JE SUIS CHARLIE. But who are we? Who are they?
There’s a scene in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now when the character Lt. Col. Kilgore (memorably played by Robert Duvall) barks orders to take a beach so that he and a few of his men can go surfing. “I don’t know, sir, it’s pretty hairy in there. It’s Charlie’s point,” one of the men responds, employing the nickname American soldiers used for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese people in general. “CHARLIE DON’T SURF!” Kilgore shouts back. The message is clear: Charlie aren’t like us, not at all, and we must always keep it in mind if we’re to go about the business of annihilating them.
Forty years after the Vietnam War (what the Vietnamese call the American War), 2015 dawned with a new Charlie grabbing the world’s attention. The January 7 attack on the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic radicals (and a kosher market two days later) shocked the Western world, overshadowed other violence (some religiously motivated), and saw secularists everywhere adopt the phrase “Je suis Charlie” in solidarity with those murdered over the repeated, often vulgar, cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the magazine’s pages.
This issue of the Humanist explores perspectives on the Paris attacks to better understand the nexus of religion, politics, and violence at play in so many areas of the world. As a number of contributors note, it’s no longer a matter of whether religions inherently condone or condemn violence. If we truly want to address and stop violence committed in the name of religion or under the guise of protecting religion, we must not just “be Charlie.” We must locate the human in everyone and try to unravel the complexities that bring individuals and groups to commit atrocities.
Appearing on Talk Nation Radio, LA Times cartoonist Ted Rall noted that some of the humor of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons was certainly lost in translation, but also that the French tradition of satire isn’t the same as ours here in the United States: “[T]hey don’t have a comfort-the-afflicted, afflict-the-comfortable satirical culture. In France, the idea of equality, whether you agree with it or not, is to pick on everyone equally—the rich, the poor, whites, blacks, advantaged, disadvantaged.” By contrast, Rall observed that at a time when the United States is “at war in numerous Muslim countries, assassinating people with drones, keeping people detained and tortured in camps, and so on, we have to view Muslims as a disadvantaged, oppressed group.” Making fun of Islam or Muslims, he said, “whatever you think of Islam, is viewed as punching down, and that’s bad. We don’t do that.”
While it’s debatable that Muslims are protected from satire here and that everyone in France is fair game, the idea that cultural norms vary but can be examined to better facilitate understanding between different cultures is one humanists should support.
Legend has it that at some point after Galileo Galilei asserted that the Earth revolves around the Sun—whether it was during the Roman Inquisition or after he was forced to recant his views and was put under house arrest—he emphatically remarked, “And yet, it moves.” While religion and politics jockey for authority, incontrovertible truths exist, often shown to us by science. And so allow me to end on a high note in reporting that, according to a poll conducted in late January by the New York Times, Stanford University, and Resources for the Future, an overwhelming majority of Americans now support government action to mitigate the effects of global warming, and a full two-thirds say they’d support political candidates who champion taking action on human-caused climate change.
Nous sommes réaliste.
We are earthlings.