I started something about the attacks in Paris sometime last week, but I found that I had too many thoughts that I needed to sort out first. Between the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo office and the hostage situation at a Jewish market, 17 people were killed. The global response was overwhelming. The French started the hashtag #jesuischarlie to show solidarity with the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. The cartoonists were targeted, by name, for publishing pictures of Mohammad. It highlighted the importance of freedom of speech. No one should have their lives threatened for drawing a cartoon, no matter how disrespectful or obscene. Violence was used to limit words and pictures. Offensive material does not maim or kill. The gunmen only showed that they could not handle something as fundamental as tolerance and freedom of expression. They could not express themselves in an articulate, nonviolent matter; they had to resort to brutality.
But there is one problem with #jesuischarlie. It is an offensive magazine that mocks religion. The Church and Notre Dame in particular offered its support, and magazine responded that it rejected anything offered by the Catholic Church. I support Charlie, but I am not Charlie. I support freedom of speech, but this issue isn’t really about freedom of speech; it’s about militant extremism. The gunmen also shot a Muslim cop who was already on the ground, posing no threat. Presumably, he died for not being the “right” kind of Muslim or for representing the West via his uniform. That wasn’t about avenging Mohammad from an offensive picture; that about extremism turned into pure hate. One tweet reported on the BBC said, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JeSuisAhmed”
I think France should be counted as a victim too in this event. The shock and fear on people’s faces showed that they truly could not imagine such a thing happening in France. The country is known for its tolerance in many ways, especially the cosmopolitan Paris. Yet it has also been known for have trouble with its rising immigrant-Muslim population. There have been protests. There is the ban on wearing religious items (including head coverings) in public places. There is an underlying tension already there. And I think this event will force the French to address that tension in new or more forceful ways. They will have to weigh freedom of speech against security. There will be ripples, and the attack will continue to leave its mark.
The scariest thing about extremism is that extremists plan on the ripples. They want the West to blame all Muslims for terrorism. Islamic extremists want moderate Muslims to feel persecuted and misunderstood so they will not Westernize and will be easier to convert to more conservative, extreme sects of Islam. They want the discussion to be “us Muslims against those Westerners” instead of “us terrorists against those peaceful people.” Is it not just Islam. Militias of Christian extremists have been known to shoot people and bomb abortion clinics. And they prepare for this “coming” battle between Christians and the rest. They want to divide moderate Christians into “us real Christians” or “those working against us.” Extremists spread their beliefs not through discourse or reason but through coercion and fear. They cannot win in a peaceful society, so they must create chaos in order to gain any power.
On a less violent front, Christian extremists perpetuate the “culture wars” of Christmas, literature, and D&D. They want everyday decisions to become part of a cosmic battle. And while our everyday lives do matter spiritually, this life is not one of black and white. There are gray areas where a temptation for one person is not tempting for another, where the killing of the unborn is not fixed by killing doctors, where Christians and Muslims and atheists and whatever else all live and work together, where a cartoonist can be utterly offensive and completely free to be so. But extremists don’t like a world of blending grays. They don’t want to get along. Peace is not as profitable as persecution.