Back in my beautiful Paris bathed in its particular silvery light, the January 7th mass murder of cartoonists and journalists at the satirical paper Charlie Hebdo seems ever unreal. Did the victims measure the scope of the fanaticism they were up against? Did they not know that freedom of expression is a luxury that not every imbecile on this planet understands? I like to think, given what I know of Wolinski, Cabu, Charb and the others, that they didn’t give a damn, that they liked their profession and would have continued, regardless of sensitivities. Good for them. Sad for us and their families that they had to pay such a price.
The mood here is somber, the arguments on all sides heated, not least those of Muslims who present themselves as the real victims, the usual discourse of people who for whatever reason choose to emigrate to countries other than their original one and give lessons—on morals, virtue, the true faith, etc.—to people there while criticizing customs different from what they know. No one should be asked to understand this frightening lack of logic. If I am to understand individuals being pulled into dangerous belief systems, be it honor or creed, then I should also understand Mafia members in Sicily, MS gangs in Latin America, youngsters from foster homes who fall into criminal ways, and extend my sympathy to terrorists. But I don’t. Not that being poor, disenfranchised, uneducated, with no hope, no job and no future, and living in inner cities does not merit extreme sympathy but the fact is that the majority of people in dire circumstances, including the poorer Muslims in Western countries or African Americans in the United States don’t take up arms.
One remark about the Charlie Hebdo carnage. We hear that the slain journalists provoked it. To me, the statement shows the low esteem in which we hold not only, rightly, the perpetrators of this or any other act of terrorism (Charlie Hebdo, September 11 or the Boston marathon murders) but the Muslim community at large. Think about it, even the mildest among us are provoked on occasion, sometimes to the point of blind fury—by an illogical response, by rudeness, by a sense of injustice. That doesn’t cause us to grab the nearest kitchen knife or the Kalashnikov conveniently provided by puppet masters who know exactly which strings to pull. It doesn’t translate into killing whoever provoked us. Saying that we “understand” the provocation to the Charlie Hebdo murderers implies that lowlifes such as the perpetrators and others of their ilk are incapable of reacting otherwise when provoked. (For the indoctrination of young Muslims, see the remarkable Pakistani film “Silent Waters” by the female director Sabiha Sumar.)
Here’s a point about Islam. After the attacks of September 11, whatever prompted George W. Bush to proclaim that Islam (Izlam in his pronunciation that has become the default one on the other side of the Atlantic) is a religion of peace? Granted, the 43rd President was neither a history buff nor endowed with the sharpest intellect. Still, the absurd statement would rightly offend the Prophet Mohamed far more than the cartoons that caused the mass murder in Paris ten days ago. Mohamed’s life events are sketchy at best and greatly enhanced by the hadiths or traditional stories about him. What we do know is that he was a merchant, a tribesman used to fighting rivals over water rights or ownership of caravans carrying goods and people. As he started spreading the new religion, he turned warrior and, we can imagine, proudly so. Why else would he do battle with armies of thousands, (ten thousand for his takeover of Mecca), why else would the Arab Conquest convert populations by the sword, why else would Mohamed and his son-in-law Ali, revered by Shiites, glory in having their horses standing chest-high in the blood of enemies? So, “religion of peace,” I don’t think so. One can imagine the Prophet disgruntled and even greatly insulted by being made out to be a gentle soul or the innocuous originator of a new faith who says in effect to would-be followers, “Here’s Islam, brother. Embrace it or not, I’m cool with that.”
Another point. That men should be Muslim is understandable. No man can let his natural machismo shine through to the extent allowed, nay, encouraged, by this faith. They can act tough, be the undisputed head of their family, their neighborhood or their tribe, they can take any number of wives (four are officially allowed but all it takes to repudiate one is a quick formula.) Shiite men, by the way, are also allowed as many temporary wives as they wish, again all it takes is a formula and the woman is theirs from one hour to a lifetime; Sunni men are learning to avail themselves of this service. Also, as we know, good Muslim men go to heaven where they are given as a reward 72 virgins whose virginity is constantly restored. As a woman, my question is this: Why would women be Muslims? They’re subjugated, made to cover up so they won’t arouse men (yes, they are responsible for ensuring that men suffer no discomfort, hence the headscarf of burka or whatever, the covering that women so hate in the countries where it’s the law and that women in Western countries claim as their right, particularly converts, always the more fanatic). They owe strict obedience to the men in their family, be it father, uncle, brother or spouse, who decide for women whether they are allowed to get an education, to work outside the home, to travel. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, they cannot drive or have a bank account; under the Taliban, they are not allowed to go to school. Their testimony doesn’t count and their share of inheritance is half that of men. The punishment for adultery or any act of disobedience may be death. In mosques, women can pray only in segregated sections, not in the main halls. Female genital mutilation, although not prescribed by Islam, is the norm in a number of Muslim countries. (For more on how Islam treats women, see the film “Passion” by the Syrian director Mohammad Malas.) It needs to be said that these rules don’t always apply in Muslim countries or even in many Muslim communities in other parts of the world but they do exist. Also, the vast majority of Muslims the world over don’t live by these rules but, again, they exist. So why would women, in countries where they do have a choice, where they are educated professionals and the equal of men as a matter of course, still profess to belong to a faith so degrading to women?
I have no answer save that blind ideology and the certainty of possessing the only truth probably makes life easier. Voicing questions and having doubts lead us down an uncertain path but, ultimately, that may be how we can build a more generous, tolerant, and inclusive belief system.