In this country where we have our own horrific massacres to resolve, and countless murders of journalists that have gone unpunished, killings that continue to this day, it’s not easy to come up with a quick and confident opinion on the horrible murders of journalists in Paris.
I found myself in a quandary, pleading for time to reflect and study, when my son pressed me for my thoughts on the many issues that have risen to the fore as a result of the killings. Is the issue one of freedom of the press or freedom of opinion? Is it freedom of religion? Isn’t there freedom also to criticize religion?
It may be, some analysts say, that in all the talk about clashing civilizations, the basic clash is between fanaticism and tolerance, the open and closed fist. This line cuts across borders and nationalities and through the heart of virtually every religion.
The theologian Harvey Cox, who teaches Comparative Fundamentalism at the Harvard Divinity School, observes: “Every one of the religious traditions is a battleground now with a fringe of fanaticism and xenophobia.
“Every religion has its social justice vision, its ecumenical wing, the wing in which religion inspires compassion and concern for the weak. And then there is the other wing, the poisonous and rancid side of religion, especially when it mixes with nationalism.”
Our Constitution, like the Constitutions of other nations, establishes the freedom of religion, the freedom of any citizen to worship as he or she wishes.
People can believe that the world was created in seven days, that their own race is supreme, that gays are sinners, that their religion offers the only way to heaven, and every non-believer is damned to hell.
A church has the absolute right to uphold its own beliefs and teach them to children.
At the same time, our constitutional order established a shared set of civic beliefs, that includes freedom of opinion and of the press. The bill of rights.
In our constitutional order, citizens are expected to respect each other’s freedom, to practice tolerance. But then comes the question. Should we be tolerant, even of intolerance? Is this a strength of democracy or a weakness.
It is in this light that we uphold the separation of church and state, a core constitutional value.
We live in a world of multiple fundamentalisms. There is a fundamentalism of religion? There is also a fundamentalism about freedom? And finally there is the fundamentalism of culture and nationalism.
The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is agonizing because it cuts through all these issues and fundamentalisms, and challenges us to wrestle with them.
French crackdown on free speech
Among the many issues, one issue which our own policymakers must not fail to study is how France’s policy of appeasement toward radical Islam has failed to contain its horrors.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University, wrote incisively of how France has been leading the Western world in a crackdown on free speech.
“If the French want to memorialize those killed at Charlie Hebdo, they could start by rescinding their laws criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation. These laws have been used to harass the satirical newspaper and threaten its staff for years. Speech has been conditioned on being used “responsibly” in France, suggesting that it is more of a privilege than a right for those who hold controversial views.
“In 2006, after Charlie Hebdo reprinted controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that first appeared in a Danish newspaper, French President Jacques Chirac condemned the publication and warned against such ‘obvious provocations.’ ”
“While France long ago got rid of its blasphemy laws, there is precious little difference for speakers and authors in prosecutions for defamation or hate speech. There may also be little difference perceived by extremists, like those in Paris, who mete out their own justice for speech the government defines as a crime.”
Charlie Hebdo, not the first attack
Another instrucvtive analysis was provided by Dr. Sylvain Charat, chief of staff of a former French finance minister and graduate of Sorbonne university.
She wrote: “Charlie Hebdo often published cartoons that were extremely irreverent and disrespectful, sometimes pornographic, always against religion, and often targeting Islam. Whether one likes the newspaper or the cartoons doesn’t matter. What matters is freedom of speech. The foundation of the Western world: freedom. That is why this terrorist attack goes beyond the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ newspaper. This was a declaration of war against freedom.
“If you can kill an unbeliever, whether American or European – especially the dirty and wicked French people—or an Australian or a Canadian, or a citizen from a country that entered the anti-Islamic State coalition, then ‘trust Allah and kill him in any manner.’ That was the call of Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, spokesman of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The call has been heard and now targets are no longer countries, but citizens and their freedom.
“Charlie Hebdo was not the first time that this call has been answered in France:
Fall 2014: Several terrorist attacks were stopped in France. At the time the news did not go public, but was later confirmed by President Hollande.
December 20, in Joué-lès-Tours, 250 km south of Paris: A man shouting “Allahu Akbar” entered a police station and injured 3 policemen with a knife.
December 22, in Dijon, 200 km East of Paris: A man shouting “Allahu Akbar” threw his car in the crowd, injuring 13 people.
December 22, in Nantes, 250 km West of Paris: A man drove his van into a crowded Christmas market, injuring 10 people and killing one.
January 8, in Montrouge, a suburb of Paris: A policewoman was killed and a city employee was injured by a man heavily armed.
January 9, Dammartin, 80km North of Paris: Hostage taking by the two terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo.
January 9, Paris: Shootings at one of the gates of the city and hostage-taking.
“For many years the French government has tried to hide and minimize the threat from Islamic terrorists.
“The reality is that Islamist terrorists attacking France are technically all French citizens. Yet they obviously don’t believe in freedom. It takes more than a title of ‘citizen’ to be French, a European, an American, a Westerner. It takes more than good feelings and political correctness to convince some people that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly are essential freedoms to mankind.
“Conviction comes from strength and respect. Unfortunately, it does not seem that European democracies are strong enough and respected enough.
“Freedom is what this is all about. Europe is becoming a battlefield and Paris is in the front line.”
Coming closer together
To conclude this brief, I turn to the words of The Telegraph of London, which said: “If the goal of terror is indeed to tear society apart, the correct response is obvious. We must come closer together.
“The West must not sacrifice its liberties in vain panic but remain reasonable, free and strong.”