Very soon after the tragic events in Paris last week, I began to have conflicted feelings. On the one hand, I grieved with millions of others over the deaths of the journalists, the hostages, the police, and yes—the gunmen, all unnecessary in a world governed by justice and love (justice, according to Paul Tillich, being “love distributed”). Muslim scholar Omid Safi says that we must begin with grief, and he is right.
On the other hand, I was unable to refrain from trying to understand why these things had happened. That took me back to 9/11. On the Sunday following, I “explained” to the congregation I was then serving (St Oswald’s, Port Kells), why, in my view, it had happened, calling on my understanding of the Middle East and of US foreign policies and actions. I quickly discerned that what I had said had sunk like a stone, and began to realize that I had offered something over-rational to a group of people who were still in shock and a place of grief, not yet in a place where they were able to ask “why?”
Cautioned by this experience, I have waited until now to write out my reflections on the anatomy, as it were, of these tragedies. This is not to say that the grieving is finished, especially for the families and friends of those who died. However, the web daily brings me the attempts of others to understand, and, hoping I am not being premature, I will brave the waters of reflection and comment.
First then, can the killings in any way be justified? No, in no way. Earlier today, during an interview in Sri Lanka, the Pope declared his view that there is never any justification, from any religion, to kill in the name of God. What the shooters did was a crime; and had they survived, they would have been tried and, from what we know now, been found guilty and punished.
Next, freedom of speech and expression, a prime value of our post-Enlightenment culture in the West. But is this value absolute? Again, no. I mention the classic example of how someone shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre cannot be supported under the rubric of freedom of speech. And note that I said that this is a prime value in the West. In many other parts of the world, including many Muslim societies, there is no tradition of freedom of speech; there has not yet been a pan-Muslim equivalent to the Enlightenment. This lack of acceptance of freedom of speech can have both a political and a religious source. In some autocracies, freedom of speech is inhibited for political reasons. In many such dictatorial cultures, freedom of expression in regard to the official religion of the place is suppressed. I note here, in regard to the choice of the shooters to attack Charlie Hebdo, that the absence of humour or irony is a classic mark of fundamentalism, Islamic, Christian, Jewish, or any other.
One way of thinking about this is to apply to this issue the template of pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity. In a pre-modern culture, such as the one NATO encountered in Afghanistan, or in mediaeval Christendom, blasphemy (which is how the gunmen saw the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo) is a capital crime, because it challenges the understood basis of the society, politically, philosophically, religiously. It shakes the foundations. If we all lived in pre-modern or modern or post-modern societies, we would doubtless be struggling with other problems, but blasphemy would not be one of them, because we would all agree about its meaning in terms of the period of social development in which we were all living. Personally, I find the cartoons disgusting and abhorrent. As a Christian, how can I respond to an image of the persons of the Trinity in a sexual threesome except with grief and revulsion? And were I to be a Muslim from a pre-modern culture (pockets of which still exist in many immigrant communities in western post-modern cultures), I would be greatly distressed by caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. (And let us remember, conversely, that in non-fundamentalist Muslim quarters, there is a rich tradition of humour and satire.) As it is, I accept the publication of these cartoons on the grounds of freedom of expression; and I freely express my revulsion at them, and object to them on the grounds that they contribute to conflict between members of different religions. Dissident Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng says, rightly in my view, that there will be no peace on earth without peace among the religions, and I agree with him. I also regard the CH cartoons as cultural leftovers from the anti-clericalist movements of 19th-century France, and from the cultural formation in the anything-goes Sixties of a number of the cartoonists who were killed (I have seen them described as atheist anarchists who were still fighting the battles of the Sixties.) In other words, they make a negative contribution to the peace of the world, on the grounds of a form of “humour” which I and many others find (although clever) completely unfunny. They provoke me to reflect more deeply on what the rest of us can do in terms of interfaith dialogue undertaken on the basis of mutual respect, and make thereby a positive contribution to the peace of the world.
Then there is history. The shooters were French by citizenship, Algerians by culture. The relationship between France and Algeria is a still a fraught one. The Franco-Algerian reality is a wound which is still for many open and hurting. The memory of the millions killed in the struggle in the Fifties for Algerian independence is still fresh in the minds and hearts of many Algerians in particular (as well as those of the French who were personally involved in the conflict). The difference is that for the most part, the French are happy to forget; those of Algerian descent keep the memories fresh, much as the Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their ancestral homes in 1947-48 do, many of them displaying prominently in their present homes the keys to the houses they left behind. Again we have a pre-modern – post-modern tilt: memory in pre-modern societies can be very long—many Serbs still actively grieve the loss of the battle of Kosovo to the Turks in 1389. In post-modern societies, with a daily kaleidoscope of events and opinions being presented to us through the media (some would say assaulting us), memory tends to be short. (What happened the week before the Paris shootings? Hmm: nothing comes immediately to mind. The media-wheel has turned.)
Then politics. Algerians are Arabs, and so are Palestinians; and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict was cited by the shooters as one of their motivations. That conflict is a pan-Arab concern; many Arabs would speak of “the Arab nation,” meaning not any one nation-state, but the totality of those of Arab ethnicity, with whom they feel a commonality. I have been studying that conflict for nine years now; and it is sadly clear to me that there were many moments in the last century when it could have been resolved—through international pressure, yes, but nonetheless resolved in a way which could well have avoided the misery of Palestinians and Israelis which have marked recent decades, and have defused the pan-Arab anger at the situation, which burst out in Paris last week.
Remember Osama bin Laden? He made it clear many times that a major part of the reason why he started Al Qaeda was his anger at the occupation of Palestine. And a day or two after the shooting, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula broadcast from Yemen his claim that his branch of that movement had organized and funded the “work” of the shooters. Again the issue of Israel-Palestine was part of his motivation; and again this running political sore found tragic expression in the Paris attacks.
Finally (although doubtless there are major factors I have not recognized), we have the issue of masculinity. Chris Hedges (I encourage you to read Hedges’ article referred to in the link at the end of this blog, and that of Omid Safi) describes the actions of the shooters as “hypermasculine” violence. Young males, if not unemployed then in menial jobs; members of a disempowered immigrant community with vivid memories of oppression and violence; relatively uneducated, with little family support (the brothers grew up in foster homes): this all adds up to a sense of emasculation. Here’s Chris Hedges: shooters of this stripe, he says, “embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures.”
Complex? Yes; and in another sense, simple, because this tragedy points us beyond its miseries to the universal need for justice and love. All of us are invited by these events to live intentionally in ways which will contribute to a world in which such events become less and less likely.