Search This Blog

Friday, January 9, 2015

Terrorism on Behalf of God

The terrorist attacks in Paris this week at the offices of Charlie Hebdo raise yet again the issue of safety in the 21st century. Unlike most other terrorist attacks, this one also raises the issues of censorship, freedom of the press, the safe and effective use of satire, and the role of religion in society. As usual in situations like this, opinions are not in short supply, also, as is typical of situations such as this, a great number of those opinions are rather ill-informed.

First and foremost, I believe it is important to state quite clearly that fundamentalist expressions of religion are always perversions of both the intent and the teachings of the founders of religious traditions. In other words, there is no such thing as a legitimate fundamentalist expression of any of the great historic religious traditions. Fundamentalism, as its name implies, seeks to reduce the great historic religions from their great inherent, nuanced complexity to four or five bullet points that are easily remembered and serve a political, rather than a spiritual, agenda. Such a reduction to the point of absurdity lends itself easily to the mindset behind terrorist attacks, racism, bigotry, hatred, and the persecution of those least able to defend themselves.

In the aftermath of this truly horrific attack, some have questioned the wisdom of the kind of satire and critique used by the publishers at Charlie Hebdo. It seems to me, however, that the legitimacy of a particular form of expression cannot be determined on the basis of whether or not it elicits a violent response. Criticizing Islam, contrary to some things I have read, "is not the same as yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. It is wrong to yell "fire" in a crowded theater because doing so puts the patrons of the theater in immediate danger. Satire, on the other hand, creates only the possibility of danger and that is a very different thing, indeed.

One thing is certain, capitulating to the demands of terrorists only produces more terrorists with more demands. As tragic as loss of life always is, I do not believe those who worked at the offices of Charlie Hebdo were unaware of the danger inherent in the kind of work they did. This can be clearly seen by the fact that the offices had a police presence within them at all times. I do not believe that it would be wise to get into the business of stopping people from pursuing their passion simply because that passion is dangerous, or because someone might object to it and so engage in violent attacks because of it.

Equally ill-advised are those who would paint Islam with a broad brush in light of terrorist attacks. Most who would do so suffer from either an anti-religious bias or a kind of Christian xenophobia that reflects the same kind of fundamentalist perspective that leads to terrorist attacks themselves. In short, to say that we must eliminate the legitimate expression of the distorted religious perspective held by the terrorists is to engage in the same kind of thinking that motivated their attack in the first place. It is the kind of false logic that Americans seem to love and that is seen clearly in our criminal justice system and our refusal to abolish the death penalty. It is not possible to make a clear and unequivocal statement that something is wrong by engaging in the very behavior one seeks to show is wrong.

Perhaps what lies at the root of many of the knee-jerk responses to this tragedy is the steadfast Western refusal to come to terms with death. Those who worked at Charlie Hebdo clearly believed in what they were doing, clearly knew the risks involved, and chose to do it nevertheless. They understood that there are some things worth dying for, despite living in a culture that is so fearful of death it seeks to sanitize it and hide it away in nursing homes and funeral parlors. The truth is that one day each of us will die, and all of the denial in the world will not change that fact. We must ask ourselves whether it is better to die while trying to flee death or to die while living our lives to the full, consistent with our beliefs and having an understanding of the purpose of our lives. It seems to me that the latter holds far more dignity.

No comments:

Post a Comment