By now, you’ve probably heard all the details of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. But just in case you haven’t, I’ll fill you in. On Wednesday, two masked gunmen broke into the headquarters of Paris’s Charlie Hebdo magazine, killing ten employees, including the magazine’s top editor. The magazine was well known locally for its attention-grabbing cartoons, which often sought to offend the easily offended – namely Muslims.
Thus it came as no surprise to many that the perpetrators of the massacre were two Muslim extremists, reportedly shouting that they had avenged Mohammed after committing the attack. The killers were able to escape central Paris to the suburbs, where they took hostages in a standoff that would last nearly two days. As I write this, reports are coming in that they have been killed by French police.
It’s hard to quantify tragedy. The killing of these twelve people is horrendous and ought to be condemned. But as another article on this site points out, on the same day as the shootings in Paris, a car bomb in Yemen killed 30 people. Isn’t that just as bad, or worse? What about the multitudes of people around the world who die every day from malnutrition, disease, or isolated acts of violence, isn’t their suffering just as bad? More to the point, don’t the victims of injustice anywhere deserve a voice in the public debate?
But though most (if not all) tragedies are difficult to quantify, some of them are easy to interpret. The Charlie Hebdo killing certainly was. Immediately after the tragic events began to unfold, media outlets and influential figures around the world immediately seemed to know how to interpret it. For many, it was a blow to free speech – though some in the media rightly pointed out that free speech, especially satire, is always a sticky issue.
But certain public figures in Europe and the US added an ugly, though predictable, wave of Islamophobia into the fray. In the wake of the killings, French far right politician Marine Le Pen immediately took advantage of the situation (Slate commented that she saw this moment as her “path to victory”). The UK’s anti-immigrant Nigel Farange used it as an excuse to bash “multiculturalism”. And in the US, Fox News commentators seized the opportunity to once again call Obama soft on terror, including obligatory references to Benghazi.
And, to the dismay of atheist-leaning, nonreligious people like me, prominent atheists were all to happy to join this frenzy. After the attack, Richard Dawkins issued a series of tweets that come dangerously close to matching the right wing vitriol of the Fox News crowd.
Though it’s been nearly a decade since the “new atheists” first rose to prominence, the conflicts over religion that brought them their fame are still alive and well. And Dawkins and his intellectual peer Sam Harris seem content to answer them with boorish Islamophobia.
This Islamophobia, it should be noted, does stem from a somewhat involved line of reasoning. As Sam Harris repeatedly pointed out in a dust-up interview after his squabble with Ben Affleck last year, “beliefs matter”. In my take on that event, I agreed, but only to a point. Yes, it’s true that most if not all people who present themselves as members of a certain religion (in this case, Islam) hold common beliefs. But not all Muslims carry out the actions their belief system tells them to. Similarly, a good deal of their actions stem from motives that have nothing to do with their Muslim doctrine.
But when I published that article, I got a fair amount of blowback criticizing me for not taking into account certain specific passages in the Koran seen as “more violent” than anything in Christianity or any other religion, and concluding that therefore all Muslims were inherently more violent than everyone else. This might be a fair criticism, but only if Islam were not a religion but instead a computer program, and its adherents robots instead of people – a situation Harris’s “beliefs matter” view seems to imply. There’s just one problem: humans, including Muslims, aren’t robots.
Yes, beliefs matter. Religious beliefs have an effect on how people act, and in many cases that effect is negative. But there are other beliefs that trump even religious beliefs: beliefs of what to do to survive and to live productive lives as members of our communities. In situations of scarcity, persecution, and hopelessness, when practical needs are not met, religious fanaticism becomes more attractive. This was my central point in my earlier article, and even though I gave it in the context of the situation with ISIS, it applies in France as well.
Islamophobia may seem like the easy answer in this case, when tragic loss of life has produced outrage. And as a secularist, I do understand the grievances of people like Dawkins and Harris. I think it would be great if Muslim extremists (and for that matter, all religious people) could be won over to the side of reason. But from a practical standpoint, it seems highly unlikely that religion will ever go away. So, I think that instead of trying to “defeat” religion, we need to do our best to take away all motivation within religion to commit acts of extremism. What we need is an approach that addresses both the needs of disadvantaged immigrant communities in Europe and the US, as well as the crippling scarcities their friends and families face in their homelands.
It is often said of freedom of the press, one of the central issues of this killing, that it’s only really an issue when press freedom is used to say unpleasant or upsetting things (something that Charlie Hebdo seemed to be pretty good at). But the same can be said of freedom of religion. Yes, the killers deserved to be brought to justice. But that does not mean that Muslims not implicated in the killing should have their religious freedom taken away, or deserve to be persecuted.
In this story, there’s a bit of hope, albeit hope that stems from one of the tragic deaths. Of the twelve slain, one was a moderate Muslim: Ahmed Merabet. His death has spawned the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisAhmed, calling attention to the fact that most Muslims aren’t in fact crazed killers but just ordinary citizens.
For every isolated group of murderous Muslim extremists, there are literally millions of moderate Muslims, who have no desire to commit violence. Though I, as a secularist, might disagree with their religion, I defend their right to believe in it, and applaud the fact that they temper their religion with beliefs derived from real world experiences, and living in a modern, cooperative society. We need them to continue that trend. Under less oppressive conditions, maybe we can even show a few Muslims that their religion might not have been right about everything – not with bullets and bombs, but with bacon and beer.
Drew Reed is a writer focusing on urban planning issues, politics, and Latin America. Follow him on Twitter at @the_drewreed.
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