Charlie Hebdo And The Climate Of Our Words And Actions

It is as depressing as it is unsurprising that in the wake of the horrible, utterly inexcusable terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a series of anti-Muslim attacks and sentiment has sprung up across Europe.

We are a reactionary species, which in itself is not a bad thing. How we react, however, sometimes leaves much to be desired, and speaks volumes about us—often more so than the thing we react to in the first place. Writing, for me and many others, is generally a safe, acceptable, and cathartic form of reacting. (Attacking people is, obviously, neither safe nor acceptable.)

Despite the many reaction pieces written in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, one of the aspects I’ve seen given relatively little attention is not how freedom of speech fits into all this and what we should do to safeguard it, but how we, ourselves, as a Western culture abuse and misuse our freedom of speech rights. Specifically, how we—again, the larger “we” of our collective Western society—use these principles as a shield to ward off criticism of our unfair, unjust and unequal bigotry.

Satire in Western culture has the upsetting tendency to punch down instead of up, making it neither comedy nor satire, but simply a form of continued oppression that serves the powerful. Charlie Hebdo is a prime example of this. The excuse that they criticize, mock and satirize others as well, like the Pope or Catholicism or Christianity altogether, is a false equivalence; punching at Christians in a Christian society is punching up, whereas punching at Muslims in a Christian society is punching down. Especially when, as we know is the case across all of Europe and North America, Muslims are a constantly oppressed and persecuted group of people as it is.

People far and wide fear Muslims as a result of these terrorist attacks, failing to realize that Muslims everywhere around the world—the vast majority of the more than 1.5 billion of them—condemn and fear these terrorist attacks with equal fervor. And not just because such terrorist attacks often lead a few non-Muslim Westerners to respond with terrorist attacks against Muslims of their own—yes, setting fire to a mosque is a terrorist attack, because your goal is to instill terror into the hearts and minds of Muslim people living in your country—but because Muslims as a people value justice, respect, peace and human decency like any other people.

White terrorism, whether reactionary or not, is something white people are (unsurprisingly) incredibly reluctant to acknowledge or discuss. And yet it is precisely the culture of white supremacy that Muslim terrorists (however counter to and conflicting with Muslim beliefs that concept is) attack when they attack a Charlie Hebdo. Inevitably, after such a heinous act of religiously-tinted terror, people call into question Islam itself.

That’s something we in our Western society fail to do in equal measure when we encounter Christianity-tinted terrorist attacks, or any form of Christianity-tinted bigotry that oppresses and harms innocent people. Perhaps it is because people who live in a Christian society are blind to the Christian influences in their society, and they simply see their (Christian) world as the default and not as a religiously informed one. Perhaps it is because they are unwilling to acknowledge that their religion is just as guilty of being (ab)used by people as an excuse to commit heinous acts as Islam was in these attacks. Most likely, some combination of the two.

When Western politicians propose legislation pushing old-fashioned, outdated or downright bigoted beliefs, whatever excuse of prosperity or austerity they use for it, we don’t collectively say “Christianity is a problem! People are using it to justify these attacks on [e.g.] women’s sexual autonomy!” But that’s precisely what that is in the vast majority of cases. 

When people in our Western countries support things like banning same-sex marriage, teaching creationism in school, or creating anti-abortion policies, they do so out of fundamentalist Christian beliefs. These fundamentalist efforts contribute, to an extent, to the very real harm to or even deaths of innocent people. Women who no longer have access to safe reproductive health care, because U.S. Republicans pushed legislation that closed all abortion clinics in their area, are forced to seek out unsafe methods or simply fail to get the care they need, leading to all sorts of health risks.

When same-sex marriage is seen by the majority of people in a state as something bad (I’ll spare you the disgusting terminology these people usually reserve to describe these acts of love), it legitimizes the smaller subset of people who hold the inexcusable view that it is in any way acceptable to physically harm people for being gay or trans—and thus, state-wide same-sex marriage bans contribute to a culture that turns a blind eye to, and facilitates, anti-LGBTQ violence. They are not directly responsible—people who commit acts are responsible for those acts—but they contribute to the environment that makes it easier for people to commit harmful acts.

Where were the people who are now calling Islam into question when it is Christianity that is used by people to justify terrible acts? Where are ever the cries to make Christianity illegal to be practiced, or prohibit churches from being built? Why are we not talking about Christianity when we talk about the anti-Muslim retaliatory attacks? The argument that those aren’t “inspired by religion” is nonsense; just because a religion is the default in a culture doesn’t mean that culture is devoid of religion. An atheist growing up in Europe is constantly exposed to Christianity-informed bigotry, and sometimes, some of that sticks.

But bigotry is a human sentiment that does not always require religion; look no further than some atheists’ hatred for religion altogether, which sometimes enters the unfounded, prejudiced territory as well. Many religious people are far more compassionate, respectful and inclusive than those types of atheists are, creating as loud an argument for religion as there was one against it.

Make no mistake, I write all this not to either defend Islam or attack Christianity. I write this simply to remind us that attacking religion, or religious people, is something our society does in unequal measure, on an already unequal playing field. I write this to remind us that satire serves no defensible purpose or value to society when it punches down. I write this to remind that extremists who abuse religion to further their harmful goals are found in every religion, and that they are often such a small minority of their respective demographics (who generally reject their inclusion to the group in the first place) that condemning the religion itself is offensive, hypocritical, and futile.

In the wake of any terror attack, religious or not, showing that we can be compassionate towards one another despite our differences is how we show that terrorism is an ineffective course of action. As a society we are strengthened when we live with one another in peace and harmony, even when we feel animosity towards certain people. And we should remind ourselves that all Muslims do not represent the (very) few terrorizing extremists who self-identify as such.

Guilt by association is something many people don’t seem to understand well. It’s as wrong to condemn Muslims for the acts of Muslim extremists as it is to condemn all Christians for the acts of Christian extremists, or to condemn all people for extremists who don’t commit their acts in name of a religion. While religion is not an inalienable attribute of a person like, say, their gender or race, it is something people grow up with and are often steeped in so thoroughly that we give it similar status under the law. There are also religious sects that are cult-like and actively discourage or prohibit leaving them behind, further complicating the separation of religion and identity.

But guilt by association is a valid thing for groups that people can voluntarily subscribe to or leave behind and that are predominantly harmful, i.e. whose collective resulting actions are overwhelmingly negative, harmful or destructive. Being a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, the KKK or GamerGate is not an identity, and is something you can (and should) stop being part of at any time. These groups, unlike religion, exist primarily to do harm, even though their members see this completely differently. They see themselves as fighting to preserve something they think is noble or good, but which in all cases is no more than the status quo and, specifically, the unjust, unequal treatment of certain people within that status quo.

Our status quo is a culture that is unfair, that is unjust, that facilitates a climate of word and actions that disproportionately harm the already less powerful among us. If we do not take this attack on Charlie Hebdo as an opportunity to learn what role we might have played in making this culture one that drove certain people to believe that committing heinous acts of terror was an acceptable measure, then we, as the society driving that culture, are bound to suffer that same mistake again.

The compassion we show to those we (mistakenly) see as our opponents is the measure by which we determine how safe and just we really are.

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