"Our Muhammad is really a lot nicer," says Charlie Hebdo's Editor-in-Chief about the cover of the magazine's post-massacre issue, which has now achieved a print run of five-million. And indeed he is. Nicer. He sheds a tear for those killed in his name, and holds a "Je Suis Charlie" sign in the manner of those Instagram shots of people displaying handwritten placards of confession or protest. He is also not proffering his hairy, naked ass to the world or saying, Le Coran, c'est de la merde, as he did on another cover. Above his turbaned head, the caption reads Tout Est Pardonne. All is Forgiven.
That caption is a fascinating thing, for reasons that anyone who has ever had something "lost in translation" will understand. Because it doesn't mean what it seems to mean. It seems to mean, at least to my initial impression, that the Prophet--beneficent soul that he ultimately is--is forgiving Charlie Hebdo for lampooning him and saying, "I can take a joke. Let's be friends." But according to Renald Luzier (known as Luz), the cartoonist who drew him, that's not what's happening. It's Charlie Hebdo that is forgiving Muhammad for the cold-blooded murder of its fallen jesters under his banner, and claiming that "their Muhammad" is nicer. I think I know why that's not going down too well in the Muslim world.
In terms of semiotics, the study of signs and their meaning, Charlie Hebdo has a messaging problem--especially if the message is read from outside the scatological context of French left-wing satire and contrarianism. The impish cartoonists, even with their ranks decimated by the horrifying attack, can't help themselves, because they are that peculiar breed of (sometimes) lovably anti-social animal: the Comic Provocateur. The court fool with his buttocks raised to the king's face or the stand-up comedian who pointedly asks the fat woman in the front row, "How far along are you?" The Comic Provocateur is always perched, his middle finger raised, on the thin ledge between healthy irreverence and outright nastiness. In the current climate, that ledge may be a particularly dangerous place to perch. When giving a sign, we must weigh its meaning to both transmitter and receiver.
From where I sit in Belgium, about fifty miles northwest of where the latest anti-terrorist raid was conducted, things feel very tense. Europe is battening down its hatches. My son's school, located in a wooded area far from Belgium's urban centers, has just issued an emergency security bulletin. Paratroopers have been despatched to synagogues and street corners. People are frightened, whether they have genuine cause to be or not, and that fear is lending an undertone of hysteria to the heartfelt cries of, "Je suis Charlie." There is cognitive dissonance, as well, induced by seeing the power of the State martialled in defense of anarchistic expression--by seeing world leaders whose countries are far from citadels of free expression marching in lockstep down the Champs-Élysées. Nicolas Sarkozy described the attacks as 'a war declared on civilization,' and the French prime minister declared his country 'at war with militant Islam.' At times like this, it's good to question agendas, and, more importantly, to ask: Do we know what just hit us?
I'll make a confession: I both love and distrust the feeling of being swept up in mass sentiment. I loved seeing the passion, the solidarity, the oneness of that show of 1.6 million strong in the streets of Paris. After all, they were both mourning and celebrating fallen soldiers in the war for unfettered satire. And I know that the vast majority of the mourners in no way saw themselves as carrying pitchforks and torches against an already volatile and vulnerable Muslim community in Europe. The vast majority were simply standing up for Charlie. But I distrust the way in which this sentiment can be played by those with less earnest, less liberal agendas--especially the xenophobes among us. Among those for whom freedom is always subordinated to order and liberté to securité and "the Other" is always the cause of our problems. In a way that is excruciatingly difficult to articulate without also being lost in translation, I think some of the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo in recent years pushed buttons that trigger both resentment (on the part of the Muslim diaspora, most of it from nations that were once colonial subjects) and the reactionary impulse (from the State and the European right), and that this was the result of a pretty juvenile comprehension of religion and politics in the 21st century. Little boys light matches, and forests burn.
I don't buy for a minute the charge currently being made by some on the American left and in certain academic circles that Charlie Hebdo was a racist publication. Not as a matter of editorial policy and not with the conscious intent of its cartoonists, who were all lefties of one stripe or another and would surely condemn any pogrom inspired by their deaths. I look at the faces of those murdered jesters and know them as friends from my youth. Jean Cabut aka "Cabu," the boyish seventy year-old with the Harry Potter glasses and the mop of salt and pepper hair, is a ringer for a guy I knew in college who had exactly the same mischievous and occasionally cruel sense of fun. That the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not the kind of virulent Islamophobes we see on Fox News does not, however, absolve them entirely.
In their own French frat house, Looney Tunes Marxist way, they had issued the same taunt that George W. Bush did after 9/11. "Bring It On." And they knew it. That's why "Charb," the slain former editor, had an armed bodyguard. They should not have paid for this with their lives, but the fact that they did is an indication of just how bad things have gotten.
It's important that we try to understand what happened on the morning of January 7. The act was savage, and unforgivable even by a merciful god (sorry, boys, no black-eyed virgins for you). But if we follow the fault lines from this eruption from the social order of one of the world's most civilized cities, we see that they run deeper than the world media--and convenient labels suggest. Those of us who have left the church and institutional religion, whether for atheism or some personalized brand of spirituality, have forgotten a thing or two about faith. Catholic boys and girls used to read The Lives of the Saints and know that countless thousands had been martyred in order for Christianity to gain ascendancy over Rome. Jewish children, even from Reformed families, learned about Masada. Muslim children were told about the Crusades and the loss of the caliphate. For those--still the vast majority of the world's population--for whom personal identity goes part and parcel with God, the lesson is that a faith worth having is a faith worth dying for. And doesn't it follow that if you're willing to die for something, you might also be willing to fight for it?
It does no good at all for someone like Richard Dawkins to dismiss all these people as idiots. And even if they were, that would be no way to win them over. Muhammad is as real a presence to pious Muslims as Jesus Christ is to evangelical Christians. They are not simply using a figure of speech when they refer to the Prophet as beloved. And even if the whole thing is one gigantic delusion, you can't defeat delusion with ridicule. Humor, yes. Sometimes. Mostly, though, you overcome delusion by replacing it with a greater truth, and that takes time. Look how long it took Copernicus. It's disingenuous for those who are most vociferous in their defense of free speech to argue that the slain cartoonists were "only having fun." They were deeply political satirists, and political satire always has a target. Who or what, precisely, was the target when Muhammad was depicted in the Muslim position of prayer, but with his hindquarters offered to all comers? We target greed, corruption, hypocrisy, autocracy, bigotry, or just plain vanity. But let's be clear about this: Charlie Hebdo was depicting the figure who for 23% of the world's population is the voice of God as what used to be called "a sodomite." Even when the depiction was quasi-sympathetic, it was utterly fallible. And that says to the Muslim faithful, "We know better, and we truly don't give a shit if you take offense."
If you want to guarantee blowback, an insult to what is dearest is the surest method. Pope Francis, who is proving to be not only a transformational figure for the Church, but also a man who can take a joke, may have put it most succinctly when he said, as an illustration of the limits of free expression, "It's true that we can't react violently, but, for example if...a great friend of mine says a curse word against my mother, then a punch awaits him."
A good friend once said to me words that I will never forget. It was in those dread-filled days following September 11, 2001 when no one could erase from mind the image of a maniacally calm Mohammed Atta, aiming his airplane at three-thousand people. My friend is one of the few deeply and unashamedly Christian composers I know in Hollywood, a thoughtful, erudite Christian in the mode of C.S. Lewis or Paul Tillich. We were talking on the phone about what everyone was talking about, as I anxiously awaited the delayed return of my wife and young son from Paris (the major airports were still operating at half-capacity, if at all). I said to my friend something very much like this:
"I know I shouldn't try to 'understand' it. I know it was an act of evil. But it wasn't like an act of war under battlefield command. These guys were in some kind of holy rage. They really must've thought they were right, and they must've been incredibly pissed off."
He didn't criticize either my over-thinking or my liberal tendency to psychologize evil, and he didn't heap any easy aspersions on Islam as a religion of violence. He said, urgently but calmly, "Well, Andy...look at what they hit. It wasn't Times Square, or the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the symbol of the global financial industry...of mammon. If you really believed that the West was corrupting spiritual truth with money, what would you take down?"
It was the most disarmingly honest and deeply provocative statement I've ever heard made about 9/11. As a religious person, my friend--mild and humane as he was--had cognized the fact that in the minds of the hijackers, the assault on the twin towers was not an "attack," but a counterattack. It was a grievance strike, revenge for a perceived humiliation, carried out not by genuinely devout Muslims, but by the same sort of lost and disaffected young men who always enlist in wars of reprisal. If Al-Qaeda had ordered the hit for the reason that George W. Bush gave us--"they hate us for our freedoms"--they'd have gone for Disneyland or better yet, Berkeley or Harvard. But they didn't. They attacked a symbol of domination. Likewise, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, had they wished to "declare war on civilization," would have stormed the Sorbonne or the Louvre with Kalashnikovs blazing. They didn't. They attacked a source of indignity and embarrassment.
Free expression, if it is to be safeguarded, requires also discretion. That's not the same as censorship. It's simply the ability to discern the difference between poking someone in the ribs and pissing in his eye. The only way to have a world in which no one is willing to fight for his beliefs--however misguided--is to have a world in which no one is willing to die for them. Personally, I prefer to "live and let live," and save the really pointed cartoons for those who pretend to be what they are not. Charlie Hebdo got its name from the Charlie Brown strips it used to run in its early days. I find myself wishing they'd stayed truer to the Tao of Peanuts. Je suis Charlie. Je ne suis pas Lucy.