The Paris march for unity on Sunday, January 11, 2015 attracted more than a million people and world leaders including Germany’s Merkel, Britain’s Cameron, Turkey’s Davutoglu, Israel’s Netanyahu, and Palestine’s Abbas, among others. This extraordinary action by leaders and citizens is in response to perhaps the bloodiest week in the last half of a century in France with 17 dead. It began with the killing of 12 people at a previously little known satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo.” French President Francois Hollande warned that the threat facing France is not over, even after the three perpetrators were dead.
The threat is real, not only because of information gathered by various intelligence agencies, but also because the violence and what has followed indicates a rift in the way Europe, and in fact the world, is moving in the context of fierce contestation of different ethics/values people are willing to die and for some—to kill for. This article is an attempt to argue that the motto “Je suis Charlie,” while commendable in terms of solidarity with victims of senseless violence, transforms the killing into politics of identity with potentials for further deadly conflict in the present context if certain existing signs are properly understood.
Arguably in response to the killing in Paris, there are reports of Muslims becoming targets of more frequent attacks: women’s veils have been pulled at, pork thrown at mosques in Le Blanc-Mesnil, four non-lethal hand grenades thrown at local mosques in Le Man, a shot fired at a mosque in southern France, while a graffiti saying “Death to the Arabs” appears on the wall of another mosque in Poitiers. I am not comparing these minor attacks with the killing in Paris but together they could be seen as a possible indicator of further deadly conflict.
Research on violence against sacred spaces (e.g., temples, churches, mosques, synagogues, etc.) elsewhere in the world from Pakistan to Nigeria, including Thailand, suggests that when they are attacked people who revere them react with moral outrage, and at times with violence, because it is the sanctity of the space that generates cultural power producing their collective identity. One of the reasons why attacking these targets endowed with religious symbolic meanings can be extremely dangerous with the curse of making conflicts more deadly is because the place that is hurt by violence is not the physical body, but the communal self. This “self” reflects a sense of community with legitimacy for its existence within a specific boundary not unlike the territory of a country. As a result, when their sacred spaces come under violence or its threat, anger among members of communities of faith, and at times extreme responses, can be expected. [See Protecting Sacred Spaces, Creating Peace in Asia-Pacific (Transaction, 2013).]
As I was going through the internet searching for a picture of Prophet Muhammad and the Kaaba’a in Mecca on how he solved the conflict among the Meccans using creative nonviolent actions as depicted in history, to be used for my lecture at Thammasat University on January 7, I came across a horrible picture of a pornographic photo pasted on the black robe covering the cubic Kaaba’a. First came the shock at such abomination because for me as a Muslim, the Kaaba’a is the center of the Hajj when pilgrims circumambulate the structure as a part of the holy Islamic ritual, one of the five pillars in Islam.
Then when the shock, and yes the anger too, subsided, I began to think of others in my family and community—what would they think if they see such a picture? They might get angry and curse the people who did it to their revered religious object at their holy site. I could not think of anyone who would contemplate using any violence against “those people” and will probably leave their destinies in God’s hand.
My dear departed mother, however, would go further and perhaps raise a question: what has happened to the world where some people would do such things—printing something so offensive to others, and where those offended took guns to kill them, as well as those who have worked with them, in cold blood?
The question is important because it is not about who would do such a thing. Instead it is about what are the conditions of the world today that make some people do such things. It is not only about the question of freedom of expression versus its denial but I would say that the world has turned into a space of contestation between two fundamental sets of ethics: ethics of autonomy—people are primarily autonomous individuals with wants, needs and preferences; versus ethics of divinity/community—people are temporary vessels with divine souls who attain meaning as members of some larger entities such as families or communities of faith.
Let me illustrate the differences. In 1475 Hans Memling painted “the Allegory of Chastity” with the Virgin Mary on top of an amethyst rock formation above a stream reflecting her purity guarded by two lions. Five hundred years later in New York City at an art exhibition, the painting “The Holy Virgin Mary” by Chris Ofili depicts Mary as a black woman surrounded by images of vulvas cut from pornographic magazines and smeared with elephant dung. While Memling’s painting indicates that chastity is a virtue that one should treasure and protect, Ofili’s world is one where profanization of the sacred is possible, and for some, commendable. Following the ethics of autonomy, the painting flows with a new understanding of the human body best captured by the widely available sticker: “Your body may be a temple, but mine’s an amusement park.”
As modern societies move faster in pursuit of loneliness with virtual connectivity replacing genuine human touch, the need to belong increases especially among those who are disenfranchised such as immigrants. Some search and find their meaning in acting against people offending the sacred they have come to, or returned to, revere.
If I am right, this contestation between different ethics will continue and might engender further violence. In the present context, Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s statement: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” often attributed to Voltaire, appears everywhere in defense of freedom. Though truly inspiring, I don’t think I could accept Hall/Voltaire’s statement without reservation. Not because Voltaire wrote the tragedy Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet describing Prophet Muhammad as an imposter, but because I could think of a number of cases where I will certainly not defend anyone’s right to say it. What people say in support of slavery, pedophilia, genocide and racism are not mere words of conviction; oftentimes they serve to legitimize the practices and therefore should not be defended.
In addition, from the perspective of ethics of divinity/community, I do not want to live a world where there is no sacredness left. Among things I find sacred are human life and things that h/she holds dear: his/her holy books, prophets, objects, among others. As a result, I cannot identify myself with Charlie Hebdo because I believe that one can still be critical, satirical and especially funny with civility.
To those against cultural objects they find offensive, potential protesters coming from ethics of divinity/community need to understand that by killing, they have turned their opponents: producers/directors/writers/editors into heroes and the objects they found offensive turn into powerful cultural symbols. A meaningful act of protest in a context endowed with ethics of autonomy requires an understanding of cultural economy that will lead to various efficient nonkilling methods such as economic boycott.
This is in fact in line with Islamic teaching. For though Muslims are taught to fight in the cause of Allah those who offend them, they are also told that “if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land – it would be as if he killed all mankind” (Qur’an 5: 32). Some might argue that Charlie Hebdo is spreading mischief in the land and therefore people working there deserve to be killed. But the Qur’an teaches differently. For God also says that “And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (Qur’an 5: 32). That one life is equal to the whole of humanity is possible because sanctity in life still exists and needs to be respected.