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Hope in Paris—An Open Letter to Charlie Hebdo

On Sunday, January 11, 2015, more than a million people and world leaders representing all three Abrahamic faiths joined the Paris march for unity after a week that left 17 people dead. It began when gunfire broke out on January 7th in an attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, leaving 12 dead, among them four cartoonists. Such violence, perpetrated by “Islamist” elements (adherents to a totalitarian religious ideology of Islamic fundamentalism that advocates the killing of non-adherents as infidels), was universally condemned, and passionately so by all mainstream Muslims.

The hope for Paris is that (1) Islamism can be clearly distinguished from Islam, the general Muslim faith that it has distorted, so as to avoid backlash against the Muslim community; (2) the media can be respectful of the broad Muslim discomfort with images (pictures, cartoons, etc.) of their Prophet Muhammad; and (3) Muslims, almost all of whom are anti-Islamist, can be successfully engaged in expunging Islamist elements from their communities across Europe.

The pathway lies in a consolidated endeavor to boost cooperation in undermining Islamist ideology wherever it exists, and to fight it militarily as warranted by just war criteria. This means that media should not alienate the wider Muslim community, which must play such a major part in this endeavor, by lampooning the Prophet Muhammad through cartoons, as virtually all Muslims feel that he should be remembered for his teachings, and that any image is inevitably inaccurate and distorting. Muslim cooperation is needed if the Islamists are to be weeded out from their communities. Impressively, in a survey taken across France that hit the media on January 18, 2015, a wise 42% of respondents indicated that the press should avoid further cartoons that will upset the Muslim community. Unfortunately, the remaining 58% take the other view.

Our world has a civility problem when a magazine prints a series of covers so deeply offensive to those who identify with a sacred tradition and community. Charlie Hebdo has regularly stirred controversy over the years for its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as of Catholic and Jews. A 2006 edition ran a cover headline “Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists,” under a sobbing Mohammad. This was at least an intelligent headline, and one hopes that the Prophet would be horrified at what is being perpetrated in his name. But it was still distasteful because all Muslims, even the most liberal ones, oppose creating images of the Prophet. Give the Muslims in France credit: in 2007 they did sue the magazine, but the French court sided with Charlie Hebdo. The magazine then ran a cover cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad French kissing (replete with gobs of facial slobbering) a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist in a homosexual embrace. One worries when freedom of expression turns so aggressive in ridiculing a figure so sacred to a community of faith. This media expression is legal, but it is deeply destructive of civility and social trust, and it therefore not ethical. (Charlie Hebdo is almost in the same league as a New York City artist who painted the Virgin Mary as surrounded by pornographic images of vulvas and smeared with elephant dung. We wonder what happened that the world could sink this low.)

Some people assert that they will defend anyone’s right to say anything, no matter how much they disagree with them. However, this slogan is no valid principle. We in a civil society do not offer any such defense when it comes to statements that support pedophilia, genocide, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslimism, and hate-filled violence (sadly, anti-Christian statements tend to be more tolerated). Charlie Hebdo is trying to create a world where there is nothing sacred remaining. It has applied it cartoon lampooning to Jewish rabbis and the Pope. Such disrespect is possibly one good reason why President Obama did not attend the public events on January 11th. We are all for freedom and we all abhor Islamist killing, but with freedom comes responsibility, civility, and wisdom. Perhaps the readership of Charlie Hebdo will decide not to purchase copies of its more irresponsible editions, but this is unlikely, since as far back as the French “Enlightenment” Voltaire was busy describing the Prophet Muhammad as a fake.

The problem has its roots in the deep anti-religious quality of the French Revolution (1789-1799) that beheaded an estimated 17,000 individuals by the guillotine. The American Revolution was more conservative and respectful of both life and of religion, for its aim was to restore to the colonists the freedoms of Englishmen included in the Magna Carta. It was not out to destroy faith, God, spirituality, civility, and religion, but to preserve them.

I believe that things are going to get worse in France and across Europe until good solid Muslims can feel respected and are willing to work with the nations in which they dwell against the shared pestilence of Islamism. Most Muslims want desperately to be rid of Islamism, but insulting cartoons undermine their credibility and the very unity of purpose that is needed. Those hard core libertarians in the media who want to push the envelope of radical incivility are only destroying the very social unity that they should be trying to enhance.

We all condemn the Islamist killers, but let us not turn a vulgar disrespect of the soul of communities of faith into something laudable. To Charlie Hebdo, the world offers its condolences, but also a hope that the editorial staff will practice more respect (respectare is the Latin for “re-look” or “look again”) and think twice before eliciting violence, however much we all condemn that violence in the name of life and liberty.

Media in France should focus not on lampooning the Prophet, but on addressing the Islamist problem that threatens human progress like nothing else, and in enlisting Muslim support to stop its progress. The recent violence has its roots in the teachings not of the Prophet Muhammad, but in one Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who was busy creating a different sort of revolution than the French at about the same time. He was the Saudi scholar who founded Wahhabism, a revolutionary Sunni movement to purify Islam by returning it to what he believed were the original principles of the faith. He emphasized worship of Allah and Allah alone, and thus despised all things decorous and idolatrous, religious festivals, honoring saints, pilgrimages to their burial places (including that of the Prophet), gravestones, “superstitition” and the like. This puritanism occurs in most religions from time to time.

Al-Wahhab hated Egyptian and Ottoman nobility as well for their ostentatious religious drum beating on their travels to Mecca. The Koran was not to be interpreted but taken literally. Anything al-Wahhab disapproved of was bida “forbidden by God.” He despised Shi’ism, Sufism, Greek philosophy, and any influences from Buddhism or Hinduism. Doubt about his interpretation of Islam should “deprive a man of immunity of his property and his life.”

Al-Wahhab was the Muslim who first described Christians and Jews as sorcerers who worshipped the devil. He cited a saying of the prophet – a hadith – that the punishment for a sorcerer is “that he be struck with the sword.” Of course, it is quite a stretch to apply such a passage to Christians and Jews.

Al-Wahhab would have died unnoticed accept that he was able to form a pact with Muhammad bin Saud, establishing the first Saudi state. This power-sharing arrangement between their families allowed them to take over most of the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Wahhab was the first Muslim to advocate jihad against unbelievers. So it is that the Saudi royal family (the Al Saud) came to dominance in central Arabia after 1744 on the basis of a Sunni Wahhabism that provided the ideological basis for expansionist violence. Al-Wahhab required all Muslims to publicly pledge allegiance to a single Muslim leader (this “Caliph” being Muhammad bin Saud ). Those who refused were killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated.

In 1815 Wahhabi forces were crushed by the Egyptians, and in 1818 the Ottomans captured and destroyed the Wahhabi capital of Dariyah. The Saudi state was extinguished almost entirely, other than for a small Saudi area in Nejd. The Al Sauds were eventually driven into exile in Kuwait. Most of the Arabian Peninsula was under Ottoman rule in the 19th century, but the Saud’s mounted a comeback in 1902, when Abdul Aziz – known as Ibn Saud – gained the support of the Ikhwan, a tribal army of devoted Wahhabists. With encouragement from Britain, which was fighting the Ottomans in World War I, Ibn Saud took over vast territories. Eventually the Ikhwan revolted against Ibn Saud because they thought he was leaning in favor of modernization, such as allowing non-Muslim foreigners into the country. Ibn Saud defeated the Ikhwan in 1930 and ruthlessly massacred their leaders, but retained Wahhabism as the official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, where the religious scholars and leaders are to this day all Wahhabists. Violations of Wahhabist rules will result in severe punishment, including beheadings by sword, stoning to death, and the like. About 80 percent of Saudi Arabians are Sunnis, and Shiites are not well tolerated by Wahhabists.

Wahhabism remains the state sanctioned form of Islam across modern day Saudi Arabia with which Osama bin Laden, also a Sunni, was associated. Saudi Arabia spreads Wahhabism across the Muslim world, attempting to embed it educationally, socially and culturally wherever it can.

Wahhabism is the central root of Islamism in both its al-Queda and ISIS forms. They are all three of the same essence. What ISIS does today is akin to Al Saud attacks on places like the Holy City of Karbala in 1801, when thousands of Shiites were massacred, including women and children. Shrines and architecture were destroyed near the Grand Mosque, and the slayings were cruel so as to inflict maximum fear.

One point of conflict is that ISIS denies the authority of the Sauds, and sees itself as a corrective throwback to the pure Ikhwanism that the Sauds repressed in 1930. This original Ikhwanism still appeals to many prominent people in Saudi Arabia today, including various influential and wealthy sheikhs (one of whom was bin Laden).

Thus, ISIS is a neo-Ikhwan threat to all of the Middle East, Europe and the United States, and even to Saudi Arabia.

Islam and the Muslim mainstream is not the problem, but Islamism is. So hope in Paris and in the world requires a consolidation of the great moral majority of moderate ordinary Muslims who simply wish to raise their families in peace and get Islamism under control. It also rests with the very best of Muslim tradition and spirituality. Islam must affix to its highest spirituality. The polar opposite to the Wahhabists are the Sufis, who can be Sunni or Shiite. They are mystics who believe that God’s unlimited love shines through everything, even the ugliness and evil, and that by attaining a certain state of mind, we can each of us experience this. Many of the great poets, singers and dancers of the Islamic world have been Sufis.

Charlie Hebdo can commemorate those who died by taking real leadership in helping to develop an ethos of civility and respect that can engage the vast majority of the Muslim communities in a common cause against Islamism. It can use its newfound voice to encourage Muslim and European leaders to work together to marginalize Islamism and reduce its appeal – an appeal that is significant to young Muslims who idealize the Ikhwan mythology. Hebdo must stop feeding into the interest of the Islamists by continuing to publish caricatures of Muhammad.

Perhaps Hebdo could help create a World Declaration of Inter-Religious Peace and Love, instead of satirizing everything religious as if religion will someday disappear for 95% of the people of the world. No, the world is not converting to French atheism. It could encourage schools in France to allow students the opportunity to explain their religious beliefs (including the belief system of secular humanism) in mutual respect, focusing on such concepts as The Golden Rule and love for a common humanity and especially people who believe differently than you do. It could encourage public holidays that embrace the public expression of how a wide variety of these traditions express thanksgiving, helping others, higher purpose, and the significance of a new year. In other words, Charlie Hebdo, consider commemorating your loved ones by acting to solve a serious problem with real leadership, rather than by making things worse.

Stephen G. Post, PhD, Martin Luther King Day, 2015