Thursday, January 15, 2015

Je Suis Charlie; suis-je Islamophobe?

A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
-John Stuart Mill

Like most people, I was upset but not surprised by the attacks in Paris last week, when several pious men with Kalashnikovs slaughtered cartoonists, editors, journalists, policemen, and customers at a Kosher store in the name of their god’s will. Just a few weeks earlier, at the height of Hollywood’s indignation over Kim Jong Un’s de facto veto of “The Interview,” I had wondered to myself where the people speaking up so defiantly for free speech were during the Danish cartoon controversy, or after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, or during the Rushdie affair. I’m surprised but pleased to see that in the aftermath of this bloodbath, the record numbers of people marching around the world seem to have got the right idea: free expression is not to be met with violence or intimidation. This is because these freedoms are essential to any functioning society. Rosa Luxemburg, the Communist hero, once said that “without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element... Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must cause a brutalization of public life...”

Soon enough, however, the caveats came. There were some Imams who more or less openly said that Charlie Hebdo got what was coming to it. A few Muslim leaders came down unequivocally on the side of free speech (usually getting lavish praise for this - condemning violence is the least a person in authority should do.) But there are also plenty of “moderate” Muslim leaders who have said that violence is the wrong answer to mockery and insult but that the insult and mockery are dangerous, too. Some of these leaders have even called for the introduction of (or in some cases enforcement of existing,) blasphemy and hate speech laws. The current pope has, unsurprisingly, said that freedom of speech has limits and that people should treat religions with “respect,” (offering no explanation as to why.) As an example he said that if someone insults his mother he should expect a punch. Perhaps Francis was trying to be playful, but the idea that an insult should naturally be met with violence doesn’t sound like the sort of justification a religious leader should be making. And it is an excellent example of blaming the victims. Orthodox Jews are getting in on the ecumenicism by photoshopping all the female world leaders out of the Paris march. This has been held up as an example of hypocrisy on the matter of free speech - it is that, but it is first and foremost evidence that what religions all too often have in common is the urge to repress the things they deem unclean. Something should be made clear: the desire for state or religious restriction on speech is not a moderate view. Although those calling for it may not be violent, the demand being made is an extremist one, one which would require rolling back hundreds of years of legal and ethical progress in most western nations and, in the case of my country, violating the cornerstone of its constitution.

The American version of free speech, which is meant to be absolute and protects even hateful speech, is sometimes confusing to people from other countries. I once attended a conference on secularism in Utrecht, Netherlands. It was around the time some hillbilly preacher in Florida was threatening to burn a bunch of Korans and people around the world were bracing for the inevitable holy consequences. The panelists at the conference, all of them Dutch, were incredulous at the idea that the President of the United States had to phone this guy up and personally ask him not to do it for the safety of Americans overseas. How backward and secularly hopeless America must be if idiots like this preacher have to be groveled to by the President! I told them that they’d missed the whole point of the story: the President had to call him on the phone and ask him not to do it - he couldn’t force him not to. Why couldn’t they see how wonderful that is?!

It’s this concept of free speech and secularism that I like most about America, even if it isn’t always upheld. Secularism looks different in different countries. In the U.S. it’s supposed to be a sort of laissez-faire situation - although I would argue that religious groups not being taxed is special treatment. In India secularism is a tissue-thin barrier, regularly breached and stained with blood. In the United Kingdom it involves equal government approval, accommodation, and even support of religious groups - a policy that has come under some much-needed scrutiny after it was discovered that several faith schools were pushing fundamentalist beliefs.

In France, the laïcité version of secularism has become quite extreme in the past few years, most notably with their ban on religious apparel or symbols in schools. This is too far, as it curtails free speech and free exercise of religion, both of which need to be present in a truly pluralistic society. I dislike the burqa as much as Nicolas Sarkozy does, and I would understand a ban on full-face coverings in certain places purely on grounds of security, but this sort of aggressive reaction is the wrong response and will only dampen public debate and dissent and further divide the polity into aggrieved groups who feel persecuted. It will make integration more difficult.

France and many European countries have an even greater blot on their ledgers: hate speech laws. These are the products of a guilty conscience, chiefly regarding the horrors of the last century, and it opens them up to justifiable charges of hypocrisy, and reinforces the arguments of those who claim that certain groups are singled out for censorship more than others. France is the nation of Voltaire but it is also the nation of Dreyfuss, and of Vichy, and it has made a cardinal mistake in thinking that the way to prevent future horrors is to stifle dissent about past horrors. Holocaust denial is illegal. The Nazi salute is illegal. And as we have learned this week, people in France are being arrested for expressing anything which might be construed as approval of terrorism. This is a travesty.

Most notably, the controversial comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala was arrested for a tweet which could be interpreted as him saying he identified with one of the terrorists. Dieudonne is a provocative tight-rope walker, often slipping from the line into outright anti-Semitism. The jokes of his I’ve seen and read aren’t particularly funny, but the French government’s response to his offensive jokes - often canceling his shows - is a huge mistake and the height of hypocrisy. Dieudonne might be a gross bigot, but he’s exactly the kind of person whose speech needs to be protected. His infamous “quenelle” gesture (a sort of inverted Nazi salute,) is understandably disturbing to many French people, but it does serve a higher function: it proves the prohibition on Nazi gestures is ridiculous. If someone can make a new gesture up, and it can arguably mean the same thing, and people are equally outraged by it, what’s the difference? Indeed, lawmakers have called for the banning of the “quenelle.” Where does this end? And what purpose does it serve? Will banning one gesture after another as well as holocaust denial and racist slogans end racist thoughts or feelings? Will it make up for the holocaust or Vichy France’s complicity in it? Of course not. It will drive these ideas underground where they are immune from counter argument. It will make martyrs of their proponents and do the public a disservice by not letting them learn what these people think and believe. As Mill points out in “On Liberty:” The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Or, as Milton once said, “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?”

Blasphemy is a thought crime. According to the texts of the great monotheisms, one needn’t utter something that displeases the merciful yet jealous man behind the curtain in order for him to hear you - he conveniently and terrifyingly hears your thoughts, too. Blasphemy is, to the religious, a sin, usually a very serious one. But should a religious ban on blasphemy (a victimless crime to we atheists,) be incumbent upon those who don’t share the faith in question? Thankfully, in the wake of these attacks, countries such as Canada and Ireland are re-examining their own dusty and rarely-invoked blasphemy laws, but, just as religious groups rebranded creationism as intelligent design, zealots try to get criticism of their god or faith categorized as “hate speech” or “religious defamation.” (I confess to having a fantasy in which a hate speech law is passed in the United States and millions of atheists file suit to have the Bible and Koran banned for their hateful slander of unbelievers - not to actually ban the books but to prove an important point.)

Hate speech and religious defamation need to be protected, otherwise we’ll live in a world where, because some things are unutterable they are unquestionable and, as a result, unchangeable - the sort of static, pious, and stultifying world religious fundamentalists would apparently like to see. Many Muslims have said that we in the west simply don’t understand how it feels to have our deeply-held beliefs insulted. On the contrary, my most deeply-held belief is outraged when anyone is persecuted, attacked, or murdered just for saying something. I contend that my belief in freedom of speech is just as strong as their belief in god and his prophets, just as dear, and even more worth defending for being based on reason rather than faith.

I defend my right to criticize any religion I like, fully acknowledging that its adherents are free to criticize (but not persecute or attack,) me. So here goes:

I don’t like Islam. There really shouldn’t be a problem with me saying that, and yet there are plenty of people in the world who think I shouldn’t: some who consider it blasphemy, others who consider it racism, and more who consider it needless provocation. But it is my opinion, and believers around the world are welcome to the opinion, expressed often enough in their holy books, that I should suffer for holding it. As long as they don’t act on it (besides, surely their all-powerful god can smite me on his own, can’t he?) I should be clear that I don’t like any religions. First of all, I don’t believe any of them are true. I don’t believe the children of Israel were lost for 40 years in a tiny patch of desert, I don’t believe a galilean carpenter was born of a virgin or resurrected after death, and I don’t believe in angels, much less one of them dictating stories from the bible to a man in an Arabian cave. I think it’s ridiculous to genuinely believe any of that and I reserve my right to say so. In the case of Islam I find its holy book to be morally empty where it isn’t downright cruel, its prophet to be vicious, violent, and venal, and certainly no exemplar or role model, and I take issue with the way it is practiced in all too many parts of the world.

This doesn’t mean I hate or fear Muslims. I have no problem with any devout person believing what they like, wearing whatever they like, or following any rules which I may find ridiculous or arbitrary. And if it gives them some comfort or pleasure, that’s their business. But if anyone suggests that my right to voice such opinions is more dangerous than their religion and should be restricted as a result, they are an enemy of mine and in no way a “moderate” voice.

The question lately has come down to a controversial word: Islamophobia. It should come as no surprise that I don’t like it. I tend to agree with Twitter user Andrew Cummin’s definition: “A word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.” A phobia is an irrational fear of something. Acrophobia is an irrational fear of heights, and arachnophobia is an irrational fear of spiders. By the same measure, Islamophobia would be an irrational fear of Islam. Of course, just because people can have an irrational fear of something doesn’t mean that there aren’t some perfectly rational reasons to be worried about the same thing. Some spiders are venomous. Some precipices are more dangerous than others. And parts of the Koran are disturbing. And some people who claim to be members of the Muslim faith are openly calling for hideous and immoral things in its name. People who claim that I’m judging the many by the actions of the few are wrong: I’m not criticizing individual muslim people, I’m criticizing the dogmas and teachings of their faith. They might hold those beliefs very dearly indeed, but I have just as much conviction in my beliefs and free speech is paramount among them.

The fatuous examples are often repeated: ISIS and the Paris murderers are no more representative of Islam than the Ku Klux Klan or the Westboro Baptist Church are representative of Christianity. But the KKK and the WBC are perfectly representative of certain aspects of Christian teaching and belief. They derive their authority from the bible and can quote chapter and verse in order to do so. Just because the majority of Christians in America have successfully shucked away the more barbaric aspects of their faith (after hard-fought generations of often-suppressed criticism and - you guessed it - blasphemy,) doesn’t mean that the fundamentalists are any less Christian. Could it be that religious moderates are so afraid of the taint of these extremist groups because they know these groups are hewing closer to the word of the lord than they are?

Not liking Islam, even hating Islam, is not racist, and not just because Islam is an ideology rather than a race. Muslims are unsurprisingly proud of their religion’s global and multi-ethnic makeup. One can’t boast about how universal and pan-racial your ideology is and then call any criticism of it racist. And to hate Islam does not automatically mean hating Muslims. The people who fail to understand this don’t seem to have any trouble with this same concept when they rightly point out that criticizing Israeli policy isn’t anti-semitism. PEGIDA in Germany, UKIP in Great Britain, and the Front Nationale in France are disturbing right-wing populist parties that do often capitalize on ideas about national culture and a fear of “otherness” in order to further their anti-immigrant agenda. But criticizing Islam, Islamic doctrine, or Islamic leaders, or saying that a person’s horrific crimes might be related in some way to their belief system isn’t racism.

Sam Harris, who was the beneficiary of many insults and mischaracterizations when he said “Islam is the mother lode of all bad ideas,” defended himself by asking whether it would be as controversial if he had said “Communism is the mother lode of all bad ideas.” Obviously not, but why? The analogy isn’t exact (few analogies are,) and I certainly hold no paranoid right-wing delusions that Muslims in the West are fifth-columnists controlled from Mecca, but there are enough similarities for the analogy to be useful and relevant. Communism is an ideology that was put into practice in countries around the world. The implementation of communist government was done differently in different places (although the Comintern did have undue influence,) and it would be impossible to speak of all communists as being the same. But the foundational texts were the same the world over, even if they were interpreted in different ways, and to criticize the ideas found within them was obviously not the same thing as making blanket statements about all communist countries or all communist people.

In the case of Russia there were communists the world over who had blind faith in the Soviet system, who ignored reports of its horrors, who considered any questioning of the Comintern to be blasphemy. Those who were imprisoned, tortured, and executed by the likes of Yezhov and Beria, driven mad by their ordeal, repented for crimes they never committed, and even thanked their persecutors for bringing them back to the light of the party. Once the horrors and extent of the Soviet purges were public and couldn’t be ignored any more, those still sympathetic to Communism have always made a clear distinction between it and Stalinism, much as we distinguish between Islam and Islamism today. This is a very useful and important distinction. But the fact remains that from the USSR to Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, to Cuba to Vietnam to North Korea to China to Laos to Cambodia to the Balkans and beyond, self-declared communist countries seemed to have inordinate amounts of oppression and censorship and very few guarantees of personal liberty or individual rights. This should have sent up flags (in this case literally red ones,) that something could be amiss with the fundamentals of the ideology.

Of course, correlation is not causation and the fact that all of these different states exhibited some of the same severe totalitarian tendencies during their tenure as communist nations could be coincidence. But to swear outright that communism has nothing to do with it and shouldn’t even be considered as a possible cause of such horror is about the same as saying that Islam has nothing to do with Islamic terrorism (a term that the Obama administration is admittedly uncomfortable uttering.) In many places in the world, Communism became a secular religion with the state as its god. The writings of Marx and Lenin were its testaments, the apocrypha being supplied by the likes of Stalin and Mao. Today, we seem to have a similar situation in the world of Islam: where it holds the most power, people suffer more, rights are trampled on or non-existent, minorities are persecuted, and dissent is almost impossible. When Arthur Koestler published the testimonies of ex-Communists he called the book “The God that Failed.” When Ibn Warraq published his book of testimonies of ex-Muslims, he considered calling it “The Allah that Failed,” but ended up settling for “Leaving Islam.” Communism had its defectors and Islam has its apostates - we should learn from the past and not ignore their stories, or try to shut them up as so many frightened people do to the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It took decades of unspeakable human suffering before glasnost confirmed the horrifying reports of Soviet defectors, who had been urgent Cassandras, willfully ignored by fellow-travelers who thought that the U.S.S.R. surely couldn’t be that bad. And besides, these people are criminals with a grudge, how can we believe their testimony? And after all, the U.S.S.R. is opposed to American capitalism and therefore the good guys - how could it possibly be so brutal? And even if it is, it must be for a good reason. We ignore the testimonies of those desperate and unable to leave their faith at our own risk.

A common argument seen these past few days is that while Charlie Hebdo was an equal-opportunity offender, it’s one thing to mock those in power and another to mock a downtrodden minority. Of course, that isn’t what Charlie Hebdo was doing - the magazine was famously anti-racist and pro-immigrant - it was mocking an authority figure who they thought was being given undue respect: the prophet Mohammed. Globally Islam is not a tiny minority voice but a major player, a powerful ideology, the official religion of many states, and the beneficiary of a great deal of oil wealth by which its messages are often spread across the globe to disaffected youth, teaching them violence, sexism, and racism. Muslims in France and most other Western countries are, of course, a minority group, albeit usually one with legal protections and rights of the kind a Jew wouldn’t expect in Jeddah nor a Homosexual in Homs. Of course, the rights of minorities are infringed upon in western nations all the time, but the fact that provision is made for legal recourse is important, and it gives people a fighting chance at justice. No such chance exists where the religious judiciary holds sway.

I obviously don’t believe that all Muslims are terrorists, or extremists, or sexist, or homophobic. But I do think the Koran and the life of Mohammed are horrible moral guidelines that could go some way to explaining why some Muslims are those things. I appreciate that the religion has been shaped and altered and interpreted through time and culture, and that many Muslims practice a less strict or orthodox faith that preaches tolerance and respect. I think that that’s a comparatively good thing. But you’d have to dilute Islam to the point of atheism for me to actually approve of it, because one of the ideas at its core (and which it has in common with most other religions,) is submission to a higher power, a worshipful personal relationship with a ruler who demands you love him while threatening eternal suffering. I believe religion is the wish to be a slave and I’ll have none of it. I'm willing to tolerate another person’s religious beliefs quite far. But asking me to respect them is asking me to do something I cannot do. And aside from all that, even in its mildest form there’s no reason to believe that it’s true, thank god.

Perhaps more depressing than the Imams who blamed the dead or called for stricter censorship, were those in the West (many of them friends of mine,) who immediately laid the blame for this at their own feet. In recent years a certain portion of the left has become increasingly disappointing for caving in to religious sentiment and for only seeing evil in the mirror. There is a creeping tendency, masochistic and solipsistic all at once, to say “this is because of what we did.”

Almost immediately after the recent attack in Sidney, a tweet went viral about someone who, seeing a Muslim girl looking nervous and removing her headscarf on public transportation, told her to put it back on and offered to ride the bus with her for her protection. Many people praised this gesture and soon the hashtag #illridewithyou was trending, its users offering to accompany worried Muslims anywhere they needed to go for fear of anti-Muslim violence. I found the whole thing as self-hating as it was cloyingly sentimental. No threats had been made against Australian Muslims, no violence against them had yet occurred, and the corpse of the man who had kidnapped several terrified hostages in a cafe was barely cold before legions of Australians and westerners made it all about them, wallowing in contrition over things that hadn’t actually happened. Why, when these tragedies happen, do so many people immediately focus on, if not what they see as the western source of the problem, then at least what they see as the inevitable, ignorant, and hateful western response to the problem. I, for one, don’t like being spoken to that way. In any society there will be some idiots who retaliate with violence, but I’m not one of them and to immediately assume that the typical response to terrorism will be great waves of anti-Muslim violence is as unfair as saying that all Muslims will react violently to a cartoon of their prophet. Perhaps #illridewithyou was some sneaky way of introducing a bleating #notallwesterners protestation next to the perfectly banal and uncontroversial #notallmuslims. Of course, anti-Muslim sentiment and incidents of anti-Muslim violence can and often do escalate after a terrorist attack like this, and that should be fought against, resisted, and punished with as much force as possible. But the rapidity with which some westerners tear their shirt and demand to be flagellated for their crimes and ignorance in order to prove their own ideological purity and sympathy can be impressive sometimes (the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner focuses on this topic in his book-length essay “The Tyranny of Guilt.”)

But the best thing about the values of the Enlightenment is that they contain within them skepticism and a potent self-criticism. Much to it’s credit, this country is a place of incredible contradictions. America was the last western state to outlaw slavery, but it was also the only one which almost tore itself completely apart over it (the John Stuart Mill quote at the top of this article was written in reference to that.) America has both the legacy of Jim Crow and a black commander-in-chief. Several commentators have brought up the CIA Torture Report as evidence of American hypocrisy. But the very existence of such a savage and damning report, demanded by elected members of our government and their constituents, the public shame and condemnation, and the many calls for punishment of those involved goes to show that America is different, even better, than some countries where the idea of a government (especially a theocratic one,) ever admitting its failures, much less acting to redress them, is a fantasy. Christopher Hitchens once said that he decided he wanted to become an American citizen when he saw black police officers defending a Ku Klux Klan rally. The point is made well and at length in Aryeh Neier’s book “Defending My Enemy,” documenting the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal fight defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march through the town of Skokie, Illinois, home to many holocaust survivors. The existence of our constitutional right to free speech, the legacy of people’s struggles for freedom and equality, and the various avenues of redress through a free press and a public court system are something we can still be proud of, even if administrations have betrayed them at times. Calling on our states to impose censorship on us is a demand for tyranny, and we should never lose sight of just how dearly won our freedoms are and how they need to be defended at all times, whether from religious bullies claiming immunity from criticism or government fanatics seeking to curtail dissent. I’m reminded of James Fenton’s poem “The Exchange:”

I met the Muse of Censorship
And she had packed her bags
And all the folk of Moscow
Were hanging out the flags.

I asked her what her prospects were
And whither her thoughts did range.
She said: ‘I am off to Dublin town
On a cultural exchange.

‘And folk there be in Cambridge
Who like the way I think
And there be folk in Nottingham
Whom I shall drown in ink

‘And when we reach America
The majorettes will sing:
Here comes the Muse of Censorship -
This is a very good thing.’

I went to the Finland Station
To wave the Muse goodbye
And on another platform
A crowd I did espy.

I saw the Muse of Freedom
Alighting from the train.
Far from that crowd I wept aloud
For to see that Muse again.

Melting turtle impersonator, alleged plagiarist, and all-around zealot Chris Hedges is the prime example of the self-hating liberal, and in his grandstanding statement which did all but absolve religious extremists of their sins because of the crimes of the West, he quotes an Islamic scholar: “It is a sad state of affairs when Liberty means the freedom to insult, demean and mock people’s most sacred concepts...It’s no excuse for murder, but it explains things in terms of honor, which no longer means anything in the West...Now we are not allowed to feel insulted by anything other than a racial slur, which means less to a deeply religious person than an attack on his or her religion. Muslim countries are still governed, as you well know, by shame and honor codes. Religion is the big one. I was saddened by the ‘I’m Charlie’ tweets and posters, because while I’m definitely not in sympathy with those misguided fools [the gunmen who invaded the newspaper], I have no feeling of solidarity with mockers.”

Liberty absolutely means the freedom to insult, demean, and mock anything you want to. If others don’t like it, they’re free to ignore you or talk back. Religion may be more important to someone than their race, but religion is an ideology, and not a biological occurrence - it needs to be open to criticism. Of course Muslims are allowed to feel insulted. I hope some of them are as insulted by the cartoons as I am by their holy books and the clerics who claim to represent many of them. And the range of recent Islamic outrages, from banning snowmen in Saudi Arabia to the massacre of villagers in Nigeria, are crying out for mockery, contempt, and ridicule. But if the author thinks that we should be returning to a culture based on shame and honor codes, as he seems to be suggesting, he should be met with some much-needed resistance.

According to the New York Times, Egyptian Family House, a Coptic Christian and Muslim organization, denounced the cartoons on the grounds that they “increase the gap between people and religions.” I’d say they just about hit the nail on the head, there. That was the point. It’s perfectly correct and understandable for religious leaders to be afraid of satire and criticism because they loosen, even if only slightly, the stranglehold religion and the clerisy has had on humankind for thousands of years. Blasphemy has been one of the most reliable catalysts of progress in the western world - it’s only by openly challenging the dogmas and orthodoxies of religion that people have been able to assert their own rights as humans outside of a divine framework. Censoring oneself isn’t an act of respect to those you might offend - it’s an act of infantilization. It presupposes that the target of one’s satire or criticism isn’t grown up or strong enough to handle it. Every time a cleric says that some cartoon or novel or painting or film offends their faith deeply, they’re saying that their faith isn’t up to the challenge of a single work of art. And some members of their religion will be such crybabies and children that their tantrums will involve guns and bombs.

This is a battle over freedom of speech, between those who believe in laughter and those who believe in literalism. It isn’t only an issue of terrorism or west vs. east or the oppressed vs. the oppressors. The two sides in this war are those who believe that freedom of thought, belief, conscience, speech, and expression are inviolable rights, and those who believe not only that there are circumstances in which they should be curtailed or proscribed but that they known what those circumstances are. The possible threat of violence is a convenient background hum for anyone who wants to insist that they condemn such attacks but they can’t be held responsible for what other people do and after all why insult the deepest beliefs of millions of people? It allows the demagogue and censor to say that he didn’t pull the trigger but the murdered man should have known better.

If all the countries in the world made it illegal to show or insult mohammed, if all the foreign troops (and aid workers, and journalists, and foreigners in general,) left Muslim countries, if all support for Israel ceased today, would the likes of Richard Reid, the Tsarnayev brothers, the Kouachi brothers, Jihadi John, Nidal Malik Hassan, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, Man Haron Monis, and the countless other jihadis who have attacked or attempted to attack westerners (to say nothing of the exponentially greater number of jihadis making life a living hell for Muslims in their own countries in the name of their shared religion,) be satisfied and stop what they’re doing? If we just agreed to leave them alone and not make them angry would they be content to stay in Muslim-majority countries and focus on their campaigns of rape, violence, repression and terror safely “over there?” If we allow that female circumcision, anti-secular Madrassa education, forced marriages and honor killings are valid cultural expressions would that appease them? Would we have any right to call ourselves moral if we accepted any of this? Of course most Muslims don’t do any of these things or even dream of doing them, but the fanatics are the ones making these demands, and they won’t stop making them, no matter what we do. And if we give in to even one of them we’ll have to forfeit more because they’ll know we’re afraid of them. We shouldn’t seek to accommodate barbaric totalitarianisms. They need to be resisted.

As Oscar Wilde once said: “Progress in thought is the assertion of individualism against authority…Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on its own spirit…”

But political genius Russell Brand said “The right of free speech is important, but it isn’t as important as 'we’re all human beings together, let’s find solutions together'.” What he doesn’t understand is that the second is impossible without the first. One sometimes hears a comparison between Islamic terrorism and the IRA. But there’s a crucial difference, and it isn’t just that the IRA sometimes called ahead to warn people: the IRA made concrete political demands. There was some possibility of a compromise worked out without recourse to violence. What the jihadists demand in the case of Charlie Hebdo and others like it is not only unacceptable but impossible, because it violates the principle most important to the evolution and development of a civilization, and laws that seek to regulate speech are the first step toward laws against freedom of belief.
All the many religious figures who said that the cartoons were needless provocation and that it would be better if we all sought common ground, they should understand that the existence of such this common ground is thanks to the right to offend, to blaspheme, to criticize and condemn. I would like to be able to debate with Muslims on an equal footing. I’d love to tell them why I think they’d be better off abandoning superstition, submission, and a moral code based on archaic scripture and I’d like to hear them tell me why they think I’d be better off adopting Islam. But that conversation can’t take place with the threat of violence looming, or the charge that to question, criticize, or ridicule the teachings of a faith is tantamount to racism. That is unacceptable and non-negotiable.

I am not Charlie Hebdo, but I aspire to be. I hope that if I am ever told to shut up or else I’ll choose freedom over fear.

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