The terrorist attack on the offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo was a terrible tragedy. The whole world – or at least most of it – is in shock over the slaughter of people who, non-violently, produced satirical critiques of institutions, policies and people with which or with whom they disagreed or otherwise found problematic.
Beyond the death and the fear, although associated with it, is an explosion of talk and commentary about free speech, the right to say what one wants to say, through satire or otherwise, without having to fear violence or death at the hands of government or one’s fellows. The defiant slogan of the moment is “Je Suis Charlie” But there is something to this terrible story that is being overlooked.
It may be that the killers had motives that went well beyond anguish over and anger at the depictions of Muhammad in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. Likely, they did. It may be safe to assume, for example, that the depictions of Muhammad were taken as an insult directed, generally, at all Muslims and at specific cultures. But if we take the attacks to be motivated, in large part anyway, by the depictions and satirizations themselves, I think a very important and counterintuitive question emerges from this tragedy: Can nothing be sacred?
I am not a Muslim, so I am not scandalized by depictions of Muhammad. But I do respect that 1.6 billion Muslims are or might be. For Muslims, Muhammad is the central figure of the religion of Islam; he is not just some historical figure with a collection of idiosyncratic ideas. Muhammad is a symbol, a symbol that represents a set of answers to the many questions that emerge from engagement with the world and with our humanity, a set of answers that has provided billions, over many centuries, with a way to navigate and make sense of life. That is a fact, regardless of non-Muslims’ beliefs and commitments.
That fact ought to mean something to the rest of us – even to the satirizers among us. Truth be told, far more was done in the pages of Charlie Hebdo than mere depiction of Muhammad (and other religious figures). The magazine created the image (offense enough for most Muslims) and then poked fun at it, set it in degrading predicaments, sexualized it in ways that most people would call pornographic (one image I reviewed depicts Muhammad naked, with his buttocks in the air, his genitalia exposed, as though poised for a sexual act).
We keep talking about a world that is shrinking because of “globalization” – in the various ways that that word is defined. I think it is time to consider more deeply how we must conduct ourselves when we or our productions cross borders, even when they cross those borders digitally. Sure, satire will always anger some. That in itself does not mean that the satirists should stop doing what they do. Heaven forbid there be no more Stephen Colberts or Jon Stewarts! But there is a point at which satire transforms itself into cheap and vicious mockery, cruelty, and emotional pillory – transforms itself from commentary into denigration. Only the most jejune will be insensitive to the distinction.
Scholars such as Paul Tillich and Mircea Eliada taught us about sacred symbols. We all have them. The American and French flags are quasi-sacred symbols for many. But they are political symbols and so contestation around their meaning is more or less fair game. Religious icons and beliefs, such as those held in Islam and other religions, are often of a different order. They are about the meaning of life itself, and so are very close to the bone indeed. To mock and attack the symbol is to mock and attack the person.
Should satirists work with at least some ethical constraints? I think so. It is one thing to mock a policy or a politican, another to mock another culture’s artifacts and practices, and still another to mock, scandalize and attack the sacred symbols of a people. It is not merely that bad things can happen when we do so, it is that it is morally wrong (and cruel) to do so. It seems to me that free speech should have at least some limits, not when it is merely provocative but rather when it is intentionally cruel, when it mocks rather than criticizes the sources of meaning of other people. I do not say that it is government who should police where the limits should be. To the contrary, the commentators and satirizers themselves should – for the sake of decency and mutual respect between people and peoples.
None of this suggests that Islam (or for that matter, other religions) ought not to be grappling more deeply with its internal contradictions, ought not to be engaged in what the Vatican II conferees called Aggiornamento. At the same time, we might do well to recognize that, in a shrinking world, the mocking of the sacred symbols of other cultures and peoples is part of a formula for disaster, and runs counter to our best pluralistic, egalitarian, and cosmopolitan hopes and ideals.
David E. McClean is an adjunct assistant professor at Molloy College.