Religion, Violence, and Satire: A Humanist Response to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Update: According to the Epoch Times, one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, Hamyd Mourad, has reportedly surrendered to French police, and two other suspects identified as brothers Cherif Kouachi and Said Kouachi, are on the run.

On January 7, 2015, twelve people were killed in a religiously motivated attack at the headquarters of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. It’s being reported that the gunmen were Islamic extremists who yelled, “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great”) and said they were avenging their prophet Muhammad. (Charlie Hebdo has a long history of criticizing religions, has often depicted the Islamic prophet in cartoons, and has ridiculed both Islamic law and a leader of the Islamic State.)

hebdo1When such acts of violence occur, it’s easy to say that Islam is the problem, that Islam is the sole source of violence for Muslim people, or that Islam is the most violent of the religions. Analyzing these events along the broadest spectrum is the frequent path of discourse, yet there are a constellation of issues at play that aren’t discussed enough (or are, frankly, avoided by those who should know better). In our common and casual narrative, the human element is often left on the cutting-room floor.

When we talk about religion and violence, we need to remember the multiplicity of justifications, injunctions, and path-dependent influences involved, including socioeconomic factors, scripture, and culture. There are also actors. There are individuals and institutions. Individuals and institutions attack other individuals or other institutions through these influences.

With facts still emerging about the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, analysis of the myriad factors is conjecture. Economic instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Europe is likely at play, along with power vacuums in the Maghreb and post-colonial fallout between France and Algeria. We see the rise of far-right nationalism in France and the rise of Salafist terror directed at large-Muslim population secular states (especially those that focus international military efforts in the MENA power-vacuum states). We also must acknowledge that groups the world over see violence as an acceptable means to effect political change.

hebdo2But those who publish satire carry the torch of free thought. That torch has yet to be snuffed out by the greatest of empires or the most zealous of actors. Another magazine editor said that satire was a human right. I disagree. Satire is more than a right, it’s an obligation. Satire is an obligation to continually connect ourselves to each other and break the bonds of what others say is impermissible for analysis. Satire gives power to the people of the day over those of the past and a ticket for participation for those yet to come. Satire is one of our more sophisticated and highly developed talents. For satire you need membership in a culture in order to appreciate the idiosyncratic repackaging of embedded meaning. To work, satire requires care—care of the satirist toward their target, and for the audience to care enough about that which is being examined anew. Satire is a robust precursor of personal and social growth. Certainly, to say that the violent attempt to suppress satire is a sign of growing pains is to minimize the tragedy that occurred in Paris yesterday.

And yet we must remember the power of critique. When our news cycle is perpetuated by 140-character critiques of everything from plane crashes to the bare-fleshed backsides of the idle rich, we can forget our distance from the socio-political food chain that fosters violent attempts to suppress ridicule against sacrosanct authority, misogyny, classism, and racism. If we consider the amount of emotional disturbance required to murder someone for the sake of silencing dissent toward an idea, the power of critique unveils itself in perennial fashion.

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  • Hadrian Embalsado

    Nice one dude!

  • “Another magazine editor said that satire was a human right. I disagree. Satire is more than a right, it’s an obligation.” Great piece, Jason.

    • EthicalVegan

      Whose quote IS that? It’s splendid.

    • Bob

      Bravo! Mark Twain wrote that laughter alone is capable of blowing prejudice to shreds with a single breath. Absurdity not only deserves to be mocked, it requires mocking.

    • Luis Garcia

      But such a magazine would never fly on the USA, you can’t even say redskins anymore, because someone gets offended and makes a huge fuss, so imagine Charlie Hebdo USA, nop. The New Yorker put it best about CH when they wrote “your right to offend”. To me CH over did it, wasn’t even funny some cartoons were cheap shots and not witty creative pieces. Hey just my 5 cents. Cheers y’all.

  • Chris Nagel

    “Classicism”? Well, I suppose the classics are subject to satire as well.

    • bob

      Some of the classics ARE satire, e.g. Tartuffe by Moliere

  • Caroline

    Incredibly well written! Thank you Jason!

  • M Diaz

    “When we talk about religion and violence, we need to remember the multiplicity of justifications, injunctions, and path-dependent influences involved, including socioeconomic factors, scripture, and culture. ”

    ANY scripture that sanctions the mistreatment of non believers should be understood as sanctioning discrimination and hate…there is NO excuse to protect any book that too many revere as the will of a supposed supreme being…
    either edit those passages out or label those traditions as detrimental and sociopathic….

    • iconoclast73

      There is world wide violence against all religions, gay people, liberals, and women – it pretty much all comes from one particular religious group Hard line sunni moslems. Note again, even shia, almahdi and sufi moslems get slaughtered by sunni faithful who are willing to give up their lives. It is not about economics – the 9-11 hijackers were mostly successful – many stable fathers with jobs turn to jihad. This is about religion and it has a track record going back to when muhammed killed people (first and foremost – those who mocked him). It’s great to be down on Christians for putting god on our money or trying to stop abortions – but if you criticize them, the worst they will do is pray for you. If we are wise, we need make a distinction amoung religious delusions.

      • M Diaz

        “There is world wide violence against all religions,” it’s not violence, it’s retaliating against the violence done to the LGBTQ community, children, women, the terminally ill….so don’t lump the violence done to those groups with religions…religions are in the offensive side.

        “the worst they will do is pray for you.” nope…the worst they can do is make it legal to discriminate and marginalize against the LGBTQ community, children, women, the terminally ill by establishing laws that protect religious freedom…

    • Luis Garcia

      Problem are closed extremist mind of any flavor.

      • M Diaz

        abiding to an ideology that was conjured up in extreme times, a time where tribalism and racism, misogyny and homophobia was the norm, yes indeed

  • MWLarry

    Reading the first part of the article, Jason, I thought you were actually going to say something. But then you stopped.

  • MWLarry

    M. Diaz, great swathes of the Bible are intolerant screeds against “the heathen” and encouragement to wipe out anyone not “the chosen people.” Luckily we ignore most of that, though still trying to claim it as infallible word of god. Fortunately for the world we have moved on from that, and now worship money.

    • iconoclast73

      you are absolutely right – the old testement is fuil of god ordered genocide, taking slaves, wiping out competing religions, plundering, etc. But there is a big difference. In the last few hundred years, there has been no Christian or Jewish group of any size using those verses as inspiration to kill – all Christians and jews say those verses applied to a different time. Listen to the terrorists – they consider the 150 + violence advocating verses of the koran to be applicable today – something millions (far from all) moslems believe – including pretty much all of a number of islamic countries

  • Mario

    This is the first time a violent attack on humorous drawings and satirical speech has moved me so. I share the pain and rage of those affected by people whose only response to disagreement is a bullet.

    Beyond the official condemnation from Middle Eastern countries and Islamic societies all over the world, Muslim societies have to change: dethrone the so-called blasphemy laws, allow people to mock their deities and political figures. It would be easy and reactionary to ask this from the mullahs, ayatollahs, sheiks and madras principals, but the challenge is greater than that: it has to come from the Muslim peoples themselves.

    • Rick

      Good idea but won’t happen in my lifetime. I feel badly for new parents these days. With all that’s happening…Why?

    • iconoclast73

      An encouraging thing is that Christianity in the south at one time used religious texts to openly advocate for slavery. (most Christians don’t realize this – only that others used the bible to say the opposite) – but the good news is NO Christian group still takes that position. In some moslem countries, death is called as the solution to those who challenge the more severe aspects of sharia law. In pakistan, people have died for challenging the widely supported law to kill apostates. Lots of moslems want to liberalize their religion, but have to be silent. I wish I knew how to help them.

  • Ted Cherry

    This world would truly be a better place with the absence of ALL religions, period!

    • iconoclast73

      friend, maybe so – but at least realize people like the Amish aren’t calling for your head. There is only one religion right now that calls for your death because of your denial of a deity. You never are going to get rid of all religions – perhaps you should focus on the one which is 100 times more harmful than all the rest put together

      • M Diaz

        “There is only one religion right now that calls for your death because of your denial of a deity”

        you mean christians aren’t killing ppl for their gods sake..? hmmm…well
        if you take into consideration that indoctrinating a gay child into thinking they are an abomination who ends up killing themselves I would say…Christianity is just as harmful to society … one is blatant arrogance (Islam) the other is sneaky arrogance (Christianity)

      • tcher75

        I stand by my statement. The Amish people are an odd lot with a lot of baloney driving their lives. They also have a high suicide rate, and very strange marriage rules. But, as you say, they don’t seem to bother anyone, and thank goodness for that!

        • iconoclast73

          tcher75, you raise a good point, the Amish religion is harmful – to add what you said, they shun members and hold back intellectual potential. I have to admit, I have little negative I can come up with the Quaker religion. Could we agree that some religions are vastly worse than others? Or perhaps could we also agree that there is only 1 religion now where over 1 million followers would want you dead for being an atheist?

          • Ted Cherry

            Ico73… There has been plenty of havoc and death created under the Christian banner as well. Adolph Hitler was a Christian, as was Mussolini, etc.
            Your statement “hold back intellectual potential” is very true, and is one of the reasons that many young people are leaving the Amish world. And yes, some religions are worse than others, but the word ‘worse’ still applies to all! Many religions abhor Atheists, but being an Atheist myself, I don’t show any concern. It may be a slight stretch, but “All intelligent men are Atheists.” Some folks are reluctant to admitting to being an Atheist, but this is mainly to be politically correct in a society that still remains slightly ignorant, even in the 21st century.

          • iconoclast73

            There is an important distinction – Hitler had no church participation while in the party and those murders were not in the name of Christianity, he put lots of Christians in jail. (I don’t know much about Mussolini). In the last year there has been an increasing number of religiously motivated murders all over the world. More scary is that surveys show that millions are in support of the same religious ideals that inspire terrorists. Yes, you have lots of legit complaints about Christians – but let’s be honest about the level of barbarity, For example, Christians being intolerant of gay people is a different thing than the religious genocide (from hardline moslems) against other religions (including other sects of Islam)

          • Ted Cherry

            Whether involved in church participation or not…..He was still a catholic and was supposedly raised in the catholic/christian tradition, following the good book. Not all muslims participate in mosque activities either, whether they be the garden variety or radicals.

          • iconoclast73

            Ted, you are right that Christianity failed to prevent Hitler doing what he did. There is a huge difference with the daily moslem terrorist attacks that are done by religiously inspired people who yell praises to their imaginary friend while blowing people up or executing people. These people have recently studied their scriptures. By the way, I only know of 2 verses where Jesus appears go advocate violence – following are the 150+ violence advocating verses followed daily be terrorists all over

      • BigC222

        Historically, more people have been killed in the name of religion by so-called ‘Christians’ than by any other group.

        • iconoclast73

          I think we are talking two different things. You point out maybe rightly that Christians have killed more people than any other religious group. Christians in our country killed millions trying to stop the fascist nazis and imperialist Japanese empire. But in the last 500 years, Christians have not been doing it in the name of religion. (perhaps an exception was Americans fighting slavery considered that a religious calling). Recently, just about all the terrorism is done by very religious people following specific religious edicts and holy scriptures and shouting Allah Akbar as they shoot atheists, blow up other religious buildings, etc. There is a difference between Christianity failing to have gotten through to former followers who have done horrible things and a section of a religion that openly advocates killing any that insult it or even don’t believe it.

    • iconoclast73

      well it would be way better if Muhammed had never started killing and preaching – there are around 100,000 times more nobel prizes per jewish person than moslem. It would be a weighty comparison to really evaluate if the world would be better without the non violent religions as well. know that as an atheist you be one of the first they would be after if they couldn’t find any jews

    • Luis Garcia

      Don’t we have too many, “I am right, you are wrong, end of discussion, period” arguments over this, no? Religions should be private and obligation to respect differences a cultural principle.

  • Ronald Nadler

    I agree completely with the content of the article (and with most of the comments), but I found the language less than clear. The words obtuse and convoluted come to mind. I’d prefer a more direct statement of the issues.

  • Freedom of speech is essential to secularism. Thus, it is essential to ensure that legal speech is not chilled by threats of illegal acts against the speakers. Whenever such threats are made against any speech, no matter who it offends, whether or not the threats are carried out, it is essential that the offensive speech be multiplied by a thousand. If the threats are carried out, the offensive speech must be multiplied by a million.

    The reason for this is like the US policy of never paying ransoms. If threats against speakers are met with multiplication of the offensive speech rather than self-censorship, the threats will gain nothing and instead backfire.

    This is why the offensive Hebdo cartoons must be republished as much as possible. It is not because the cartoons are newsworthy. It has nothing to do with whether the editors think people should see the cartoons. It has nothing to do with the merit of the cartoons or lack thereof. The cartoons should be republished a million times simply because threats of violence were carried out in response to them.

    Do publishers – those with access to a publication platform – have a duty to republish the cartoons? Yes. If they don’t, who will? All publishers have to duty to republish the cartoons, including publishers who are offended by them, including religious publishers of all stripes.

    Any publisher that does not republish the offensive cartoons is tacitly supporting censorship, including all religious publishers.

  • This was the action of Muslim Fundamental Extremists in France. This level of violence is also seen with the Jewish Fundamental Extremists in the Middle East. And the Christian Fundamental Extremists in the United States. Fundamentalism by any religion is a toxic pollutant to society anywhere in the world.

  • psusac

    Obviously this tragedy is a complex situation that has a lot of details to unravel. That said, I’d
    like to jump to a well-informed conclusion about why this happened: Privilege.

    The whole POINT of religion is to privilege one group at the expense of everyone else. The Islamic injunction to murder apostates and those who violate the rules of the faith is a directive to kill in order to protect the privileges status of the Islamic belief system. It is irrelevant to assert that “not all Muslims” kill for Islam. This is not the point. The point of these killings is to make sure that anyone who challenges the privileged status of the Islamic worldview must fear for their lives to do so. These acts of violence are a systemic expression of the idea that some beliefs are not allowed to be questioned, ridiculed or mocked. So it is for Koran burnings etc.

    Of course Islam is not the first ideology that employed this tactic. It surely won’t be the last. The ONLY recourse to this sort of behavior is to:

    1) Punish the offenders to the full extent of the law

    2) Tolerate the presence of Islam in the community – Muslims have the same rights as anyone

    3) Criticize the F**K out of Islam! Islam is a human belief system. People need to learn that like Christianity, it deserves NO PRIVILEGED STATUS in our culture.

    • iconoclast73

      You have great ideas there. I’m an islamophobe – but I don’t advocate persecuting moslems – most are not violent and have limited intolerance. I doubt your statement predicting Islam won’t be the last religion to employ violence – Most religions from distant past were violent – most disappeared but former violent religions like Christianity, hinduism, judaism, sikhism and shintoism have renounced violence. They did it in the past but are at little risk of reviving the old ways. . . . we got one left

  • John Sorenson

    Great insight on this topic.

  • MWLarry

    Now this is not espousing violence, but just the US military has caused untold suffering around the world, at least since WWII.

  • William Valenti

    Let us declare a century of humanism: one hundred years of freedom FROM religion, and an intense focus on scientific inquiry, massive non-sectarian initiatives to alleviate poverty and hunger, and adherence to the one “commandment” that all humans should be able to understand: no man’s god owns the Golden Rule.

    • Luis Garcia

      A renaissance 2.0?

  • Luis Garcia

    About this, both views are polarized, the main difference is that one acts with ridicule and the other with terror.