“I am Charlie?” Really?

“I am Charlie?” Really?

After the French magazine Charlie Hebdo ran a series of cartoons satirizing Muhammad, the Koran, and Islamic religious leaders, Islamic terrorists attacked their Paris office and killed twelve people while shouting, “We have avenged the prophet Muhammad” and “Allah is great.”

The world was horrified at the news, but a defiant mood quickly arose. “I am Charlie” banners appeared on buildings and in newspapers and magazines to show solidarity with the victims. Cartoonists around the world drew new cartoons satirizing Muslim terrorism. In the United States, the dominant theme among commentators was, This was an attack on freedom of speech and the proper response is to publicize the offending cartoons around the globe to let terrorists know we will not be intimidated by violence.

Many elected officials, aspiring candidates, more than a few religious leaders, and legions of tweeters echoed that sentiment. It quickly became difficult to find anyone offering an opposing view.

One who did, however, was sociologist and Catholic League director Bill Donohue. He categorically condemned the violence, but he also faulted the magazine for habitually insulting religion, for example by depicting “nuns masturbating” and “popes wearing condoms,” as well as “Muhammad in pornographic poses.”

To say Donohue’s position was unpopular would be an understatement. When he went on talk shows to explain his position, interviewers typically responded by arguing that the issue was about liberty and the individual’s right to free speech, nothing else. Some suggested that Donohue’s criticism of the Charlie staff amounted to blaming the victim or, worse, sympathizing with the terrorist butchers.

The treatment of Donohue illustrates the war between emotion and reason that has raged for the last half-century, with emotion more often than not winning. What, after all, was Donohue’s “sin”? Condemning two evils at the same time, which is the intellectual equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Let’s look calmly and rationally at the two issues. Was the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo despicable? Absolutely. Was it also an attack on the journalists’ right of free speech? Certainly. Was it therefore an ominous threat to free speech around the world. Unquestionably.

But what about Donohue? Was his statement unreasonable? Not at all. He did not challenge the conclusions about the terrorists. He only added the indisputable fact that Charlie Hebdo had regularly insulted not just Islam but also other religions, notably Roman Catholicism, often in such vile ways as noted above. He also noted, inarguably, that though such insults may be legal, they are morally objectionable because they gratuitously belittle the deeply held beliefs of others.

For elected officials, candidates, religious leaders, and the denizens of Twitterdom to damn Donohue for stating this fact is stunningly ironic because they are denouncing his exercise of free speech at the same time they are celebrating, even idolizing the free speech of the journalists.

At this point, people who have resisted the temptation to mindless Groupthink, and reacted in a more nuanced way to Donohue’s statement, will be thinking that it is not so much what he said that deserves criticism, but his timing in saying it. That idea is interesting and understandable. Nevertheless, I submit that his timing, though disconcerting, was perfect!

One very encouraging discussion that has been growing in prominence concerns the challenge to hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims to overcome their silence and denounce the terrorists’ commandeering of Islam for barbaric purposes. Recently, the president of Egypt, gave a stirring speech urging his fellow Muslims to meet that challenge.

It will take a great deal of encouragement for moderate Muslims to find the motivation and courage to follow that President’s advice. But I doubt that it will come from slogans like “I Am Charlie,” which can easily be taken to mean, “I approve of Charlie’s anti-Muslim cartoons.”

By underscoring the difference between hating terrorism and supporting bigotry, Bill Donohue has helped motivate moderate Muslims to take up their challenge. For that reason, he has done the world a great service.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero