Was the murder of 11 members of the staff of a French “satirical” magazine a civilized act? To ask that question even rhetorically seems absurd.
Was the weekly output of the staff of that magazine a contribution to civilization? To ask that question seems brutish at best, and invites cries of “blaming the victim” and “moral equivalency” between “medieval barbarians” and “heroic defenders of freedom of speech.”
Yet the second question may be even more important than the first, if only because everyone outside of the confines of the putative “religion of peace” knows the proper answer to the first, but few understand why the proper answer to the second may very well be the same.
I do not wish to make too much of the rapid embrace of the phrase “Je suis Charlie” by good people horrified by the meticulously planned and surgically performed strike by militant Muslims on the Paris offices of the “irreverent” weekly. Few who posted those words on Twitter and Facebook and every other form of social media know much at all about the actual content of Charlie Hebdo, as the all-too-frequent use of the line “It’s the French version of The Onion” makes clear. (The world leaders who marched in Paris behind “Je suis Charlie” banners are a different matter altogether.) Most would undoubtedly be horrified had they seen the viciously anti-Christian cartoons that Charlie Hebdo routinely ran alongside the anti-Muslim images that have been widely circulated. Few (I trust) would be willing to defend, for instance, the cover that depicted the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity sodomizing one another, as a show of support for homosexual “marriage.”
Yet even among those exposed to the truth about the vile content that Charlie Hebdo routinely published, many continue to stand behind the slogan, because as a society we have become so beguiled by the words “freedom of speech” that we regard the quotation routinely and wrongly attributed to Voltaire—“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—as the very foundation of civilization.
Of course, we don’t act like we believe that. “Je suis Charlie,” cry those on the left, who normally spend their days screaming “Racist!” at those on the right. Would they defend to the death the right of someone to question affirmative action, much less the right to call someone a “nigger”? Of course not, nor should they; to die for the right of someone else to champion something you strongly oppose is surely one definition of insanity.
“Je suis Charlie,” shout those on the right, who routinely denounce the antisemitic ravings of Muslim clerics. Would they defend to the death the right of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to call Jews “swine,” or even the right of President Obama to call Islam a “religion of peace”? Of course not, nor should they.
The good news is that no one has to die to defend views that they disagree with, much less find abhorrent. Civilization, thankfully, does not depend on the right of freedom of speech, neither the concrete right guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution nor the abstract version ripped from the historical circumstances of that amendment by activist jurists and honed to a weapon lethal to civilized discourse first by leftists in the 1960’s and 70’s and then by “conservatives” in the 1980’s and 90’s.
Indeed, in its abstract form, elevated above all other principles and above the complex realities of actual human society, “free speech,” rather than being the very foundation of civilization, has largely become cover for the behavior of those who either do not wish to conform to the norms of civilized society or who wish to undermine those norms with the ultimate intention of destroying civilization itself. It has become, in other words, an ideology, a distortion of reality.
The partisans of free speech and the evangelists of Allah are much closer together than they or we tend to think. A few years after the pseudonymous S.G. Tallentyre (Evelyn Beatrice Hall) inserted her high-sounding words into the mouth of Voltaire, another English writer pointed out the parallels between the beliefs of Islam and those of modern liberalism. In G.K. Chesterton’s The Flying Inn (1914), we see Islam not as the “medieval religion” of atheist and neoconservative screeds, but as a thoroughly modern ideology, sibling to liberalism in an iconoclasm that doesn’t simply ignore reality but tries to destroy it. Unlike the Triune God of Christianity Who deigned to send His Only Begotten Son to become man to save His Creation, Allah is an abstract principle—like “free speech”—to which all of human society must submit, by force if necessary, and through which it must be violently transformed. And those who oppose the followers of Allah, like those who raise questions about the supposed defenders of “free speech,” must be silenced.
That Islam does not merely prohibit images of Allah or images of Muhammad but all images of creation is telling, because through this prohibition it reveals a fundamental hatred of the created world, and not simply a fear of blasphemy (in the case of images of Allah) or sacrilege (in the case of images of Allah’s “prophet” Muhammad). But the iconoclasm of modern liberalism is the same. The promotion of vile obscenity à la Charlie Hebdo isn’t “courageous”; it is a rage against reality, a desire not only to destroy the norms of civilized life but to strike at the very roots of the created order that gives rise to those norms and makes civilization possible.
This desire for destruction explains a seeming contradiction that some commentators have noted. As unwise as it is to poke a bear, it would seem insane to go a step further and set out bait so that you have more bears around to poke. Yet at the very time that the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were routinely attacking Islam and Muslims, the editorial policy of Charlie Hebdo supported continued Islamic immigration to France—even after the magazine’s offices were bombed in 2011 by militant Muslims.
The staff of Charlie Hebdo, however, were not insane. They had a purpose in baiting the bears: Their ultimate target was not Islam and its adherents, but the Catholic Church and Hers. A truly Christian society can—within limits—tolerate both atheists and adherents of non-Christian religions, recognizing them as icons, however tarnished, of their Creator; but the iconoclasm of both modern liberalism and Islam cannot tolerate the incarnationalism of Christianity. The staff of Charlie Hebdo did not make the mistake of believing that the enemy of their enemy was their friend, but they were perfectly willing to let Muslims assist them in attacking the Catholic Church, in much the same way that Israeli leaders once did everything they could to elevate Muslim Palestinian leaders at the expense of Christian ones. For any monolithic principle to triumph in the long run, Trinitarian incarnationalism—the source of true, lasting, humane diversity—must be destroyed. Christ is a greater threat to both Allah and modern liberalism than either one of the latter is to the other. The followers of Allah and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo share a vision of a world united under a single, indivisible principle; they just call that principle by different names.
That is the reality which all of those waving “Je suis Charlie” placards missed when the first postmassacre issue of Charlie Hebdo was released. The cartoon on the cover was almost invariably described as “poignant” and “courageous,” but it would be more correct to say that, for a change, it is truthful: Under the headline “Tout est pardonné” (“All is forgiven”), Muhammad, a tear falling from his eye, holds a “Je suis Charlie” placard. Yes, indeed—at a fundamental level, Muhammad is Charlie Hebdo, and the remaining staff are happy to claim him.
Not so the Catholic Church, as the editorial in that same issue makes perfectly clear. Speaking of the reaction to the massacre of their colleagues, the remaining staff declare, “What made us laugh the most is that the bells of Notre Dame rang in our honour. We would like to send a message to Pope Francis, who, too, was ‘Charlie’ this week: we only accept the bells of Notre Dame ringing in our honour when it is Femen who make them tinkle”—a reference to the February 12, 2013, desecration of the cathedral by topless “activists” who attempted to damage Notre Dame’s historic bells.
The iconoclasm of the Muslim murderers of the staff of Charlie Hebdo knows no bounds; but so, too, the iconoclasm of Charlie’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who in 2012 proudly pointed out his renunciation of normal human life in pursuit of a devotion to the abstract principle of “free speech”: “I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit.” His iconoclasm did not stop there, but extended to his very self: “It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.”
On January 7, two devotees of a different abstract principle granted him his wish. But as horrifying as the act of the jihadists was, the proper response of Christians and of civilized men generally to the ultimate form of Muslim iconoclasm should not be the explicit or even implicit embrace of Charlie Hebdo’s version of iconoclasm. Both have stepped outside the bounds of civilization; they are the two sides of the same debased coin.
The proper response of all civilized men is to uphold the norms of civilization, to condemn both murder and blasphemy and sacrilege; to refuse to countenance the latter (much less to exalt it) just because the former has occurred.
And for Christians, the proper response includes, as it always does, striving to be an icon of Christ in this fallen world, to shine the light of His grace into creation in order to strengthen it rather than to tear it down, to build up civilization rather than to reject it. It means the renunciation of ideology and the iconoclasm of both Islam and abstract “free speech”—and the embrace of reality in its fullness. And finally, it means recognizing the truth about Stéphane Charbonnier that he, not wanting to live on his knees, refused to acknowledge about himself—that he was a man created in the image and likeness of God, which is why his murder by the devotees of the ideology of Allah is wrong, no matter what vile obscenities he published.