Terrorist Attack on “Charlie Hebdo”: some unpleasant truths

Europe is shocked and disgusted by the atrocious terrorist attacks in Paris this morning, in which three masked and hooded gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs and a rocket-launcher stormed the offices of the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, killing 12 people – including two policemen – before escaping in a hijacked car. A manhunt is under way as I write this, and the risk of further victims is thus not excluded.

The attack took place precisely at the time of a redaction meeting, and it seems that the terrorists knew this. Among the confirmed victims of the attack are Stéphane Charbonnier, the publication’s editor in chief, and three caricaturists named Wolinski, Cabu and Tignous. This is nearly half of the magazine’s editorial staff, and it could well be that the publication will not survive the loss. Back in 2007, “Charlie Hebdo” had been one of the (not very numerous) print media to have reproduced the controversial series of caricatures of Islamic prophet Mohammed that, first commissioned by the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, had provoked an outburst of protest and violence both in Islamic countries and world-wide. Although the identity of the killers is not yet known, it appears that today’s attack was an act of “vengeance” by Islamist extremists. The redaction of “Charlie Hebdo” had already received several threats; in addition, its premises were set on fire in 2011.

The attack has of course sparked a flood of public statements, some more intelligent and others less. Among the latter, we might count the Twitter users who express their “solidarity” with the victims by using the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. Whilst of course it is completely unacceptable to murder someone as a vengeance for having published tasteless or stupid caricatures, this does not mean that those caricatures (or, more generally, a publication like “Charlie Hebdo”) merit any form of solidarity or approval. What one says by saying “I am Charlie” is that one is giving full and unrestricted endorsement to a publication of a rather dubious and tasteless character. This is much more than just saying that nobody, however uncivilly he may have behaved, should be murdered by a gang of Islamist thugs.

The strategy of terrorism is to radicalize people. The message is always: you must choose whether you want to be on our side or on theirs – so choose your camp and be sure to choose the right one. But there is no need for any decent person to express “solidarity” with a magazine that produces tasteless garbage, just as there is no need to applaud a gang of murderers who want to take “vengeance” for some of this garbage.

Instead, today’s attacks should be an occasion for a careful examination of conscience. There are some unpleasant questions that come to mind:

  • The first of these questions inevitably is the place that Islam should have in European societies. Of course, this question touches upon a taboo. But the fact is that after WWII there were virtually no Muslims in Europe (except on the Balkan peninsula), whereas now there are tens of millions, and their numbers are rapidly increasing. Are fears of a silent “Islamisation” of Europe really unfounded? Is it really appropriate for European politicians to dismiss these fears, which are increasingly felt and expressed by the social mainstream, as dumb-minded right-wing extremism? Was it really wise to allow mass-immigration from Muslim countries without spending a thought about the practical consequences the immigrants’ religion might have for society? Was it not rather naive to assume that after one generation at latest all those immigrants would have assimilated and embraced the brand of post-Christian agnosticism we believe to be “enlightened”? (The latest news reports are that the three assassins have an Arabic/Muslim background, but that at least two of them are French citizens. They have gone through the French education system, and are perfectly fluent in the French language. As it appears, these people did not arrive in France last week… how many people with similar beliefs and attitudes are living in our midst?)
  • Second, should we really continue believing that all religions are “equal”? Should we really continue providing equal rights to all religions and world-views, irrespective of their content and practical implications? Is it not time to open our eyes and acknowledge that between Christianity and Islam there are important differences, and that those differences in belief have very concrete and practical impacts on the way in which people behave. When “Charlie Hebdo” published caricatures that had the apparent purpose of provoking the anger of Christians, there were protests, but there never was violence. And while any Christian believer who uses violence to promote his religious beliefs could rightly be rebuked for acting against his own religion, the same cannot be said of Islam: the difference is that the Gospel prohibits violence, while the Quran legitimizes it, and that Christ came as a redeemer who sacrificed himself, whereas Mohammed came as a warrior and conqueror. Saying that “all religions are equal” only betrays the ignorance of the person making such statements, and it is no wonder that European politicians making such affirmations usually seem to know nothing about Christianity, and less than nothing about Islam. How long can we still afford such ignorance? How long will European politicians and journalists who have no clue about Islam continue telling us that Islamist terrorism “has nothing to do with Islam”, or that “Islam is a religion of peace”. Maybe they should, as an antidote, apply themselves to reading the latest report of Open Doors about the persecution of Christians, which (o surprise!) predominantly takes place in Islamic countries…
  • Third, we need to reconsider the way in which we speak about (other people’s) religions. It is of course perfectly legitimate to be a non-believer, and indeed to criticize all religion one does not, or does, adhere to. The author of these lines, as a Christian, not only considers it to be his right to not adhere to Islam, but he also claims for himself the right to say in public that he believes Islam (and Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, Marxism, Dawkins-style “Secularism”, etc. etc. …) to be false and dangerous religions. Not only this – he also quite frequently criticises the Christian Churches, including his own (Catholic) one, and he believes that everyone else should are have the right to do so. Criticizing religion (or, where there is a case for doing so, the gullibility and hypocrisy of religious and non-religious people) is not a taboo, but it is indeed often necessary. However, there is a great difference between reasoned criticism and gratuitous provocation and mockery. Perhaps today is not the right time to say this, but it seems to me that “Charlie Hebdo” never brought forward any intelligent, reasonable, and constructive criticism against religion. Instead, the magazine’s “humoristic” caricatures were crude and utterly disgusting vulgarities of the worst kind, mostly with a sexual connotation. The basic principle remained unchanged over the years: to capture public attention through cheap and and coarse provocation rather than through a well-presented argument. The freedom of expression was interpreted as a freedom to gratuitously insult and provoke. Sadly, the French judiciary did nothing to protect the victims of such provocations. But the problem with religious matters is two-fold: on the one hand, people tend to take them more seriously than other matters, while on the other hand they cannot be proven or disproven in the same way as any matter falling within the remit of the empirical sciences. This is why it would be doubly important to ensure that, when discussing other people’s religious beliefs, one does so with an extra portion of politeness and civility.


  • Fourth, it is unfortunately necessary to note here that such politeness and civility very often is not shown by religious non-believers. Perhaps the reason is that, not having themselves any religious belief that could be turned into a target of stupid and vulgar mockeries, they consider themselves invulnerable on this account, and therefore find it very gratifying to provoke other persons in a way for which there is no direct retaliation. This appears to have been “Charlie Hebdo”’s secret de cuisine, and we find similar patterns in the discourse of certain secularist politicians or media outlets.
  • Fifth, we need to better understand the meaning of tolerance. Tolerance is not acceptance. Even after five decades of Muslim mass immigration, it is an absurdity to say that Islam is part of the European culture. In actual fact Islam, since it came into existence, has been fundamentally opposed against everything that is at the heart of European culture: the separation between Religion and State, the equal dignity of men and women, the reconcilability of faith with reason. Nevertheless, there is no reason why Islam could not be tolerated in Europe – provided that it is understood that tolerance means the toleration of what one considers an evil in order to avoid greater evils. Europe should remain tolerant where it can do so without putting its fundamental values at risk and peril. And this applies not only to Islam, but also to the nihilistic and un-civil attitude that underpins “Charlie Hebdo” and similar publications. At the same time, no tolerance should be granted for mindsets and ideologies that are destructive for society.

Thus, while we do not hesitate to express our deeply felt compassion for the victims of today’s attack, we do not want to endorse their attitudes, just as we do not want to endorse the attitude of their murderers. We are not Charlie, nor are we Islamist. Our condolences go to the families of the victims, but we also should include into our prayers those who have apparently been mad enough to believe that by committing a cold-blooded murder they might earn paradise. May they repent before they have to appear before God’s judgment.


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