After Paris

Regarding the massacre yesterday in the streets of Paris, as a member of the profession, I feel a mixture of dismay for the manner of the deaths of these journalists and cartoonists and admiration for the courage they exhibited (and not a small amount of wonder if I would have the same fortitude). This is a job which can sometimes place a person into potentially dangerous situations—risks usually accepted with forethought and preparation—but sitting in my office banging away at a computer is not a spot where I would have previously considered keeping my back to the wall.

I am not a fan of provocation for provocation’s sake, and I do not know enough about Charlie Hebdo as a publication to say whether or not it relied too heavily on mere provocation as a rhetorical and stylistic device. Some of the cover images I’ve seen would never be acceptable in the United States as a matter of taste and as a norm in civil dialogue. That observation, of course, is in no way to suggest that there is any rational justification for what transpired in Paris, and insinuations to the contrary need to be vigorously rejected.


I am not sure what the editors of USA Today were thinking when they published the apparently self-described “radical” Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary on the evening of the massacre, but the posting of this “opposing view,” headlined “People know the consequences…Why did France allow the tabloid to provoke Muslims?” while family members were still in shock over the murder or wounding of their loved ones showed a unique lack of compassion and tact. More to the point, Choudary’s suggestion that the victims at Charlie Hebdo were complicit in their own assassination is despicable, and it is without rational merit.

He writes: “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.

“Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”

In other words, these guys had it coming. The blame for their deaths resides on their own actions and the West’s cultural elevation of free expression over communal harmony. 

As offensive as his glib acceptance of this kind of murderous rage is Choudary’s proposition that it is the West that needs to adapt to its emerging Islamic population via the abandonment of some of its foundational and still-propelling ideological constructs. Any insistence that journalists, film-makers, animators, etc., have to bend Western norms of free speech to the expectations and sensitivities of new residents and citizens from the Islamic world, to the point of snapping those norms, should be rejected out of hand.

I would not casually mock the prophet Mohammed in word or image. Some may do so and my reaction to their opinion or depictions would run the gamut from indifference to repugnance—just as I would react to a KKK flyer on Catholics, Jews or African Americas. Nowhere in that potential series of reactions can there be room in a civilized society for murderous violence because of expression exercised. Folks migrating from the norms and constructs of the Islamic world into the West will have to adjust themselves to its ideals of free expression. Within that nonnegotiable, however, is plenty of room for mutual respect and cultural sensitivity in the form of that expression, but there will always be outliers whose views require protection, not necessarily acceptance.

Another narrative emerging too quickly out of the awfulness yesterday is that this murderous incident should be a wake-up call to the West because of its naive political correctness toward Islam, sometimes meant to mean the faith itself, sometimes the people who follow that faith.

Does anyone really believe that more consistent, condemnatory rhetoric of Islam as a faith or Islam as a people from our cultural, religious or political leaders would have had any sort of impact on the homegrown rage of the three attackers yesterday? I don’t suspect these cowards with automatic weapons were ever attuned to the niceties and nuances of political correctness. It is in fact whatever the opposite of political correctness is which nurtured their rage. Political correctness did not give these men a license to act as they did; they were driven by their own personal demons and pathologies and, yes, a conflict-nurturing narrative within the Islamic world that seeks out and propels these pathological actors.

Nor do I see much of a light touch in the last decade or so of the West’s engagement with the Middle East. The nations of the West, particularly the United States, but frequently France, have been engaged in what to my mind has been a too-mindlessly aggressive military and covert campaign to liquidate or imprison members of the Islamic world who threaten Western people or interests. 

Some have already proposed that the best way to respond to yesterday’s violence is a greater social clampdown, isolation or rejection of Islamic people, a course that promises a future of more murderous resentment and hostility. Is it political correctness to say that it is irrational and unjust—as well as strategically counterproductive—to so respond or to treat all members of the Islamic world as a threat because of the actions of a minority of them? Most often the victims of these minority actors, after all, are other Muslims.

We have to have a more mature reaction to such violence. The same day these Islamic terrorists struck in Paris, some presumably right-wing knucklehead attempted to blow-up an NAACP office in Colorado Springs. There are extremists and sociopaths in every culture and every nation. They must be hunted down like criminals, not treated as political, cultural or ethnic types that justify widespread suppression. 

Every incident, no matter how outrageous, cannot be treated like an existential standoff between the West and Islam. There are more than 1.6 billion Muslims in the world; that figure alone suggests that a course of ceaseless confrontation is untenable. We already know where that trajectory terminates.

Outreach and sensitivity to likely allies in the Islamic world, whether they make their homes in the Middle East or the Mid-West, cannot be denigrated as self-flagellating political correctness—it is, on the contrary, strategically the wisest path forward. Just now, extremism is a plague on both our houses—the Western world and the Islamic world—and the best way toward delegitimizing and ending it is through more dialogue and more cooperation, not deeper recrimination and resentment.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Eugenia Corbo
4 years ago
Thanks for this breath of common sense... I read it just after reading this:
Kevin Clarke
4 years ago

Holy cow.

Suzanne Glespen
4 years ago
Good article. If you'd like to take a look at more covers of Charlie Hebdo, you can find them here.
Gabriel Marcella
4 years ago
Well written. A welcome appeal to reason.
Craig McKee
4 years ago
Bravo! to the FRENCH Jesuits' response to this attack:


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