Taking advantage of the vast window of time between Oxford’s Michaelmas and Hilary terms, I spent much of last winter prowling the third arrondissement of Paris. Every day I would pass the then-headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and scan the grid of their infamous cartoon clippings. Spotting a few caricatures of a certain Messenger Muhammad on this bulletin, I considered the obvious question: Despite France’s long history of protecting blasphemous rags such as Hebdo, might the sequel to the 2006 Jyllands-Posten affair – in which sacrilegious cartoons sparked diplomatic and violent catastrophe in a secular republic – see its premiere in Paris?
One year later I have received my answer. In the early hours of Nov. 2 Charlie Hebdo’s new office in the 20th arrondissement was firebombed. The new issue lampooning sharia had featured a scraggly Muhammad on the cover. No suspects have yet been identified, but the fact that a Turkish hacker, alias “Black Apple,” destroyed Hebdo’s website almost immediately afterward, replacing it with a photo of the Grand Mosque, provides more than a whiff of the religious sentiment behind the arson.
Indeed, everyone from the Ministry of the Interior to the Paris Mosque seems fairly confident that this was an attack by some not-so-friendly neighborhood Muslims. The Ministry defends France’s secular constitution and the right to free expression, which the Mosque grudgingly supports while grumbling over the unfortunate side effects of such freedom. (Strangely enough, the only person who seems unwilling to consider this a forgone conclusion is Hebdo’s own cartoonist, Luz.)
If we entertain this likely explanation, what are we to make of the current state Europe’s theologico-politico tussle? While certain religious types will no doubt continue to disparage, sometimes violently, the free expression afforded by secular government, I have a hunch that sacrilege in Europe isn’t quite what it used to be.
First and foremost, it is clear that the attempt to turn an isolated incident of blasphemy into a diplomatic and economic catastrophe is still on the agenda for certain believers: As I write, the Egyptian Salafist Front is demonstrating outside of the French embassy in Cairo, threatening to sabotage French interests in Egypt in response to the government’s siding with Hebdo and free speech. This includes boycotting any products lacking “respect for Islam." It is anyone’s guess as to exactly which French exports will earn this distinction.
Besides these notoriously cranky Salafis, however, we are seeing nothing like the wave of diplomatic posturing by statesmen from the Islamic world in 2006 after Jyllands-Posten. It seems that as the Arab Spring continues to unfold, the easily-offended are now swept up in much more concretely offensive struggles, be it in post-war Libya, blood-soaked Syria or anxiety-ridden Bahrain. When your own regime is killing fellow citizens (and Muslims) week by week – all the while claiming approval from God in the cases of Libya and the monarchies – a rude scribbling of your Prophet circulating in a European capital is probably not atop your list of grievances.
Meanwhile, Black Apple’s novel move to hack the Hebdo webpage rather than hack away at actual blasphemers (as in the successful attempt on Theo Van Gogh or the unsuccessful attack on Lars Vilks) seems to me an encouraging sign. Without insulting any technophiles here, I would argue that violence inflicted in the digital realm is considerably less urgent than that inflicted on the living; if Black Apple and his cohorts set a trend in that vein, it is at least a step away from the bloody tactics that define their co-religionists at present. Techno-vandalism is still vandalism, but such a turn would be progress of a kind.
In making these stray observations I do not mean to deny that this tension between fundamentalist religion and a secular state that secures the right to free expression is inherently permanent. Still, in reminding us how nasty this struggle is, the Hebdo case forces us to consider how much worse things can get when the state posits blasphemy laws to placate the pious. Fanatics take the law into their own hands much more easily when there is an actual law congenial to their purposes in the first place.
(Those who object to my addressing religious types in general, and not Muslims in particular, must state what attitude they envsion the Lord’s Resistance Army would hold if they ever succeeded in turning Uganda into a Christian-mystic theocracy. Though Islam undeniably takes center stage in this conversation, theocracy’s basic character can swing this state of affairs somewhere new at any moment.)
In a recent report by Human Rights First, several cases were drawn up from states such as Pakistan and Indonesia, whose regimes have criminalized blasphemy in an effort to assume a pious posture. And as it turns out, no one suffers more from the vacuum of secular restraint than the devout communities themselves (and the government doesn’t catch a break, either):
Sometimes mobs target government officials for not being strict enough in their application of blasphemy laws. But the violence is most frequently directed toward religious minority communities where the practice of their religion has been deemed blasphemous or, where simply a misspoken word or alleged desecration of the Koran incites retaliation. Violence goes unpunished and sometimes it is rather the victims of the violence that are prosecuted for their role in protecting themselves, their homes, and their places of worship.
We once again must confront the fact that, however unpleasant these ongoing crises between the state and the godly, giving them the protection from sacrilege they desire would end up sparing neither the government nor fellow believers any trouble. If it matters any, this is a truth that Americans in particular, both religious and freethinking, have perceived since before the founding of our republic. One need not quote Jefferson or Paine: in his address to a Bostonian artillery company in 1773, Harvard preacher Simeon Howard warned that “the destruction of civil liberty is generally fatal to religion. The latter has seldom existed long in any place without the former.” This liberty is precisely what the Muslim hoodlums loudly (and the clergé catholique quietly) proclaim they want to annihilate.
If I am wrong, and the Arab Spring is not placing things into perspective for Muslims worldwide, we may see another dozen Hebdo or Jyllands-Posten affairs in the near future. But that grim reality should not cause those interested in rational and liberal government to waver; the secular state is worth defending only in its complete and self-consistent form. The black hole ripped open by appeasing the religious fanatics is all too obvious, especially to those of us who see blasphemy as a victimless crime in the first place.