Like many others, I was stunned by the news of the violent attack at the offices of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, on the morning of January 7, 2014. Two masked gunmen armed with assault weapons and a rocket launcher forced entry to the magazine’s offices. In the end, twelve people were killed and eleven others wounded. Many throughout the world followed the hunt for the suspects on the following days – a hunt which ended with their deaths and the deaths of hostages. In the end, twenty people died as a result of this attack.
People in Western countries have responded strongly to this brutal attack. The attack hit at the heart of values we share, including the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of expression. Further, satire has played a vital role in Western cultures and has empowered people to challenge the status quo for centuries. Satire not only makes us laugh at serious situations but helps to illustrate contradictions and hypocrisy in political positions and policies.
I was familiar with some of the satirical cartoons in Charlie Hebdo. Perhaps my favorite recent cartoon depicted the prophet Mohammed returning to the newly formed Islamic State only to be beheaded for apostasy. It reminded me of the many variations of jokes that portray contemporary Christians who would fail to recognize Jesus should he return today.
While I value Western freedoms of speech and expression and wish these values were universal, I am also bothered by the prejudice and Islamophobia that colors the popular response, media coverage, and punditry related to this horrible and tragic event. While the media has focused on the shooters as Muslim extremists, it has also glossed over the fact that copy editor Moustapha Ourrad and police officer Ahmed Merabet, both killed in the attack, were Muslims. In addition, the widow of cartoonist and columnist, Stéphane Charbonnier, is also Muslim. On January 7, Muslims killed Muslims as well as people of other faith traditions in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The attack was not based on religion but on fanaticism.
I believe that prejudice against Muslims is perpetrated and continues to grow because so few people in Western countries know Muslims in their day to day lives. I’ve been fortunate. When I moved to Atlanta over three years ago, I moved into a neighborhood with a high percentage of Muslims. I didn’t set out to do that nor did it come to my awareness until after meeting the neighbors. I live about two blocks from a mosque. The neighbors six homes away from me are the local imam and his family. I run into him at the local grocery and see his wife walking with their children in the neighborhood. My next door neighbor, a leader at the mosque, often talks with me about football. The most unusual thing about my Muslim neighbors is….well, honestly…..there isn’t anything unusual about them. They are just like the other neighbors. Some are better with their lawn care than others; some have dogs that bark too much and others have cats they allow to roam outdoors; some want more activities to be scheduled through the neighborhood association and others don’t attend the meetings. It’s a typical neighborhood with a variety of different people.
As I first began to develop a professional and social network in Atlanta, I stumbled onto a wonderful meditation group that meets one Sunday evening a month. It was co-led by a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim man from Turkey who was an expert in Sufi writings. The group sits in silent meditation for twenty minutes and then has an hour of discussion. It’s a deep, rich experience. The group meets in a Muslim center north of Atlanta. While it doesn’t make the headlines, it’s not unusual for Muslims, Jews, and Christians to share prayer and spiritual practices together.
Just as there are Muslim extremists, there are plenty of Christian extremists, too. The vast majority of Muslims have as much in common with the Taliban or the Islamic State as I do with the KKK (they’re a Christian organization and have their own Christian denomination) or the Westboro Baptist Church. Extremist groups are an embarrassment to all religions. Adherents to religious traditions have little power to stop extremist groups.
On January 8, one day after the attack, I began receiving email copies of press releases from a variety of Muslims groups denouncing the terrorist attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I am on the email distribution lists because of my participation in interfaith groups. Yet, I haven’t seen any media outlet discuss the number of Muslim groups who publicly stand against the attacks that occurred on January 7. Little notice was given to leaders of the Palestinian state who marched in protests against the attacks in Paris on Sunday, January 11. This lack of acknowledgement that average Muslims stand against extremist attacks is a manifestation of the Islamophobia rampant in the West.
Because satire is often based on stereotypes, I can’t avoid recognizing that the cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo added to Islamophobia. While that may not have been their intent, to the degree that they increased stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists, they were also part of the problem. That being said, I don’t think the solution is to stop satire. Instead, the solution is for people in the West to get to know and become familiar with their Muslim neighbors and co-workers.
On his flight from Turkey in December, Pope Francis was bated by a reporter to make a sweeping statement about Muslims as fundamentalists and extremists. The Pope’s reply was quick and to the point, “You just can’t say that, just as you can’t say that all Christians are fundamentalists. We have our share of them (fundamentalists). All religions have these little groups.”
Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and members of every religion are all part of the human race. Our beliefs may differ, but we are all people who love, laugh, worry, and want to live peacefully with others. Similarly, there have been and will continue to be members of each religion (as well as atheists and those who share other ideologies) who are extremists and resort to violence. The solution to the problem of extremism is not discrimination against members of entire groupings of people but rather intentional attempts to build bridges that support the diversity of the human race.
I mourn with the people of France over the horrible attack of January 7, just as I mourn with those who have been victims of other attacks by extremist groups. But I also recognize the difference between extremists who seek to impose their values on others and the vast majority of people who make up a larger grouping of people. Whether those extremists are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or members of any other faith tradition, I am committed to working against their totalitarian views. Instead, I choose to value the strength and benefits of living in a world characterized by diversity and mutual respect. And I’ll continue to enjoy the creativity of satirists.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.