I went through a phase of youthful infatuation with my Scottish heritage at one point, and was especially taken with the motto of the Scottish royal line: “Nemo me impune lacessit” often rendered “No one provokes me with impunity.”
I thought it was pretty cool at the time, but as an older and hopefully wiser adult I think I’d much rather just be difficult to provoke. “No one provokes me” is a pretty good motto.
Unfortunately, that is not a perspective shared by the adherents of certain sub-sects of Islam. The massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff provides yet another instance of the Salafi Jihadists’ willingness to kill over cartoons that the vast majority of people – including other Muslims – would regard as, at worst, a gratuitously hurtful insult, and at least a crude and puerile form of satire.
It takes a particular form of ideology, and a particular type of person to massacre a dozen people because of an insult; people, and an ideology, that are very easily provoked.
These jihadists are so easily provoked that a number of observers have since reached the unfortunate conclusion that Charlie Hebdo somehow brought this massacre upon themselves.
As fellow blogger and part-time satirist Throwcase has explained:
If you write a cartoon no matter how tasteless or bad, it is in no way your fault when murderous thugs kill you and anyone around you.
This statement of the seemingly obvious was prompted by an article in the Financial Times which argued that:
France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo…This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.
Common sense, like bush-fire preparedness or avoiding dangerous wild animals, implies a kind of natural law or cause-and-effect sequence over which we are the master. To put Jihadists in the same category as dangerous animals and natural disasters is understandable, yet hardly an inspiring or reassuring response to such violence. These commentators are not quite saying, “Don’t like being murdered for insulting Mohammed? Don’t insult Mohammed!” but the logic plays dangerously close to such a conclusion; a conclusion for which the murderers themselves are striving.
In a post titled “Muslims are right to be angry”, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Bill Donohue writes:
Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.
Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.
It seems highly doubtful Charbonnier did not understand his own role in recent events. The man lived under police protection since the fire-bombing of the paper’s offices in 2011. As he told an interviewer in 2012:
I am not afraid of reprisals, I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I’d prefer to die on my feet rather than living on my knees.
From what I’ve seen of Charlie Hebdo satire, it was pretty crude and intentionally provocative. Islam aside, many Catholics would find the cartoon of Pope Benedict holding aloft a condom and uttering the words of consecration deeply offensive, or simply puerile and contemptible.
Such irreverent and irreligious themes may seem entirely gratuitous, but are consistent with elements of French left-wing politics and ideology. Charlie Hebdo is not merely a vehicle for crude satire for the sake of crude satire, but a publication with a political agenda. It may have been a “stupid and vicious magazine” as its precursor Hara-Kiri was subtitled, but its stupidity and viciousness were for a cause that, anti-establishment in its ambit, embraced the broader political common ground of freedom of speech.
It seems unlikely, given the nature of the threat and the character of their politics, that the publishers of Charlie Hebdo were simply out to sell more papers. Instead, amidst a broader anti-religious sentiment, their greater point about Islam was made: when there exists a sub-sect of Muslims who will respond to crude satire with murder, it is not enough to say “don’t provoke them”.
“Provoke” comes from the Latin provocare meaning “to challenge, to call forth”. In that sense it is true, their satire did call forth the violence; but, more importantly, their work was a challenge to the state and their compatriots to recognise that the persistence of a murderous ideology in the heart of a liberal nation is ultimately untenable.
We may not agree with their politics or their methods, but we should agree that Salafi Jihadism is unequivocally the cause of the problem, and the Jihadists themselves ought to be the target of our condemnation and our ire. They are, after all, human beings as much as the people behind Charlie Hebdo, and as susceptible or insusceptible to appeals to common sense as the rest of the population.
In that sense “don’t provoke them” is a shameful response. At a time when Western-born converts to Salafi Jihadism are travelling to war-zones in Iraq and Syria, leaving us wringing our hands over the ‘radicalisation of youth’, it is hard to think of a more pathetic, defeatist response than “let’s not provoke them!”
No one expects us to now take up pencil and paper and become offensive amateur cartoonists in solidarity with the deceased, any more than we should all now subscribe to or sympathise with left-wing French politics. Our focus should now be on the details of the religious ideology, the logic, principles, and beliefs of this minority sub-sect of Islam whose members are willing to kill (and often to be killed) for the sake of such trivial offences.
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com