Two Wrongs (or, why we don’t have to be Charlie to oppose violence)

Two Wrongs (or, why we don’t have to be Charlie to oppose violence) January 19, 2015

In response to a question from a French journalist on the plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, Pope Francis said something that may sound shocking to those of us from liberal societies.  I’m using the word “liberal” here in a classical sense; that is, not merely in reference to the political left, but to the over-arching social ideal of personal choice and autonomy as being among the highest goods, based on an implicit definition of freedom as essentially the right to do or say as one pleases.

“In freedom of expression there are limits.”  That’s the potentially startling comment in soundbite form, if you will.  As always, context matters, although in this case it doesn’t necessarily make it less startling to either French or American ears.  The context was a question about possible tensions between religious freedom and freedom of expression, which the pope immediately heard – and unpacked – as a reference to recent deadly attack on the office of the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo in revenge for its ridicule of the prophet Mohammed.  In response, Pope Francis first of all reiterated what he has said several times before: killing in the name of God is never justified.  And he went on to add that neither is insulting other people’s faith.

Somehow, because of a slightly odd but lighthearted illustration about hypothetically punching his friend and colleague next to him for insulting his mother, the response was read by some as justifying the attack.  This led Fr. Thomas Rosica to issue the following clarification on behalf of the Vatican press office:

Pope Francis was asked by a French journalist about the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression.  The Pope replied that both are “fundamental human rights” and stressed that killing in the name of God “is an aberration.” But he said there were limits to that freedom of expression.  By way of example he referred to his close colleague and organizer of Papal trips, Dr. Alberto Gasparri, who was standing next to the Holy Father on the plane. The Pope said if “his good friend Dr Gasparri” says a curse word against his mother, he can “expect a punch”, and at that point he gestured with a pretend punch towards him, saying: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.  You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

The Pope’s expression is in no way intended to be interpreted as a justification for the violence and terror that took place in Paris last week.  The Pope’s words about Dr. Gasbarri were spoken colloquially and in a friendly, intimate matter among colleagues and friends on the journey.  His words mean that there are limits to humor and satire particularly in the ways that we speak about matters of faith and belief. Pope Francis’ response might be similar to something each of us has felt when those dearest to us are insulted or harmed. The Pope’s free style of speech, especially in situations like the press conference must be taken a face value and not distorted or manipulated.  The Pope has spoken out clearly against the terror and violence that occurred in Paris and in other parts of the world. Violence begets violence.  Pope Francis has not advocated violence with his words on the flight.

In light of the full context of the pope’s response, not to mention his consistent stance on religiously motivated violence, the disclaimer should not have been necessary.  What made it necessary was a simplistic tendency to read provocation and retaliation as a zero-sum equation, as if the wrongness of one justifies the other.

The Coptic patriarch as well as another Coptic bishop agree with Pope Francis, saying that heaping up insults really doesn’t help and that freedom should come with responsibility.  Also in agreement, remarkably, is Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who had said even earlier that Muslims were right to be offended by lewd images of their most cherished figure.  There is no reason this should be construed as suggesting in any way, shape or form that killing people who produced them was an appropriate response.

This is actually underscored in a way by the obvious point to be made about disproportionality.  Of course the killing was more gravely wrong than the original offense.  A consequence of this that the attackers utterly failed to consider – maybe could not in their myopic rush to revenge – is that by responding so disproportionately, they have robbed their fellow Muslims of the ability to take any offense at such insults without it being heard as an endorsement of terrorism.  (And before anyone comments that Muslims are fair game, it bears reminding that Charlie Hebdo has been known for equal-opportunity mockery of religion in general.)

It can justly be said that silence would be a victory for terrorism – though this would be more true of saying things that may need to be said, or simply reporting facts.  There are wise and unwise ways to speak.  Of course, speaking wisely does not mean avoiding anything that might upset people, but it does mean avoiding being gratuitously offensive, as the aforementioned Coptic bishop put it.  That’s the difference – an enormous one in terms of maturity as well as morality – between substantial critique and crude mockery.  The former is in fact necessary to any meaningful interreligious dialogue in the long run; the latter discredits its own qualification to dialogue.  It’s good to defend freedom of speech, but better to do so without thinking it means everything that can be said should.

A publication like Charlie Hebdo may routinely invite polemic, and its attackers have returned the invitation and then some, pushing the world at large into an absurd polemic that assumes gross insults for their own sake and murderous responses to such cannot both be wrong.  Acceptance of that absurdity would really be a victory for terrorism.

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


    thank you. I have been thinking something similar—indeed I started drafting a post with the title “Je ne suis pas Charlie” but couldn’t find the words. I would refer readers to two excellent columns by Clarence Paige from the Chicago Tribune on this subject: France needs a better melting pot, and Sorry, I am not Charlie:

    Also, somewhere on the net I found the important observation that it is much easier to stand in noisy solidarity with nasty speech that you fundamentally agree with. Thus, even though France demonstrated its hypocrisy regarding free speech by arresting the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala for his crass offensive Facebook post, no one is tweeting “je suis Dieudonne” in his support.

    In the same vein, I remember years ago there was a tempest in a teapot when a regional theater company in San Francisco decided to put on a production of “The Pope and the Witch” an acerbic Italian play that indulged openly in anti-clericalism and anti-Catholic stereotypes. When Catholics protested, the arts community roared out in defense of free speech. Amidst the tumult, someone pointed out that the same theater company had decided not to run a play which was about a production of Othello, because an actor would have to appear in black face and someone might be offended by this.

    • Julia Smucker

      To be fair, while I agree with your overall point about hypocrisy, people might be more likely to tweet “je suis Dieudonne” if he had been killed rather than just arrested.

      This kind of slogan identifying with victims of violence has become a broader trend, and as an expression of human empathy I don’t take offense at it. I would just draw the line between empathizing with victims and defending gratuitously offensive material.

      Regarding Clarence Paige, I have my doubts about the “melting-pot model of assimilation” he praises. Actually, David, based on previous threads, I’d be very surprised if you didn’t also.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Actually, I wonder why he uses the expression “melting pot” since it is pretty clear to me reading the article that he does not mean it in the sense that all immigrants are to homogenize and become like the “real” French (or Americans, or the Borg, or whoever). As he says, assimilation is a two-way street. I read his criticisms with what I know about French ideals and prejudices in mind, and I did not twig to his use of this expression. Maybe he is using it precisely to criticize the French approach, which does resemble early 20th century American melting-pot ideology.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Some people might find this essay from Al Jazeera interesting. He both agrees and disagrees with the pope in some very nuanced ways.

  • Ronald King

    “Free” speech is a necessary condition for the potential development of maturity and the trait of empathy without which there is no maturation. The speaker and the receiver both have the opportunity to reflect on the underlying motivations which initiate actions and responses. It is a violent response to be offended by something written or said about what one believes in and has developed an identity based on this core belief system. We as a species are just beginning to become aware of how vulnerable we are to the pain of being nothing. We individually fight that pain with each encounter everyday consciously or unconsciously and we will “offend” someone who states otherwise while the one offended will react with a defense against being offended. It will continue this way until we are face to face with those we consider the offenders.

    • It will continue this way until we are face to face with those we consider the offenders.

      I know this is very immature…but is this when we punch the offensive party in the nose?

      • Ronald King

        Tausign, I think in this case a punch would be an improvement.

        • Julia Smucker

          Getting a little violent all of a sudden, are we, Ronald? 😉

          Sorry, just had to tease you a bit for this because it sounds so out of character.

          • Ronald King

            I lost control

        • Ronald, for full disclosure I write many of my flippant remarks after my second glass of wine. When I mention ‘a punch in the nose’ I am simply mimicking the Holy Father punching his good friend Dr. Alberto Gasparri.

          Peace and good my friend.

          • Ronald King

            Tausign, I like full disclosure. That second glass of wine is appealing to me after a week of being around too many people. Go Seahawks!

  • Your link to the ‘Crux’ article has a 46 second video showing the Pope making the actual remarks…and this simple ‘seeing and hearing’ excerpt speaks more eloquently and with more clarity to the ‘common man’ than all of jabber that will follow his remarks.

    • Julia Smucker

      As is usually the case.

  • Brian Martin

    Thank you Julia. It is clear to me that just because one has a “right” to do something, it does not make it “right” to do. The sad fact is that our cultures celebrate disrespect. The other sad fact is that in talking with Muslims I know from Iraq, their feeling is pretty much the same…that the actions carried out in killing the workers at the french rag (my words) and the people in the supermarket are not actions that can be justified or condoned by any true Muslim, but they wonder why people are allowed to be so blatantly disrespectful to their religion. One said that he sees it no differently than racist cartoons, and that whether they are disrespecting Jesus, the Pope, or the Prophet, it is all disrepectful hate speech. They all agree as well that these sort of cartoons and other disrespectful portrayals of The Prophet serve to help ISIS and other groups of radicals recruit. They indicated that if one wants to make fun of something, target the heads of the terror organizations etc. That way you are lampooning the absurd without stepping all over the toes of people not likely to support them.

  • Nanabedôkw’ Môlsem, OFS

    It is one thing to have a right to speak a thought, it is quite another thing for that speaking to be wise. It would have been foolish in 1938 to mock Hitler while surrounded by well-armed SS troops, no matter how accurate your ideas, no matter how funny in your own eyes.
    It is also well to understand ones audience. A depiction of Christ is going to attract the attention of more Christians than ordinarily pay attention to the depicter. A depiction of Mohammed is really going to attract the attention of Muslims, as Islam regards images of Mohammed as violating the ancient rule about taking unto oneself a graven image (part of the Ten Commandments), seemingly elevating Mohammed into competition with God/Gott/Dieu/el Senor/Allah, or making the image wrongfully greater than the Faith.
    When one plays with matches, one can expect fire.
    When one plays with fire, one can expect to get burned.

    • trellis smith

      Historically that is not entirely correct as depictions of Mohammed were not always and everywhere considered haram. The timing of the pope’s remarks were unfortunate and a blanket condemnation of violence was all that was required at the time. All these comments have merely served up appeasement whole when what is required is utter defiance.
      In such events our greatest threat is not the jihadists but the appeasers.

      There is the deploring suggestion in this post of moral equivalence. The greatest blasphemy is the killing of another human being. Yet great majorities in the Islamic world support death for mere offense or apostasy. We now see that barbarism and Islamization being foisted upon Western states. It is becoming abundantly clear to most other than our elites that while the fight is within Islam and the West is a sideshow, that Islam today is incompatible with Western civilization and we should do every moral method to circumscribe its reach.

      • Julia Smucker

        Going back to the context of the pope’s remarks, stopping at a blanket condemnation of violence (which of course he rightly reiterated, particularly in the name of God) without also addressing the place of gratuitously offensive ridicule would not have fully answered the question that was put to him. But I’m glad you included the word “moral”. Where would you draw the line between moral and immoral methods of defiance?

        And where do you see the suggestion of moral equivalence? I thought I said exactly the opposite.

        • trellis smith

          The pope’s answer was still unfortunate not only as an admonishment unbecoming the vicar of Christ but of our liberal tradition.
          Insulting someone’s faith gratuitously or otherwise was hardly cause for alarm in the West today and especially in the country of Voltaire until the Danish cartoons.
          You have only the right to be offended, not murderous.
          In the end, these cartoons responsibly spoke the truth of a worldwide religious mentality so backward it has yet to progress to sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. The deaths at Charlie Hebdo were not a return of a polemic they were one-sidedly obscene for a political purpose far beyond. For that alone whether you like it or not nous sommes tous Charlie.

          The consequences in Europe will be slow but deliberate, both liberal and conservative parties will begin to delimit mass immigration from Muslim countries and confront once again its anti-Semitic impulse.
          In the US, the apologists who brought us a censoring Islamaphobia are already in the retreat and perhaps more frank and informed discussions can now take its place.

          • Julia Smucker

            You have only the right to be offended, not murderous.

            That was kind of my point. And the pope’s, too, if you look at what he said.

        • trellis smith

          Then I am perhaps quite obtuse.. what I gathered from reading your last paragraph and from the pope’s remarks was at best confused.
          There simply is no polemic here, there is no argument, only utterly nihilistic and final censorship.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        “It is becoming abundantly clear to most other than our elites that while the fight is within Islam and the West is a sideshow, that Islam today is incompatible with Western civilization and we should do every moral method to circumscribe its reach.”

        Maybe I am one of the “elites” you are criticizing, but I see this as such a broader generalization as to be meaningless. While we can talk about “Islam” as a single thing, this is such a broad category that it is almost impossible to make sweeping generalizations that it is “incompatible” with the “Western civilization” (itself a pretty broad category). You would not make such sweeping generalizations about “Christianity”, recognizing that Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentacostalism, American fundamentalism, European statist Protestantism, Anabaptist separatism each respond in substantially different ways to “Western civilization.”
        Tunisia is working its way towards being a functioning liberal democracy; Lebanon, for all its problems, is a pluralistic society. Malaysia and Indonesia are “Islamic” but no one would mistake either for Saudia Arabia. You might find fault with each of these examples, but doing so requires nuance and backing away from generalizations about Islam.

        There are strands of Islam that are antithetical to most Western ideals and these need to be combated. However, there are also strands of Christianity that are as well. Chris Hedges has been making a career predicting, Cassandra-like, that when fascism comes to America, it will be carrying a cross and a flag. I think he is overly pessimistic, but his fundamental point is sound: American democracy is antithetical to some strands of Christianity in the US.

        “Yet great majorities in the Islamic world support death for mere offense or apostasy.”

        This is not true. According to Pew Research survey data

        in only a handful of predominantly Muslim countries do even a majority of those who believe Shariah law should apply (and the number of Muslims who believe this varies widely from country to country) believe that apostasy should be punished by the death penalty. Again, this drives home the point that you cannot make sweeping generalizations about “Islam” as though it were a monolithic whole.

      • All these comments have merely served up appeasement whole when what is required is utter defiance.

        I would have preferred substituting ‘utter defiance’ with ‘steadfastness of faith’ in order to show your commitment to true Judeo/Christian values. All of us have to avoid the temptation of wandering into an idolatry of ‘western values’, specifically the freedom to express oneself no matter how offensively. Even worse is the secular notion of choosing to place religious content in the target zone. The Holy Father’s condemnation of violence coupled with an appreciation for speaking the truth in a respectful manner is exactly what elevates his remarks above the common fray.

        • trellis smith

          Normally Tausign I would find little fault with your preferences and distinctions you wish to draw but in this context, the historical values of the West of liberal democracy and its freedoms are intertwined with Judeo/Christian values. Your distinctions mean little from the perspective of Islamic terrorism.

  • Brian Martin

    In regard to Trellis’ comments on Islam…It would be like saying the IRA in the height of its attacks on England was representative of the Catholic Church as a whole.

    • trellis smith

      Rather facile reasoning and a typical fallacious argument of false equivalence, Mr. Martin but in point of fact the Catholic populations of Ireland did give cover if not aid and succor to the IRA and the Catholic church found itself agonizingly compromised and implicated if not in direct violence then yet as a contributor in part to the Troubles in the disunity of Christians.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Well, part of the problem during the Troubles was a lot of Protestants, both in Northern Ireland and in England proper, actually felt that this was the case. The great triumph of the Good Friday accords was to get them to look past these monolithic stereotypes and allow the majorities on both sides who wanted peace to come to terms.

      • trellis smith

        I think the operative word I disagree with slightly is monolithic stereotypes, only in so far as to emphasis that were real and not imagined transgressions which had to be forgiven and the recognition on the part of the IRA that terrorism could not be a winning option even in confronting injustices.

  • trellis smith

    We have quite divergent understandings of the Pew research but sufficient to say that nowhere does the research disclaim my statement that great majorities in Islamic countries support death not only for apostasy but adultery and blasphemy. Many of these majorities exist in countries allied with us and many receive copious amounts of aid. Furthermore the Pew research quite contradicts your assertion that only a handful of countries support the implementation of Sharia law. Over 86% in Malaysia alone support such implementation.
    That 45 Islamic countries are signatories of the Cairo Declaration in defiance of the solidarity initially expressed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights underscores much of the incompatibility of Islam with the West.
    In fully recognizing that the West is a side show in regard to the struggles within Islam I also am not describing a monolith but there is a convergence of political ideology and religion whose prevalence in Islam we would fail to admit and act upon at our peril.

    • Brian Martin

      When talking about the actions of “Islamic Countries” one has to take into account the cultural and political institutions, and the fact that many of the interpretations used by the leadership in those countries is based on helping cement political power and also are interpreted through cultural thoughts and traditions, which upon closer examination, one will find that are opposite of what The Prophet taught. The fact that people calling themselves Catholic in Ireland engaged in terrorist activities, and were supported by Irish Catholics in the United States does not mean Catholics are predisposed to terrorism.
      The fact is, there are Millions of Muslims around the world, including here in the United States, and in Europe, and I have no reason to believe that the majority of them practice or believe in the radical interpretation…(or as the Muslims I know personally say, the corruption of Islam by radicals) of Islamic teaching. There are about 11 countries that have full sharia law including “hudud” crimes…which are set punishments for things like apostacy, fornication, theft etc. The degree to which they are actually carried out is also not black and white. Trellis used the example of Malasia…in Malasia, Sharia law applies only to Muslims…under malaysian law, members of other faiths are the jurisdicion of civil courts. What the pew study is clear on is that there is significant disagreement among Muslims as to how Sharia law should be interpreted, Who the punishments apply to etc. Which is far from the monolithic view Trellis is putting forth. He also is misreading parts of the study.
      “that nowhere does the research disclaim my statement that great majorities in Islamic countries support death not only for apostasy but adultery and blasphemy. ”
      (in six of the 20 countries where there are adequate samples for analysis, at least half of those who favor making Islamic law the official law also support executing apostates.)
      In regard to adultery…it states (In 10 of 20 countries where there are adequate samples for analysis, at least half of Muslims who favor making sharia the law of the land also favor stoning unfaithful spouses.) That is hardly the majority of muslims.
      In regard to robbery etc. (in 10 of 20 countries where there are adequate samples for analysis at least half say they support penalties such as whippings or cutting off the hands of thieves and robbers.) again, not the majority.
      Our struggle is not with Islam or Muslims, but with radical nutjobs of any stripe who twist and pervert religious beliefs for personal power and benefit of extreme adgendas.

      • trellis smith

        Even Mr. Martins reading of the Pew research where only half of all Muslims support corporal punishment or amputations, should give cause for alarm rather than his sanguine facile attitude that the whole terrorist problem only lies with “the nut jobs”.

        I see no reason to amend what I have already stated that when I speak of Islamic majorities, according to the Pew research I was not referring to a monolithic structure but to Islamic majorities in countries such as these in the example regarding support of capital punishment for apostasy: Egypt 86%, Jordan 82%, Afghanistan 79% Pakistan 76% Palestine 66% Malaysia 62%.
        The figures regarding the belief and implementation of Sharia are even more startling. 32% of US Muslims believe Sharia should be the law of the land 60% of US Muslims believe that criticisms of Islam or the prophet is not protected free speech .
        I contend that that these statistics alone call into question the compatibility of Islamic and western values The commentary regarding the Pew study is not dismissive of the statistics or their negative import nor in regards to terrorism is Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi either unaware of the problem in Islam as observed in his speech at Al-Azhar University on New Year’s Day.

  • Julia Smucker

    …terrorism could not be a winning option even in confronting injustices.

    There is the crucial point. I think we’re all agreed here that terrorism is never a winning option in confronting injustices. Yet there, ironically, is where the polemic comes from: when anyone resorts to terrorism, it pushes on everyone who rejects it a sense of requirement to act like the injustices were never there. That’s how terrorism is not only wrong in itself, but completely counterproductive as a means of confronting injustice.

    • trellis smith

      Except that free speech is an entirely different category that rarely, such as in defamation, rises to the level of injustice.

  • trellis smith

    In light of the severe bipartisan criticism of President Obama’s lecture your post and these comments have an added import Julia.