Our first response to the horrible and frightening violence of Paris should be grief. False religion always makes the religious grieve, but when it engages in ghastly violence against other human beings who are made in God’s image, it should break our hearts as it breaks God’s.
These hateful terrorists, masquerading as religious believers, said on video they were the “avengers” of the prophet Mohamed. As such, they murdered cartoonists in the office of a magazine they identified with blasphemy. What these killers, and those like them, don’t understand is that they are the real blasphemers now by forcing their false and murderous distortions of Islam on the world and on other children of God. Their religion is now violence itself, a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace. Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, from the Reformed Church in America, has called Paris an “identity theft” of the Muslim faith. Several Muslim leaders have said that the damage terrorists like these do to the image of the Prophet Mohammed is much greater than any cartoonist could ever do.
While the tenet of freedom of speech has been invoked throughout the media coverage of the attacks, the religious implications here run much deeper. They are about how we in the faith community should respond when we are attacked by those who disdain us, disrespect us, distort us — as many believe the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo regularly did — and even viciously attack us. The magazine has often crudely, provocatively, and even gleefully satirized all religions in very offensive ways, suggesting that the fundamentalisms in all our religious traditions completely define the meaning of faith. Charlie Hebdo is apparently driven by its own ideology of secular fundamentalism, which regularly strikes out at all people of faith.
But how genuine faith communities respond to those who offend them is the key issue here. Jesus tells us to bless those who persecute us, to return love for hate and good for evil, and even to love our enemies. Loving your enemies certainly includes supporting the foundational commitment to free speech, and defending the right of free speech, even, or especially, for those who offend you.
Satire is often needed and necessary to expose the powerful, or to reveal society’s hypocritical and often humorous foibles. The biblical prophets used both satire and humor to challenge the mighty and the selfish, and even Jesus acted and spoke in similar ways that undermined religious hypocrisy and political oppression.
Is satire always contributive and healing for a good society? Of course not. But whether satire and humor sometimes cross lines of decency or civility, or whether it always contributes to the common good, granting freedom of speech is the necessary safeguard for open and democratic societies. No one can be allowed to curb free speech with the veto of violence, and that’s what many around the world, both non-religious and religious, are now standing up for.
Ross Douthat said it well, “Must all deliberate offense-giving, in any context, be celebrated, honored, praised? I think not. But in the presence of the gun — or, as in the darker chapters of my own faith’s history, the rack or the stake — both liberalism and liberty require that it be welcomed and defended.” Admiring the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo is not the point. The slain cartoonists are being lifted up and supported — not for the content of their work, but for the principle of standing up to threats of violent suppression.
The worldwide opposition to the brutality of these murderers is what’s most important, even among people who would not say "Je suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie").
Many of us have been more drawn to the Muslim policeman, Ahmed Marabet, who was killed trying to defend the staff at Charlie Hebdo. Some have pointed to the suggestion of Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian newspaper columnist and Muslim, who said in a tweet:
I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed— Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah) January 8, 2015
His tweet points to a powerful truth: millions and millions of Muslims in our world would be proud of that Muslim policeman’s behavior and are deeply embarrassed, grieved, and increasingly angered about the totally false and completely distorted representations of their religion that was claimed by the murderers in Paris.
It is very important to remember that fundamentalism in all our faith traditions — Muslim, Christian, and Jewish — will be far more effectively defeated from the inside than from the outside. New calls for attacks and restrictions on Muslim people in France, Europe, and the United States will only make the terrorism worse and recruit more marginalized young people for their cause.
At the same time, as the world mourned Paris, we saw that more than 2,000 people were also murdered by the violent terrorists of Boko Haram in Nigeria — a brutal slaughter of innocent civilians, including many women and children, which has received far less coverage and attention than the violence in the western country of France. That painful and racial hypocrisy, which happens over and over again in our focus on terrorism, must be addressed if our response to global terrorism is going to have any moral integrity.
We will not defeat frightening and growing terrorist violence with more wars, more drones, and more repression of Muslim peoples. The absolute best strategy to defeat the terrorism we just saw in Paris and in Nigeria will be a new and unified mission by global faith communities around the world to defeat fundamentalism from within — by replacing false religion with the powerful expression and assertion of genuine religion with love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. It’s time to make that our new campaign.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book,The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.