If anyone missed it, Charlie Hebdo is the name of a Parisian satirical magazine. It made some Mohammed jokes. Two Lunatics for Islam broke into their offices with automatic weapons. That's not their official title. As far as know, there's no political organization that actually uses the name LFI, or its equivalent in French, Arabic, or any other language. They killed 12 people and wounded 11.
There was a strong reaction to the Lunatics. Approximately three million people marched in France, including many world leaders. Their slogan, which first appeared on Twitter, was Je suis Charlie. Their message: murdering cartoonists for their cartoons is bad.
It appeared that there was a true united front for Free Speech and against Lunatics.
This was a vast improvement over the last cartoon eruption.
In 2005 Jyllands-Posten, in Denmark, published a set of 12 drawings; 10 depicted Mohammed. Except for some actual newspaper sellers, nobody seemed to care. Then a group of Islamic leaders decided to make an issue out of it. When they couldn't get the Danish government to engage in censorship, a group of imams went on a cartoon tour of Islamic countries and countries with significant Muslim minorities, where they thought, correctly, they could stir up some serious rage. There were demonstrations against Danish and Austrian (huh?) attacks on Christian churches, boycotts of Danish goods, and, to top it off, riots in which about 200 people were killed.
There were multiple plots to assassinate the cartoonists. None of them succeeded.
America's media found a self-righteous method for choosing the cowardly route. The New York Times led the way, even writing an editorial in praise of itself for not printing the cartoons: "The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation's news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them. That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words."
Perhaps. But not so easy to convey what they were actually like. When one of my books was reviewed in Hustler, it appeared, coincidentally, beneath a full color spread of Ann Coulter Photoshopped so that she appeared to be performing fellatio. There, that was easy to describe. But trust me, it does not convey the impact of the image. With the cartoons, the result was reversed. The descriptions said they were offensive and blasphemous, but to actually see them was to shrug and wonder what the fuss was all about.
A professor at Brandeis University, Jyette Klausen, wrote a book about it, The Cartoons That Shook the World, published by Yale University Press in 2009. Before the book went to press, Yale consulted "two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous: The book should not include the 12 Danish drawings."
This was not We're In It For the Money Publishers, an imprint of a subsidiary of a foreign conglomerate. No. This was a distinguished academic publisher at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. They would boldly—not even boldly—routinely, stand up for their most fundamental values: free speech and the spread of knowledge. Except they didn't.
The advisers also suggested that the press refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet, including an Ottoman print; an episode from Dante's Inferno that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin, and Dalí; a drawing for a children's book; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell.
Yale folded. Not a picture remained. Yale thereby demonstrated exactly where this nonsense goes. Loony imams get to dictate, through fear, what US universities publish.
But this time, "We are all Charlie Hebdo." Except those of us who are not. It didn't take long for the reaction to set in.
There were demonstrations in Pakistan. About 200 people died. In Niger, the anti cartoonies burned churches. Ten people died.
There were demonstrations in Sudan and Jordan.
The largest demonstration was in Chechnya. According to Russia's state run media, RT and Tass, nearly a million people turned out. The population of the whole country is less than 1.3 million. In the last 25 years they've had two wars with Russia. Their capital was bombed to rubble. They've been ruled by crime gangs. They still have a slow simmering civil war. So it's extra-thrilling to learn that 79 percent of the entire population, from infants to seniors, cripples, and imbeciles, turned out for "Love to Prophet Mohammed." (The Guardian put the figure at a still hard to believe 800,000, Al Jazeera reported "tens of thousands.")
Anjem Choudary, England's leading loony imam, called the cartoons an "act of war." Could he be living in a world in which toons can actually carry out attacks on humans? An Islamic sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? What will ensue when he comes up against Jessica Rabbit ("I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way"), with her heaving cleavage and long legs coming out from her slit skirt?
The Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Co-operation is going to sue! Somewhere. Somehow. Bill Donohue, head of the American Catholic League, released an official statement that read: "Muslims are right to be angry." Referring to Charlie Hebdo's publisher Stephane Charbonnier, Donohue said, "Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive." All right. He's a spokesman for a Catholic organization. So we expect stupid.
But Pope Francis? The first pope that a liberal atheist could love. Not the way that Jon Stewart loves Lindsey Graham, as one of God's gifts to satirists. Genuinely. For his sanity and humanity.
Yet no one is perfect. Especially not a pope. So I must forgive him for saying that even though he believes in free speech, he doesn't believe in it entirely. "You cannot," he said, "make fun of the faith of others." He didn't quite say it was okay to shoot those who mock, but said it would be okay to punch you in the face, like if you said something about his mother.
It seems to me quite the opposite. There is a necessity to make fun of faith. Our own, to be fair, as well as that of others.
I've never come across a religious faith—one with a god, or gods, and stories about how he, she, or they muddle in human affairs—that was not based on nonsense. It might be thrilling nonsense, like Prometheus and fire; it might be inspiring nonsense like Leda impregnated by Zeus as a swan or Mary impregnated as a virgin and remaining a virgin after giving birth; or enticing nonsense like 72 virgins in heaven and an eternal erection so as to fully appreciate the eternal opportunities.
To give these beliefs special status is to elevate them above reason and above facts. To give the people who babble them special status is to empower them to dictate human thoughts. That's not a theoretical problem. It's what they do. If it's a lie that gives them power, they will suppress truth because it robs them of power.
The moment we say they can't be mocked, we help build the obstacles to human progress.
Strangely enough, I have come to realize that the necessity for mockery is an article of faith with me. I would fight, kill, and die rather than have an imam, a priest, or a rabbi tell me that I couldn't laugh at him.