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We are Charlie Hebdo, or The Globalization of Blasphemy
Articles on France before 2015

  • (february 2015) We are Charlie Hebdo, or The Globalization of Blasphemy.
    "I am Charlie Hebdo" is the banner under which millions of people around the world protested against the terrorist attacks in Paris that mainly killed cartoonists (guilty, in the eyes of the killers, of making fun of the founder of their religion). However, i am not sure that those millions truly represent the majority of the democratic world, and certainly not the majority of the world at large. The issue is much bigger and has only indirectly to do with Islam. It just so happens that these days some issues surface first in the context of the Islamic civil war that has been raging on for decades (See World War IV). The issue of "freedom of speech" was never fully resolved in the West itself, and it has been lingering for a long time.
    In fact, before we deal with "freedom of speech", it is worth reminding all of us that nothing of what Islamists are doing today is new. For example, anybody who is shocked by what ISIS and the Taliban are doing has not studied the history of what the Catholics did in Latin America; and in the 15th century the King of Castilla burned so many Muslims that the fire could be seen from far away. And anybody shocked by the sectarian killings of Sunnis and Shiites has forgotten the religious wars that killed millions in Europe until the peace of Westphalia. During World War II the Ustasha in Croatia tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Bosnians and Jews (the rare occurrence in which Christians, Muslims and Jews were victims of the same massacre). And anybody shocked by the religious persecution of Jews and Christians in the Middle East conveniently omits mentioning that the most scientific religious cleansing of recent times happened in Europe (Europeans used gas chambers not beheadings).

    The shock is only justified because in large regions of the Islamic world these things are "still" happening today, not because they never happened anywhere else. But anybody who thinks that armed Islamists are "the" problem of our age should not forget that Islamists have existed for centuries and were relatively irrelevant until someone decided to fund, train and arm them; and that was the Reagan government of the USA in collaboration with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That's when the Islamists became an international army.
    The Paris attacks are actually related to something that has never been fully died out elsewhere. The terrorist attacks in Paris have reawakened a discussion (in the West itself, and of course in the rest of the world too) that had been started by the atheists of the French Enlightenment, whose pupils later executed priests during the French revolution. Those atheists pretty much won the battle: whether capitalist or communist, the nations of the world (except for a few theocracies) eventually agreed that religion should not interfere with the state. Paris was the place where this idea was born, and therefore it is symbolic that these terrorist attacks took place in Paris against people who were making fun of religion.
    The outcome of these terrorist attacks has rewarded the terrorists way beyond their wildest dreams because it has restarted a debate within the West itself (as well as withing communist China, multireligious India, Catholic Latin America, semidictatorial Russia, etc) about freedom of speech when it "offends" a religious community. For decades Western comedians have been making fun of politicians, celebrities, intellectuals and even national heroes without generating a national debate on whether they should be allowed to "offend" these people. Outside the West the freedom of comedians was limited when it came to politics, not to religion.
    What is impressive in the reaction to the Paris attacks is not the show of solidarity but the opposite: the number of influential people from all quarters who spoke up against the cartoons, starting with the Pope and China's Communist Party. Days after prime ministers and presidents had marched in Paris to defend freedom of speech (including the prime minister of Israel and the president of Palestine), Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov organized a march of the same size to oppose it. Bill Donohoe, head of the American Catholic League wrote: "Those who work at this newspaper have a long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning of public figures, and this is especially true of their depictions of religious figures". Secular intellectuals wrote articles in which they distanced themselves from Charlie Hebdo's cartoons (see later). The president of the USA, Barack Obama, sent more government representatives to the funeral of a dangerous thug in Ferguson (a Missouri town where this thug was killed after robbing a store and trying to assault a cop) than to Paris' march. "You let the world down" was the headline in the front page of the New York Daily News; but maybe Obama was reading the mood of millions of people in the West who are having doubts about freedom of speech.
    These terrorists managed to reopen that debate: should we be allowed to make fun of religious beliefs, knowing that it will offend religious people? Should there be a limit to which jokes can be made when it comes to religion? or should there be absolute freedom of speech?
    1. Pro: It was not only about some cartoons. First of all, the people who are having a discussion about the rights of satirical cartoonists forget that Charlie Habdo was not the only target of the terrorist attacks: four people were also killed at a kosher supermarket. These four victims had not drawn any "insulting" cartoon. What offended the terrorists was a religious fact, but of a different kind: the victims were Jews.
      It is a bit disturbing how many in Europe started discussing whether inflamatory cartoons are a good or a bad idea without the slightest consideration for the fact that in the same episode Jews were killed for being Jews, not for having drawn inflamatory cartoons. The cartoons were obviously just an excuse, a pretext that might get some sympathy around the Islamic world and perhaps among pious people of all religions; but they were just a pretext for trasporting the murderous logic of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al Shahab and the Taliban into Europe. First they start by killing those who offend their "prophet". Next they kill the customers of a kosher market because they are Jews. Next they will kill schoolchildren because education is bad for children. Next they will kill anybody who is not a Muslim. Next they will kill you, whether you are a Muslim or not. Here is an educational quote, for those who forgot history: "First they came for the Communists, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Communist - Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up, because I wasn't a Jew - Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up, because I was a Protestant - Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me" (Reverend Martin Niemoller, 1945)
    2. Pro: Violence should not decide what is insulting. The point is not to judge whether a satirical cartoon is funny or offensive, but to avoid that terrorists end up defining what is funny and what is offensive by threatening death. Either 1. we abolish humor altogether, and nobody is allowed to make fun of anything anymore, or 2. we allow anybody to make any jokes, or 3. someone has to be in charge of deciding which jokes are allowed and which jokes are forbidden. People who think that "insulting" jokes are not appropriate don't really have an answer to the question of who should decide which jokes are "insulting" and which are not. In the end, the most violent people would win: because in our age Muslims tend to be more irritable than others, and some Muslims even kill, then jokes against Islam will be off-limit; Buddhist are not so touchy and don't kill, therefore jokes about Buddha will be no big deal. Such a rule would only encourage more groups to become violent. The final arbiters on free speech will be the groups that are more likely to set cities on fire. We will end up rewarding the groups that are more likely to kill instead of rewarding the groups that are more likely to be peaceful; and we will end up rewarding the groups whose life is more centered around ancient superstitions instead of rewarding the groups whose life is more centered around science, technology, art, music, ...
      Why is it that the only thing that seems to matter is what offends Muslims and not what offends the other 7 billion people of this planet? The answer of course is very simple: you don't get blown up if you offend a Buddhist or an Elvis Presley fan or a nuclear physicist. The reason that millions of people read books about Islam (even if they don't believe in it) instead of studying Cosmology is that cosmologist don't go around blowing up train stations, turning school girls into sex slaves, executing cartoonists, and crashing airplanes into skyscrapers. The reason why we are having a worldwide discussion about one of the most ridiculous superstitions in the history of humankind (to depict or not to depict a man who lived in the 7th century) is that people get killed because of that superstition. We are not having a worldwide discussion on the superstition that black cats bring bad luck (something that my mother strongly believed) because there aren't hundreds of suicide bombers in five continents ready to avenge black cats.
    3. Pro: Where does it stop? If the free world promises that we will never depict Mohammed again, are we sure that there won't be something else? History shows that appeasement rarely works: it generally encourages the arrogants to get even more arrogant. This very story about drawing Mohammed's face is actually proof of it: pictures of Mohammed were widespread in the Islamic world until a few centuries ago, and many books published in the West about Islam had one drawing or more of Mohammed, and sometimes in the very first page. It seems natural enough. Ancient depictions of Mohammed by Muslim artists living in Muslim countries can be seen in several museums (even in Istanbul). It is only in recent times that depicting Mohammed has become such a grave offence. In other words, the 20th century has not witnessed a trend towards a more relaxed Islam, but instead a trend in the opposite direction: more and more radicalized Islam demanding more and more from the non-Muslim world. My guess is that after promising not to depict Mohammed, and not to burn the Quran, there will be something else that offends the Islamic world. Precisely by giving in on this point we would encourage the radicals, as well as the Muslim public opinion at large, to feel that their religion is entitled to more (not fewer) privileges. If Muslims get offended by a depiction of Mohammed, i am sure that they get offended by a book that puts Mohammed in hell: shall we destroy all copies of Dante's Divine Comedy because they offend Muslims? Will Muslims be offended if people drink alcohol? if people eat pork? if banks demand interests on loans? if people practice homosexuality? if women walk outside without wearing a headscarf? These are all explicitly anathema in the Quran. We may end up with a Muslim population that gets offended if you are not a Muslim. Everybody will have to convert to Islam in order to avoid offending the Islamic world. And then, even in a 100% Muslim world, there will be Muslims who will be offended by some moderate forms of Islam. And then we may end up living in a world in which not only everybody is forced to be a Muslim, but Osama bin Laden will be remembered as a moderate and a wimp.
      But this scenario can never occur because the privilege of feeling insulted cannot be granted only to Islam. If the Islamic world is entitled to be offended, so is any other religion, and perhaps any other ideology, and perhaps any Meetup group. We may soon see Buddhist and Christian suicide bombers demanding that similar laws be passed against offending this or that aspect of their religions. All religions (if not all ideologies, opinions, schools of thought, music fans, soccer fans, etc) can argue that anything unlike their faith is offensive to them.
      In my opinion, religious censorship inevitably leads to religious wars.
      Pope Francis I himself is in trouble, because he said: "One cannot make war or kill in the name of one's own religion". But isn't that precisely what Mohammed, the founder of Islam, did? Isn't that precisely why Islam exists? We wouldn't even know his name if he had not waged and won that war, and his followers had not waged and won a series of successive wars that conquered half of the Christian world, the whole of the Zoroastrian world and half of the Hindu world. Anybody who thinks that religious wars are bad offends anybody who worships Mohammed as a role model.
    4. Con: Freedom of speech is a double standard. The other side can easily counter that any argument in favor of freedom of speech is flawed because freedom of speech... doesn't exist. No country and no society grants complete freedom of speech to its citizens. In the USA you cannot use the word "nigger". We avoid that word even when there are no black people around. Antisemitism is illegal in some European countries. You can be arrested for "offending" Jews. Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" is de facto banned in several European countries. In 1972 France made racial or religious hatred a crime (although somehow hatred against atheism is not as well protected, otherwise the Pope and many Islamic clerics would be frequently sued) and it outlawed Holocaust denial in 1990. France arrested comedian Dieudonne Mbala Mbala for justifying the Charlie Hebdo killings: obviously freedom of speech does not extend to defending those who oppose freedom of speech. Child pornography is illegal virtually everywhere, and in countries like the USA even a 17-year-old sexually-active girl is considered a "child".
      Barack Obama did not attend the rally in Paris in support of free speech and the free press, but days earlier he had spoken publicly on television in favor of free speech and free press for a dubious case against North Korean hackers who asked that a movie mocking their country's leader Kim Jong Un be withdrawn from movie theaters. As convoluted as that story sounds, basically Obama was defending the right of Sony to insult the leader of North Korea while omitting to fully defend the right of Charlie Hebdo to insult the founder of Islam because it offends millions of Muslims. What if millions of North Koreans got offended by that Sony movie?
      One could argue that the word "nigger" evokes racial lynching in the southern states of the USA, and antisemitism evokes Hitler's concentration camps, and child pornography usually caters to men likely to become sexual offenders; but someone else could then retort that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons evoke the Crusades and the Sony movie evokes the Korean civil war, both events that killed millions. So it is not really clear why some "speech" is free and some is not.
      In fact, most media in the USA have not shown the cover of Charlie Hebdo even when they were reporting live from Paris about it (describing it only in words) or when having a studio debate about it. I watched Fox News, which is supposed to be "anti-Islamic" for about one hour during a special on Charlie Hebdo: they never showed a single cartoon of Mohammed on the screen. At one point one of them was holding a copy of Charlie Hebdo, but folded, so that the viewers could not see the cartoon in the front page.

      These are all signs that "freedom of speech" is not such a clearcut concept as the West claims. Sometimes it is ok to insult, and sometimes it is not, and each country seems to have a slightly different interpretation of what should be free and what should not.
      The other double standard is about what constitutes the bigger crime. In the same week that terrorists attacked cartoonists and Jews in Paris, Boko Haram killed 2,000 people in Nigeria; Islamic militias in Libya captured 21 Egyptian Christians; and survivors held a memorial for the 150 people (mostly children) killed by the Taliban at a school in Pakistan. Nobody staged a million-people march for these victims of the same ideology.
    5. Pro: It is not only about freedom of speech, it is about all the values of the Western world Those who blame the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist for provoking Islam are indirectly assuming that, had there been no cartoons, there would have been no terrorist attacks; that, instead of going on a rampage against cartoonists, Jews and cops, those same terrorists would have perhaps gone to a library and read a book on Quantum Mechanics. Wishful thinking. The terrorists would have simply picked a different target, possibly an elementary school, a Jewish center, a shopping mall, an amusement park, the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre, random women not wearing a headscarf ... These are all valid targets for fanatics who believe that you should only read the Quran and pray Allah. These killers picked a satirical magazine not because it was the gravest offence against Islam but because it was the easiest to avenge. If the magazine had been protected the way a Jewish center is protected, these killers would have picked some other "soft" target. Had they not been caught and killed, these killers would be planning the next attack right now, and the next one would have been bigger, because that is the logic of fanatics: if you succeed in beheading one person, then behead 100; if you succeed in kidnapping one child, then kidnap 100; if you succeed in raping one girl, then rape 100; if you succeed in expelling one non-Muslim, then expel thousands. It is wishful thinking that these killers would have stopped after executing the cartoonists. This successful massacre would have encouraged them to kill more, not less. In fact, those cartoonists indirectly saved the lives of others. Someone else (possibly elementary schoolchildren) would have been the target of these killers if Charlie Hebdo had not been such an obvious target.
    6. Pro: Who provokes whom? For rational people it is debatable who is doing the provocation: is the cartoonist provoking the anger of religious people, or is the intolerance of religious people provoking the cartoonist? Why is the cartoonist picking on Mohammed instead of, say, Hitler (to name someone who deserves much worse treatment)? Because very few people go around claiming that Hitler has some special rights. When Muslims insist that Mohammed has some special rights, they attract the ire and the irony of those who don't think so (and who normally would not think of Mohammed in any form or fashion). The more you insist that Mohammed is somehow special, the more you provoke reactions in those who don't think so.
      Why did i feel that i had to write an article diminishing the musical importance of the Beatles and i didn't feel like writing a similar article for much less skilled musicians? Because nobody goes around claiming that those unskilled musicians were the greatest musicians ever, whereas many fanatics claim that the Beatles were the greatest musicians ever. I am not the one provoking. I have better things to do in life than discuss the Beatles or Mohammed. I am the one who is provoked into clarifying that no, it is not obvious at all that the Beatles were the greatest musicians ever, and no, it is not obvious at all that Mohammed was a prophet. If i were a cartoonist, instead of writing these articles, i would make cartoons. Hence, from the point of view of rational objective observers, the provocation comes from the "fans", from those who believe that a best-selling band like the Beatles were great musicians and from those who believe that a conquering warrior like Mohammed was a prophet.
      The more the "fan" insists in upholding that belief as sacred, the stronger the provocation against those who don't. The provocation comes from the crowds that riot in the streets when someone depicts Mohammed or when someone burns a copy of the Quran. Then, yes, unfortunately, we tend to react and over-react. We are not provoking, we have been provoked.
      Those who argue that the cartoonists wanted it (the killings) on themselves are not applying the same logic to Islam: Islam wanted it (our sarcasm) on itself.
      Muslim scholars, especially on television shows, repeat ad nauseam that "Islam means peace". The more the scholars tell us that Islam is a peaceful religion the more violence we witness that is carried out in the name of Islam. "Islam means peace" is rapidly becoming a joke. Islam itself is becoming a joke, so blind that it can't see what everybody else sees. Islam becomes a self-parody, basically... a cartoon. It is not us who are Charlie Hebdo: Islam itself is Charlie Hebdo.
      The Economist (see this article) published a diagram that summarizes a poll by the Pew Research Institute: they asked Europeans in various countries to guess how many Muslims currently live in their countries and then compared the answers with the actual number. In every single country the people who live there way overestimated their Muslim population.

      Some will take this as an indication that Europeans are paranoid about Islam, but another reason should be apparent: some Muslims are much more vocal about their religion, their customs, their beliefs and, yes, their intolerance than any other group. Europeans are constantly bombarded with discussions about mosques, minarets, headscarves, Qurans, etc. Why are cartoonists obsessed with Islam and not with Buddhism or Hinduism? Because Buddhists don't make a big deal of their religion or its founder, and ditto for Hinduists. They live and let others live. Muslim activitists "provoke": not only do they hold wildly irrational beliefs but are also very vocal about them. Cartoonists react to this provocation. Maybe the reaction is childish and irresponsible, but i disagree when the reaction is presented as the provocation. Stop bombarding the non-Muslim world with lectures about what is proper and improper in Islam, and the world will gladly start talking about (and making fun of) something else.
      "Religious wars are basically people killing each other over who has the better imaginary friend" (Napoleon)
    7. Pro: The victims of blasphemy are actually their beneficiaries. The simplest reason to oppose censorship of any kind (unless it is blatantly false propaganda, like saying that Berlin is in China or that the Holocaust never happened) is that it can backfire against the very people whose feelings you want to protect today. Not long ago anything Islamic was outlawed in the Catholic countries, just like today many books deemed "blasphemous" are outlawed in many Islamic countries.

      Once you decide that we are entitled to block anything that offends the masses, we have opened the floodgates: any special-interest group, any celebrity and any politician will have the power to influence what gets censored. In particular, hardcore Christian fundamentalists might succeed in censoring anything that is not Christian, just like it was when the Inquisition ruled over Europe and Latin America.
      I suspect that my grandmother would have been greatly offended by the notion that Muslims opened a mosque in Rome. If the Muslim community is entitled to decide what is offensive, can old-fashioned Catholics also do that? The freedom of expression that Muslims enjoy in the Christian world comes from the same principle that allows cartoonists to make fun of their religion. Remove the latter and you might end up removing the former too.
      This is not such a far-fetched prospect: Dutch politician Geert Wilders has been vocal about banning the Quran, and his party just won a record number of votes.
      It is telling that two major countries criticized the cartoonists: Russia and China. Those happen to be two regimes that don't like to be mocked by cartoonists. If you think that the press should not offend religion, you are in the company of regimes that think that the press should not offend dictatorships either.
      Censorship can even hurt these very pro-censorship regimes. China's reaction to the Paris attacks was interesting because the Chinese press emphasized the double standard of a West that is outraged by the assassination of 17 people in Paris but not by the assassination of Kunming train commuters by Uighur terrorists that occurred a few months earlier. In other words, the accusation is that we only care for our victims of terrorism and not for Chinese victims of terrorism. What the Chinese forgot to mention is that censorship is so tight in China that we never got to fully understand what happened. In fact, we heard about those attacks not from live television or social media but only when the Chinese government decided to disclose the news. The reason why we didn't care is that China made it difficult for us to care, a consequence of curtailing free speech: both Twitter and Facebook are banned in China, and the Chinese equivalent of those social media is tightly controlled, and the Chinese press sometimes delays news of terrorist attacks and often provides only very superficial coverage. People like me would have loved to write extensively about those incidents, except that to this day we know very little about what happened, we are allowed to contact neither witnesses nor officials, etc. That is what censorship does: the less i know about you, the less i care. The day you would like the world to care about your tragedy you may find that nobody cares because your country censored everything that would have helped us care.
      If the principle of "It is offending my religious beliefs" had been upheld in Christian Europe, no Muslim would be living there, no mosque would exist in Europe, and no Muslim would be allowed to say that Mohammed is a prophet on the soil of Europe. The reason why Muslims are allowed to live there, pray there and even preach there is... freedom of speech. When a magazine like Charlie Hebdo makes fun of Mohammed, it indirectly defends the right of Islam to exist in Europe: one's right to make jokes is someone else's right to live and pray.
    8. Pro: Suppressing humor doubles the animosity. A person in an African country (that has relatively few Muslims and never had a terrorist attack) once said to me "Mohammed is the most hated person of all times in the whole world". I haven't done the poll, but i wouldn't be too surprised if this statement turned out to be true. He probably ranks in the top 10. I suspect that this has a lot more to do with the prohibition to make fun of him than with all the terrorist attacks combined. Let people make fun of him the way we can make fun of Jesus and Buddha, and Mohammed will become a more humane and less terrifying figure. If it didn't look so hostile, his god Allah, one of many who have come and gone on this planet, would inspire philosophers instead of inspiring terrorists.
      Humor is not only a natural defense against exaggerating the value of a religious symbol: it is also a way to make that religious symbol more likeable to those who belong to other religions.
      I don't think people dislike, say, Julius Caesar the way people dislike Mohammed, despite the fact that Julius Caesar is responsible for much bigger violence against innocent civilians. A French comic book, Asterix, greatly helped "humanize" Julius Caesar by routinely abusing him verbally.
    9. Pro: We shouldn't encourage superstition, we should encourage education. There is a lot of satire that i don't like. And there is a lot more of serious talk that i don't like, coming from both politicians and celebrities. We have the freedom to choose whom to listen to and whom to believe. We can choose. But the principle behind the "Don't offend religion" policy is precisely that you shouldn't be able to choose, that you should accept it. If i say that Berlin is a Chinese city and you don't say anything against this statement, then indirectly you accept it and you allow more and more people to be fooled into believing that Berlin is a Chinese city. If you don't denounce it as false, then you are tacitly promoting it as true.
      Ultimately, "don't offend us" really means "convert to our religion".
      Michael Lerner wrote an article in which he discusses the hypocrisy of the West. His main argument is that offending a religion is indeed a grave deed.
      The problem is that it offends me (and it should offend everybody, Muslims and non-Muslims) that someone would call Mohammed "a prophet", or, for that matter, that someone would believe that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago or that Jesus was the son of a god. It offends me that someone would want me to "respect" these incredibly silly legends. What next? The Earth is flat? The Pope is infallible? Berlin is located in China?
      We have to decide what is more important: education or superstition?
      Lerner inveighs against "a world which systematically dehumanizes so many people".
      To me the most "dehumanizing" act is brainwashing the masses into believing in a god. What is dehumanizing to me is seeing hundreds of people on their knees in a mosque, bending synchronously towards Mecca and reciting lines of the Quran; or, for that matter, seeing people dressed in black hit their heads against a wall in Jerusalem. I don't feel that they are very "humane". They are behaving like robots. And i am terrified by what these robots might be programmed to do.
      Robots can do just about everything that humans can do, and probably even more. But it will take a while to build a robot that can make fun of its world. From my point of view, humor is one of the few things that is truly unique to humans.
      Lerner also writes: "That they ridicule everyone is exactly the problem - the general cheapening and demeaning of others is destructive to everyone... Our highest value is treating human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect and see them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred".
      He has a point, but at the same time satirists expose superstitions and help convince people that they should get an education instead. Satirists often tell the truth that we don't want to admit, or that we are forbidden from saying in public. Satirists defang powerful people, powerful politicians, powerful ideologies, leveling the field for those of us who have neither army nor money nor militias.
      Lerner thinks that making fun of a religion is an insult to the millions of people who believe in it. I think that the insult (the "dehumanizing" act) is the religion that lies every single day to millions of people. I don't find it offensive at all to say that Berlin is in Germany and not in China, the same way i don't find it insulting at all to tell Muslims that Mohamed was not a prophet but a warrior (and to tell Christians that Jesus was not the son of a god and a virgin). I am not insulting, i am just stating the facts. If millions of people believe that Berlin is located in China, then allow me to make fun of it because it does sound really funny. Ditto for the notion that Mohammed was a prophet. Ditto for the notion that Jesus was the son of a god and a virgin. Lerner lives in a world in which truth is less important than faith. I live in the world created by Descartes, Galileo and Newton. The "human" to me is the scientific quest for truth, the intellectual yearning for more knowledge, etc. For him the "human" lies in the religious function celebrated by the community.
      I presume that Lerner would make fun of a dictator who brainwashed his people to believe some incredible conspiracy theory against his country. But isn't that precisely what your favorite religious books do? How can i not smile when i read that Yahweh created Adam and Eve about 6,000 years ago? What am i allowed to laugh at if not at the wild exaggerations of religious books?
      (Lerner obviously wasn't born or didn't live in the West because he writes: "There wasn't an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam" when in fact i witnessed years and years of protests and books and tv shows and films on these issues).
      For the record, there is nothing in the Quran that talks against depicting Mohammed, and, surprise, there is nothing in the Quran that makes Mohammed more important than the other Islamic "prophets" (like Abraham, Moses and Jesus). Mohammed was only a "messenger" of God/Allah, just like all the previous "prophets" (Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses, Jesus...) Allah is obviously at a higher level, a much higher level. Ironically, this kind of Islam gets extremely offended if i depict Mohammed but does not get offended if i (an atheist) proclaim that Allah does not exist. Go figure... Last but not least, the Quran does not specify the punishment for blasphemy, apostasy, adultery, homosexuality, etc.
      Sorry, but when i focus on all of this, i cannot help rolling my eyes and thinking "All this big mess because of somebody who lived in the 7th century and some ridiculous superstition about him?" Don't we have anything more important to discuss on this planet? Do we really still need to talk about prophets and holy books in 2015? What next, a discussion on which dance around the fire is best to propitiate rain?
      "First of all, there are no great religions; they're all stupid and dangerous" (Bill Maher)
    10. Pro: Humor reminds humans that we are not infallible Humor has another crucial function, and that function is probably the very reason that religions fear satire. Humor makes sure that heroes don't get deified. My heroes are not the "prophets" of the Bible and the Quran, but people like Shakespeare, Beethoven and Einstein. Precisely because we make fun of them (as a student, i would come up with pretty stinging satires of them) it is unlikely that they will ever become gods or prophets or anything more than what they were: great minds. And precisely because satirists make fun of them i am fully aware that some day these heroes of mine might be lost, that some day Shakespeare may sound boring, that Beethoven may be forgotten, and that Einstein may be proven wrong. It is irony that provides the necessary balance to any tendency to create the cult of personality which might turn into a religion. I wonder if Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha truly wanted to create a religion, or if their followers, by forbidding any criticism and satire of them, created it against their own will.
      Satire is a controller of sorts: it makes sure we will never create another false religion that will brainwash millions of people and will cause bloody religious wars.
      The same is true of politics. Thanks to satirists we demystify politics and we don't take our politicians too seriously. Mussolini and Hitler would be impossible in a world full of satirical magazines. That is precisely why satirical magazines are the first to be banned by would-be dictators: you can counter the opinion of a polical scientist or an economist, but a satirical joke may stick for life, especially if there is some truth to it. Even the people who vote for you will never get as fanatical as they could: look at the difference between Mussolini and Berlusconi. Nobody feared a world invasion by Berlusconi, who was more famous for his wild parties with underage girls than for his policies. I remember when West and East Germany got united and the older generation in my country was afraid of this new powerful Germany (my father was an Auschwitz prisoner of war and one of my uncles a partisan), but my generation knew German chancellor Kohl mainly because of cartoons about his voracious appetite: at worst we were afraid that the new mighty Germany would raid our cheese stores.
      During the war against Saddam Hussein, i was defending Condoleezza Rice, a smart woman with a smart idea (quote: "we pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East - and we achieved neither"), but a friend was warning me that she was more dangerous than Saddam Hussein because she had no sense of humor. In retrospect, he was right. If you don't have a sense of humor, it is terribly difficult to admit that you were wrong, and your blunder will simply get bigger and worse and more dangerous for everybody.
    11. Pro: Set the example: teach love, not hatred A friend of mine wrote on her Facebook page: "Love calls for love. Hatred calls for hatred. Why is this so hard to understand? Maybe, next time, we can start with silent marches and prayers for universal peace rather than with insulting drawings pretending to defend freedom of expression."
      My response is simple, and allow me to use some irony. I am sure you are aware that this can be interpreted by those of us who support the satirical press as "curtailing freedom of expression while pretending to love", an old strategy used by pretty much every dictator in history; and it may sound to us like the worst form of hatred, used for centuries by very pious Catholic priests to justify Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunts, etc.
      How about showing (real) love by tolerating that others may NOT find those drawings "insulting" but actually a useful (and peaceful) way to weaken the superstitions that fuel Boko Haram, Al Shahab, Al Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS, etc?
      Of course we may be awfully wrong. We do admit that we may be wrong, unlike those who are 100% sure that their god exists and that depicting their prophet is an insult. And you can try a different strategy and send them postcards that say "We love you" whenever they kidnap hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria or whenever they blow up hundreds of pupils in Pakistan or whenever they exterminate the Yazidi in Iraq. Let us know if it works better :-)
      We, the children of Aristophanes, Rabelais, Cervantes, Moliere, Swift, Voltaire, Twain, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, GB Shaw, Jarry, Dada, Marx Brothers, Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Zappa, Woody Allen, George Carlin, Monty Python, Dario Fo, Jacques Tati, Bill Maher, Roberto Benigni and Charlie Hebdo, are more than willing to change our minds whenever proven wrong. We do it all the time, because we don't believe in absolute truths, and that comes from having a sense of humor.
      I'll let you do the statistic of how many Charlie Hebdo readers became suicide bombers after rolling on the floor launghing versus how many religious people became suicide bombers after reading their scriptures without a sense of humor.
    12. Pro: The economic damage caused by a lack of sense of humor. This may sound idiotic, but, having traveled all over the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia, i think that a sense of humor would greatly benefit the economy of that part of the world. The reason is simple: life is so boring in many (most) Islamic countries that young people simply want to get out, and, typically, move to a Western country, where life is more fun.
      One reason that makes life so boring for young people in the Islamic world is precisely the very low sense of humor. There is an infinite number of subjects and behaviors that are off-limit. I actually admire the way these societies have maintained strong family values and social values in general (when they don't become oppressive for women or minorities) but there is too much of it. In the evening you sit at the cafe with all the other men of the town (and in some places even with some women) and you can't help noticing that almost nobody is laughing. You walk past a mosque after prayer and you see thousands of men and women coming out with the face of someone who is very unhappy, not with the face of someone who is happy. Just about everything is censored: literature, music, art, cinema... Even the poet Dante is banned in the Islamic world (he put Mohammed in hell). Most rock music is considered evil. Ditto for most contemporary art. There is a lucrative business of smuggling videos and compact discs that are de facto banned in the country. This is not what creates an attractive atmosphere for a young person, especially a brilliant young person.
      No surprise then that so many young Muslims dream of leaving their countries, especially the educated ones (who sometimes have to lie about what they studied in school because a fanatical Muslim next door would object to the content, whether it is Darwin or Einstein, and instead direct the intelligent young person to memorizing the Quran).
      Non-Muslims, who don't feel welcome and are not particularly crazy about hearing the muezzin shout the adhan every morning at 5am from the minaret, have been leaving the Islamic world for decades. But increasingly it is also the Muslim youth that is dreaming of living outside the Islamic world. The brain drain is a huge cost for societies that already have relatively few engineers and scientists (not to mention writers, artists and, yes, cartoonists).
      What has happened in large parts of the world is that Muslims have steadily expelled non-Muslims. I don't mean that Muslims went on a rampage to kill thousands of non-Muslims. It takes a lot less. For example, a minaret that wakes up everybody at 5am with a loud call to Allah is enough to send most of us packing. France is losing 15,000 Jews per year to Israel because Jews feel intimidated by the rising anti-Jewish sentiment of both the Muslim population of France (five millions) and of the right-wing party. In the long run it is easy to project that the more Muslims settle in France the more Muslims will want to settle in France, and the more non-Muslims will leave France. Non-Muslims have left Morocco, Lebanon, Iran and many other Islamic countries not so much because of persecution but because life there was just not fun.
      As a scientist and an intellectual, i am much more likely to go and work in a country like China where people don't make a big deal of religious superstitions than in a country dotted with mosques, in a country that wakes up everybody at dawn to pray, in a country where people get killed for behaviors considered "offensive" to their religion. It just doesn't sound like a fun place to live, work, study, create, invent, etc.
      Dear Muslim brothers: China is building skyscrapers and subways, and India is building campuses for software engineers, while your country is busy complaining about someone's cartoons. I doubt that this might be the right strategy to reverse five centuries of decline.
    13. Pro: Live and let live. Increasingly, the right-wing nationalist parties in Europe are winning votes thanks to a simple argument: why do we all need to agree on something? France is a country whose constitution clearly states what is free and what is not. If you (whether blue-eyed or dark-skinned) don't agree with that constitution, why do you live there? Ditto for the USA. Ditto for all other countries. The question is not "why can't we show respect for a religion" but "why do people want to live here and change the rules established by those who live here"? Some countries decided a long time ago that it is ok to "insult" religion. If you don't like it, just live somewhere else. If i don't like the lifestyle of Italy, i simply won't live there. Why can't Germans or Russians live the way they want to live? Why would someone want to move to those countries and change their system? If you think that Mohammed was a prophet, and you don't go around killing people based on that belief, it is fine with me. But why do you want to come to my house and forbid me from thinking that this notion is absolutely ridiculous?
      If you are happy to live in a place where it is mandatory to show respect to this person Mohammed, i don't care. When i visit your country, i will adapt, just like i take my shoes off when i enter a Hindu temple (even if i think that is unhygienic). You are free to say that my country insults your "prophet" (true, we don't think that he was a prophet at all), just like i am free to point out that your country insults my favorite poets (Dante's "Divine Comedy" is banned in the Islamic world) and scientists (Darwin is not taught in most Islamic schools). I don't come to your country to force you to adopt my beliefs. It is YOUR problem if you don't want to study Dante and Voltaire, if you don't want to believe in Darwin and Einstein. Why do you have to come to my country to force me to adopt your beliefs, for example that i have to show respect for Mohammed? I will show respect for your values when i am in your country, and you should show respect for our values when you are in our country.
      I can give you advice on how to improve your country. I welcome your advice on how to improve my country.
      Ultimately, it is "their" choice if they want to stick to these ancient superstitions. The Islamic world used to be the vanguard of science, literature and philosophy when Islam was not a big deal and depicting Mohammed was not a crime (and anybody could travel to Mecca, regardless of religious beliefs). The Arab world was still second in the world, after the West, at the end of World War II, not that long ago: China was starving, India was starving, Latin America was starving, most of East Asia was destroyed, Eastern Europe was crumbling under communism. In just 70 years the Arab world has been passed by everybody: East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore) competes with the West and often wins, China has a booming economy, India has a booming economy, Latin America has a booming economy, and even sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than the Islamic world.
      And the decline is not only economic: the Islamic world has been surpassed by most regions of the world in science, literature, education and many social indicators. If the Muslim population is happy to be left behind, if the Muslim population is happy to argue about the right to depict their "prophet" instead of the latest technology and of the latest scientific theory, so be it: enjoy your world.
      There was a time when invading an Islamic country was a valuable proposition: smart businessmen, high technology, brilliant scientists, great intellectuals, and, last but not least, lots of fun in those legendary cities. Well, those who put Mohammed and the Quran before anything else have solved that problem: for sure nobody wants to annex those countries anymore.
    14. Con: And still... I grew up in Italy and for many years i viewed the Muslims of northern Africa as poorer cousins of ours. The fact that they worshipped a different god than the god worshipped in Rome was a minor detail. Relatives and friends visited Morocco, Egypt, etc, and never came back talking about Islam. That was not an issue. They came back talking about good food, great beaches, great architecture and, lo and behold, great people. When the Palestinians hijacked airplanes and bombed the Munich games, it was about land, not about religion. When illegal immigrants started "invading" Italy, it was about jobs, not religion. Were cartoonists drawing caricatures of Mohammed? No, of course: nobody cared about Islam. They were drawing caricaturs of the Pope, of Italian politicians, of US presidents, etc. Those were the "oppressors" and therefore the natural targets of popular satire. When i visited Israel, i purchased a t-shirt that says "Free Palestine" and still wear it occasionally. It has nothing to do with the religion, just with fellow human beings who are kept in a prison and treated like animals.
      And to this day i am opposed to the "Go back home" policy of the right-wing European groups who want to get rid of Islam in Europe: i believe, instead, that Islam (just like Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, existentialism, surrealism, Marxism, Quantum Mechanics, Genetics, Rock music, etc) makes a society richer, not poorer, even if i personally think that all of these religions contain many ridiculous superstitions (like the prohibition to depict Mohammed). The people, however, are more than their religious beliefs: people's brain contain more than the sentence "Mohammed was a prophet". We dehumanize people when we reduce them to their religious belief. People are worth a lot more.
      I wouldn't want a world in which everybody thinks what i think. I am not even sure i would want a world in which everybody is an atheist like me.
    15. Con: Secularism and Shariha By "secularism" i mean the secular equivalent of "Islamism" (and religious "fundamentalism" in general), namely the idea that religion has absolutely no role to play, and is, in fact, to be banned from the state. Religious people can correctly point out that "secularism" is even more intolerant than Shariha. Islamic law is self-limited in scope because it addresses Muslims and leaves non-Muslims free to rule themselves according to their own morals. Secularism, on the other hand, wants to impose a strictly secular view of the world on everybody. There is a difference between saying that one believes in science and saying that science is the "only" way to acquire knowledge and guidance. While "secularism" may sound appealing to atheists like me who view religion as the main problem afflicting regions of the world such as the Islamic world, there are at least two problems with it.
      The first problem is that it is simply false: the assertion that religion is always bad and only bad does not hold water. If we blame an entire religion for the atrocities committed by some people in its name, we also have to credit that religion for the good deeds carried out by many people in its name. There are millions of Muslims living a honest, responsible and altruistic life right now. If they do so in the name of their religion, it would be unfair not to count that the way we count the atrocities committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, etc in the name of the same religion.
      The second problem is more general and it might even be more serious. One could define as "religion" anything that is not based on empirical evidence and validated by academic scholars, and end up with laws against scientific intuition. "Secularism" could become even worse than Shariha in limiting freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of invention.
  • Articles on France before 2015

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