The tragedy of terror that struck France last week and still casts a substantial shadow over much of Europe this week has had its predictable and, indeed, quite possibly intended consequences.
I’m no fan of some of the content of publications like Charlie Hebdo. I tend to be sensitive (perhaps oversensitive) to the values and beliefs of others. I work hard not to give unnecessary offense and to apologize when I do.
I also try not to take offense at others’ expressions. A few years ago, the art faculty at the University of Tampa had a start-of-the-academic-year exhibition of some of their most recent works. These included two sets of works that, in one form or another, offered rather dramatically troubling representations of Christian figures (certain Catholic saints and Jesus himself). After attending the opening, I encountered a UT colleague (who, like me, is a devout Christian) who expressed considerable discomfort with some of the works and some desire to speak against what had been shown. My response . . . right or wrong . . . was to suggest that God was pretty good at taking care of Himself. Making an issue of these artists’ “artistic license” with sacred images probably would give their work more notoriety, which would increase, rather than diminish, whatever harm their work might have caused.
So you see my approach to such things. When there either isn’t any clear and direct harm to a person or persons, or that person/those persons are handling it all quite well, I let the offense go.
Not so when I encounter an offense that seems likely to cause harm, whether to a specific individual or specific set of individuals, or more generally by undermining something fundamental about how we ought to treat each other. Certainly some matters related to the sacred fall in this category (like the brazen misuse or abuse of objects sacred to a particular faith community), but so do matters dealing with prejudice. In such cases, I am committed to challenging the prejudice and speaking for equality and mutual respect.
Of course, I frequently fail at this. But it is the path I have chosen and struggle to follow.
All of which is a long way of saying that I might well find myself objecting to the publication of some of what appeared in Charlie Hebdo.
But it’s also a long way of saying that, however offensive the cartoon or article, I would (and do) condemn those who would choose to use violence to silence distasteful voices.
Unfortunately, the cycle of terror is well known and predictable. The publication of material like that in Charlie Hebdo will deeply offend the already inflamed passions of a small minority (in this case, some individuals who consider themselves Muslims but do not represent the core values of the Muslim faith embraced by millions around the globe). These individuals believe that their faith authorizes and glorifies vengeance, violence, and self-imposed martyrdom. Sooner or later, these beliefs will combine with these offenses and beget vengeance, violence, and, if the perpetrators are successful, the creation of new martyrs for “the faith.” This will further inspire others in that small minority to take extreme actions out of a misguided sense that this is the path to paradise.
There is another, equally predictable, outcome. Such senseless violence by people who can be said to represent some minority group will fuel the rhetoric of bigoted individuals whose particular brand of “patriotism” is nothing more than raw xenophobic nationalism. They will move without hesitation from acknowledging that these terrorists were Muslims and immigrants to sweeping condemnations of all Muslims and all immigrants. They will demand that “their country” should be preserved for “their people” and these foreigners be driven out (or even worse).
Such bigotry and hatred, of course, then becomes propaganda for those extreme voices who claim to be Muslims (and that most Muslims repudiate). They can prove, by the rhetoric and actions of this minority of Europeans and Americans, that this is, indeed, a holy war. A few more men and women who were both troubled by the superheated rhetoric of these promoters of violent jihad and aware of real cases of prejudicial treatment of their fellow Muslims will move closer to the radical fringe. A few will take up arms and kill. The cycle will repeat itself . . . as such cycles have throughout human history. The religions at issue may vary from epoch to epoch, but the dynamic is the same.
Which is why I work hard not to take offense, so as not to fuel the cycle. And it’s why I am committed to challenging prejudice when I see it . . . no matter who the target may be.