Bruce Crumley of Time Magazine gets it completely wrong when he blames Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper that published a satire on Islam, for the fact that their offices were firebombed by reactionary Muslims. He begins:
Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by “majority sections” of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?
Where do I even start? I’ve been a staunch critic of Islamophobia in the United States and in Europe, but this has nothing to do with that at all. Islamophobia is highlighted by two things: The irrational, paranoid fear of a Muslim takeover of Western nations, which simply isn’t going to happen, and the desire to violate the rights of Muslims to practice their religion as long as they do not harm other people. Neither of those things is present in this situation. What this newspaper did was satirize reactionary Islam, something that badly needs satirizing because satire is a powerful form of criticism.
The difficulty in answering that question is also what’s making it hard to have much sympathy for the French satirical newspaper firebombed this morning, after it published another stupid and totally unnecessary edition mocking Islam. The Wednesday morning arson attack destroyed the Paris editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo after the paper published an issue certain to enrage hard-core Islamists (and offend average Muslims) with articles and “funny” cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed—depictions forbidden in Islam to boot. Predictably, the strike unleashed a torrent of unqualified condemnation from French politicians, many of whom called the burning of the notoriously impertinent paper as “an attack on democracy by its enemies.”
No, it isn’t an attack on democracy, but it sure as hell is an attack on liberty — and that’s far more important. I wonder, does Crumley have the same response to the satirizing of other religions? If Scientologists got angry enough at the South Park creators to burn down their offices rather than try to infiltrate them and dig up dirt on them, would Crumley be complaining about the “majority sections” of society baiting them into a violent reaction? If Christians responded to the writing of a satirical book akin to The Satanic Verses by bombing the author’s home, would he be saying that he feels no sympathy for him because he had dared to offend those who are violent? If so, he’s got a seriously bizarre view of who is to blame here.
Yet rather than issuing warnings to be careful about what one asks for, the arson prompted political leaders and pundits across the board to denounce the arson as an attack on freedom of speech, liberty of expression, and other rights central to French and other Western societies.
Editors, staff, fans, and apologists of Charlie Hebdo have repeatedly pointed out that the paper’s take-no-prisoners humor spares no religion, political party, or social group from its questionable humor. They’ve also tended to defend the publication during controversy as a kind of gut check of free society: a media certain to anger, infuriate, and offend just about everybody at some point or another. As such, Charlie Hebdo has cultivated its insolence proudly as a kind of public duty—pushing the limits of freedom of speech, come what may. But that seems more self-indulgent and willfully injurious when it amounts to defending the right to scream “fire” in an increasingly over-heated theater.
Has the metaphor about shouting fire in a crowded theater ever been applicable when it is invoked? It wasn’t even remotely relevant the first time it was used by Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v United States and it certainly isn’t relevant here. The people who react by firebombing have full control of their actions. They alone are to blame for those actions.
It’s obvious free societies cannot simply give in to hysterical demands made by members of any beyond-the-pale group. And it’s just as clear that intimidation and violence must be condemned and combated for whatever reason they’re committed—especially if their goal is to undermine freedoms and liberties of open societies. But it’s just evident members of those same free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility and decency in practicing their rights and liberties—and that isn’t happening when a newspaper decides to mock an entire faith on the logic that it can claim to make a politically noble statement by gratuitously pissing people off.
And how does one do that without making religion immune to satire and criticism? Why are religious ideas chosen for special treatment out of all the kinds of ideas that exist, other than because some people are willing to kill over such criticism? All ideas are open to criticism. And those who think they can kill people who dare to criticize their ideas are certifiably insane. The very last thing any society should do is allow their insanity to hold liberty hostage out of fear.