims. Our friends eventually became our teachers, as they took us into their places of worship and places of hope. We learned what caused them pain and what wounded them in their souls. After the recent events in France, I remembered how deeply hurt they were by those who insulted the Prophet Muhammad.
They spoke of their pain the same way that Tommy spoke about seeing a supposed work of art that depicted a crucifix in a bottle of urine. They spoke the same way I spoke about hearing anti-Semitic jokes or seeing anti-Semitic cartoons depicting Jews with big hook noses (those who have seen me know why I’m particularly sensitive about that point).
We both understood that the right to freedom of expression allowed that art, those jokes and cartoons, but we were wounded by them nonetheless. So I understand, as much as a sympathetic outsider can, how the Danish cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons pushed right up against the line dividing wit from blasphemy. That’s why I can’t say today that “I am Charlie Hebdo.” Of course, I wish those killed were alive, and I’m glad their murderers are dead, but I choose to use my freedom of expression to say two things:
To my Muslim friends, I say:
I do understand how you’re hurt by those who think Islam is a violent joke. I hope you can come to a place in your heart where you understand and accept that such pain is the price we all must pay to live together in freedom. I know it’s a steep price, but freedom of speech is a steep virtue.
I hope you can view the solidarity march in France not as expressing support for the content of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but rather as way to support those CH editors’ right to choose without fearing that their ink would be mixed with their own blood.
I also know that, unfortunately, such horrible events embolden those who wrongly believe that all Muslims everywhere brought guns into that newspaper office. As Elie Wiesel once chided someone who after the Holocaust said they hated all Germans: “Only the murderers are guilty.” May Allah comfort you and help those who speak truly and compassionately in his name to be heard more clearly.
To the “Charlies,” I say:
You have my full support to say what you will and draw what you will, but you don’t have my admiration. You are and must be free to express yourselves any way you choose, but you’re also responsible for those free choices.
I love God and I love all who climb up the same mountain to God by different paths. Your choices have demeaned all the climbers. You’ve added to the strength of lunatic Muslims and weakened moderate Muslims.
You’ve lumped people whose faith leads them to feed the poor with those whose faith leads them to kill the poor. You’re like a person waving a loaded gun. I beg you to take a moment before you again pick up your loaded pens to take better aim. Your freedom demands this minimal exercise of responsibility and civility.