January 8th, 2015
Some comments/questions on the “religious” assassinations in Paris.
I’m assuming you’ve all read about this (or seen stories on TV or the Net).
This was a planned execution of some of the staff of a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo; the magazine had previously republished some of the Danish cartoons that inspired riots and violence in Denmark and many Muslim countries in 2006; and in 2012 this same French magazine published its own cartoons of Mohammed (naked and involved in some sexual acts).
According to The New York Times, Charlie Hebdo’s stock-in-trade is vicious satire and extreme ridicule—an old French tradition (Voltaire, etc.) The magazine apparently has a history of going after all manner of “respected” and “sacred” institutions, both political and religious. They have been threatened before and I believe there was a bombing or bombing attempt.
This latest, crazy violence—committed in the name of “God—inspires some strong feelings and thoughts…
The origin of this act (as in all such acts) is complex—involving poverty, crime, xenophobia, religious extremism, racism, and pure Karma (a comeback against European countries for their past treatment of African, Middle Eastern and Eastern countries). But for me and probably for most other thinking, civilized people the overriding issue in this and in similar cases is Free Speech and Democracy vs. Religious Extremism and Theocracy.
What profound fear do these people harbor? Is their faith and belief so tenuous and built on such shaky ground that it can’t permit any criticism or questioning? Do they view their religion and their God (and prophet) as so weak that they require defending all the time? According to some witnesses, as they murdered people, the killers shouted (in Arabic), “God is great!” Great? Really? Then why bother squashing a few insignificant humans?
If they really believed their God (and their prophet) was the great and overriding power in the Universe, then why bother even taking offense, let alone be driven to such crazy acts of retribution?
I wonder if these people really do believe in their God and their religion. If they truly did, why not just feel pity or, at worst, contempt, for anyone so lost or ignorant that they would disbelieve or question the “great truth”.
Are you religious? If someone practiced another religion—believed in a different God and observed other rituals, what difference would that make to you if you were completely confident in the truth of your own God and religion?
At best (as several Christian sects do) you’d want these poor, lost souls to be “saved” from their abysmal ignorance and become converts to the “true” religion. For their own good and ultimate salvation you’d go out of your way to try to make them see they error of their ways. Is murdering them going to convince others that your God is the one and only?
To kill people who question or ridicule your God. To pass national blasphemy laws where the punishment is death. To me this just displays doubt in the veracity of your beliefs; maybe some unconscious feeling that what you’ve been brought up to believe is, in fact, just an empty fantasy. So the more you doubt it in your own mind, the crazier you become in defense of it—attacking and killing “unbelievers”.
History is replete with the mass murders and destruction of unbelievers, infidels, heathens, etc.—even within the same religion (same Gods, same prophets, saints, etc.)! In the dark (good word for it) and middle-ages, various groups of Christians tortured and murdered millions of other Christians. And these days, it seems as if not a day goes by when you don’t read about Shiites murdering Sunnis and vice versa. Mosques and market places and schools are bombed—innocent people are executed by the dozens because of some schism that occurred almost fifteen hundred years ago—or some unending tribal-like grudge that defies all intelligence and human decency. Children are murdered in the name of God! What’s God got to do with it? Nothing. It’s just men out of control.
The middle and Near East has always been a breeding ground (maybe there’s something about the desert or the rocky mountains—or something in the air) for this kind of insane behavior; where zealots of various groups killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people because they didn’t worship the right God or even the correct version of the “true” God.
In the Old Testament, there are several instances where Yahweh tells Joshua (or whoever was running the army at the time) to “kill every man, woman, child in a town or city that stood in the way of the Hebrews’ march to the “promised” land. In one case, God told one leader to “kill everything that breathes”!
We’re talking about a God who seemed to be permanently enraged, and not because there was some temporary obstacle to be overcome, but because someone had the temerity not worship him as the one and only Lord of the Universe.
Who created a God like that; a God that was so intolerant and insecure that he needed the “holy land” to be first purged of every living person who didn’t believe in him? Even now there are some Jews who believe that this is what God wants.
God save me from such Gods.
There have always been dictators, or kings, or Popes, or Grand Ayatollahs or Messiahs who are appointed or self-appointed holders of all that is “right”; and woe to anyone who even dares to question them. (I know some people who have had fathers like that. One funny look or one simple question and you get the back of their hand or a punch or a beating).
The eternal problem is that such charismatic lunatics or appointed leaders always manage to convince millions of other people to follow them. Is the human race so childish and stupid?
To be fair, these leaders often emerge at times of great poverty, suffering and injustice—and when people feel so miserable and hopeless that they will follow anyone with simple solution—no matter how deranged or inhuman.
Images are powerful—bypassing rationality and going straight to the emotions, like the Nazis’ racist caricatures of Jews in the 1930’s and the 19th century American caricatures of blacks. Such negative images appeal to the most ignorant and most bigoted level of society (and as I mentioned before, often the poorest)—and that’s a level that, unfortunately, includes millions of people.
If you can get away with publishing such images—and it’s much worse (as in the case of Nazi Germany) if the government is behind the publication of these images—than you just reinforce the belief in the mass of bigots and fools that it must be true.
After all, how could the government allow such things to be published if they weren’t true? And a newspaper or television channel wouldn’t say such things if there wasn’t some truth to them, would they? Think of Fox News, the New York Post and their followers.
It’s a sign of the primitive, of the child, to become enraged and violent when confronted with offensive words or images. And it’s a sign of growing up, of maturity, when you can tolerate disagreement or even (at least verbal) attacks on your beliefs and your cherished institutions. You learn, in a Democracy, to use words and votes (as imperfect a system as that might be) to counteract such attacks. To use censorship and physical violence is a sign of childish weakness, not adult strength.
Is it too politically incorrect to say that militant Islam and Democracy don’t seem to mix to well? I don’t think so… No theocratic state (save perhaps, with its flaws, Israel) has ever tolerated free speech—the foundation of a real democracy. The writers of our constitution knew very well that religion and government don’t mix.
A recollection… When Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses was published, a “Fatwah” was issued by some Grand Ayatollah or Imam to execute him for his “blasphemy”. When I first heard about it, I had to pause for a bit to remember which century I was living in.
Many Bookstores stopped selling the book. The bookstore where I worked as a manager, Shakespeare and Company in NYC, took the book out of the display window at the front of the store. I argued with the owners about that but the book stayed out of the window (there had been some cases where bookstores that showcased the book had their windows broken and employees hurt). But then, I wasn’t ultimately responsible for the safety of the other employees in the store—even if I was willing risk my own life for the sake of free speech.
These constant acts of violence by extremist Muslims; this failure to adapt to the reality of living in a diverse world, to differences between people—to their thoughts and dress and behavior, and to their color and differing religious beliefs is primitive and backward. It is an about face for civilization; it freezes humanity in a rigid, unprogressive place—the moral arc ceases to bend toward justice and just hangs in mid-air, going nowhere.
At my old radio station, WBAI-FM in New York City, we constantly ridiculed the tyrannical, the humorless, the powerful, etc. And it’s a damn good thing we did—even though we never stopped receiving threats of violence or retribution of some sort.
The emperor frequently has no clothes but his Praetorian Guard and secret police and army tend to censure or imprison or kill anyone who dares to mention the fact of his nakedness (Think of Putin’s Russia now where journalists are always at risk of losing their freedom or their lives). At WBAI we spared no opportunity to point out that the Emperor (whichever one was in office at the time) had no clothes. And the country was a much better place for it.
In the Sixties, ridicule and satire were powerful weapons against war and civil injustice. In fact, political cartoons have always had great power to sway people. Think of Thomas Nast’s cartoons of Boss Tweed. Political cartooning, in Democracies—the only place where they can be found—have always been a great weapon against injustice, corruption and tyranny.
The kind of insane, bigoted, murderous behavior that just took place in Paris and has happened in other places really disturbs me because of its obvious intention to kill not just the people who published the images or articles in question but to kill the truth itself.
About the actual cartoons (which I have not seen. But I have seen the ones published in the Danish paper)…
I think it’s childish and gratuitously offensive to offend people’s religious beliefs—I don’t mean bloated religious organizations and power structures like the Catholic Church, that monopolize and make a business out of these beliefs—I mean the actual faith of individuals. Grand Ayatollahs or Popes or Mega-church ministers are often self-centered and power-hungry and cause great misery and destruction. And they don’t hesitate to make shameless use of the messages and images of their Gods to consolidate their own power and impose their rigid, bigoted thinking on others. So the more ridicule and satire such organizations receive, the better it is for free society in general. But to just ridicule someone’s God or religion for no other purpose than the frat-boy fun of it—well, it seems to me that that is similar in one way to the idiot behavior of the self-appointed defenders of the faith; If you think someone’s religion is childish or absurd or just some psychological aberration, then, naturally, you are free to think it or even say something about it. But if they are not imposing their beliefs on you or forbidding you to think and talk and act the way you want, then ignore it. Why go out of your way to gratuitously offend them? Who are we to judge or ridicule something that can bring genuine comfort to people who are afflicted.
I’m not defending censorship—save for instances of vicious slander and libel. I would never do that. As a broadcaster (especially one committed to the proposition that free speech—including ridicule and satire—ia essential in a free society) I have passionately oppose censorship. I’m just saying… what’s the point of attacking religion just for the sake of doing it—unless you have some larger purpose in mind or the religion is trying to impose its will on you?
Another point… There is already a huge backlash against Muslims in Europe—ranging from people who are genuinely concerned with some Muslims’ aversion to democracy to Neo-Nazi racism and hatred. These assassinations in Paris and other acts like them will just bring out the fears and hatreds in people and do no one any good. But, of course, these people are not concerned with doing anybody any good.
These murders are part of the continuum that includes the bigoted demonstrations (and sometimes physical attacks) against immigrants now taking place in several European countries.There is no doubt that there are just so many people that a country can absorb before there is a threat to solvency of the state—especially states committed to social welfare. It’s a real problem that has to be dealt with.
Now there will be a lessening of liberalism and freedom. There will be more laws and rules and more loss of free speech and assembly for everyone.
Along with pernicious, overwhelming income inequality, people who believe that “God’s law” should prevail over people’s law pose the greatest threat to democracy. One way or another, God’s law inevitably leads to cruelty and tyranny.
Believe what you like, but leave other people to believe what they like. If their behavior offends you, ignore it and go on believing what you want. What just happened in Paris and similar things that happen all the time all over the world lead me to think that any kind of organized, militant religion is like a cancer in the body of civilization. I suppose the only way to treat this disease is with as much exposure to freedom as humanly possible. Drag the narrow, oppressive bigotry to the light of free speech and hope it shrinks up and dies like a vampire in the sun.
Meanwhile, the question is sitting there, staring us in the face and waiting for an answer: Can we protect ourselves from these murderous religious lunatics and preserve a free society at the same time?