The French writer and philosopher Voltaire – who spent most of his adult life outside Paris, where he had been persecuted for his ideas – is believed to have said, “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (although his writings contain no evidence of his having made that statement).
The highest-ranking cartoonists of France – who made fun of everyone regardless of religion, race or sex, and wrote and drew as if nothing, including God, was sacred to them – were murdered over their right to express their opinions. They refused to deal seriously with the most serious topics – God, religion, politics, sensibilities, opinions, ideas, words – and at the same time expected that nobody would take what they were doing too seriously. They believed in the power of words and images, but at the same time wanted to believe that everyone understood that they were nothing but words and images – things that nobody ever died of.
The well-planned, well-executed and deadly attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices joins a long and bleak list of worsening cultural conflict between those who speak and act in the name of Islam and the honor of its prophet, and Western culture, which sanctifies freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the right to freedom from religion.
Last Wednesday’s incident takes its place in a chain of events, of which the most prominent include the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of “The Satanic Verses” (published in 1988). Rushdie lived in hiding for several years, for fear of assassination. Bookstores were attacked, the book’s Japanese translator murdered, its Norwegian publisher shot and the family of the book’s Hebrew translator still refuses to reveal his name (the translator has since died).
There was the incident of the caricatures of Mohammed in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in 2005, which caused Muslim rioting and violence all over the world, resulting in some 200 deaths. The offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed in 2011 because of cartoons mocking Mohammed and those who acted in his name. Michel Houellebecq – whose dystopian novel “Soumission” (“Submission”), about France under an Islamic regime in 2022, was published in France last week (the last issue of Charlie Hebdo made fun of him as well) – left Paris and is in hiding.
From the dawn of words in thought, print and public circulation, they were considered powerful and seen as dangerous on occasion. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword” (from his 1839 play “Richelieu: Or, The Conspiracy”), attests to that. Rulers and priests of all religions destroyed dangerous books by heretics and adversaries. The Catholic Church burned books and their authors, and Jews also fought against books they saw as threatening or offensive.
When the Caliph Omar gave orders to burn the Library of Alexandria (again) in 642 C.E., he is said to have stated, “If those books are in agreement with the Koran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Koran, destroy them.” But the greatest number of book burnings (and murder of human beings) in more modern history took place entirely in Europe.
Suspicion of written word
Still, there is another layer here. Islam regarded the written word as suspect from the beginning. Mohammed’s prophecies were delivered during the first years in the seventh century C.E., orally, and there was a great argument as to whether it was permitted or appropriate to put them in writing, if only for fear that that act itself might somehow distort it. Once the decision was made to put them in writing – and the text of the Koran was created – Muslim science and culture flourished, and the art in Muslim manuscripts surpassed even that of European ones.
The first Hebrew presses were established in 1507, close to the invention of printing in the last quarter of the 15th century. The Koran and other Muslim writings were also printed and circulated, by non-Muslim printers at first. Scholars of Muslim religious law who saw the mistakes in the printed copies – both their severity and their number – were anxious that the misprints would be wildly disseminated and circulated, and imposed a severe prohibition on establishing printing presses, and printing and circulating Muslim religious and secular printed literature. This prohibition remained in effect until 1728, when the first Muslim printing press was established in the Ottoman Empire.
So, in the Muslim world, books and literacy became generally accessible (instead of being accessible only to the educated male and the wealthy) about a quarter of a millennium later than in European-Western culture. I found this information, together with an assessment of the damage this 250-year lag caused to Muslim society and culture, in the works of Muslim scholars.
This lag could be made up in the blink of an eye as the cultural world moved from Johannes Gutenberg’s galaxy into the era when “The medium is the message,” and with the development of the virtual and digital world (at the expense of the printed one, of course).
Manuscripts could be replaced by computer printouts, and orally transmitted law by instantaneous communication on social networks. It would be just as easy to take control of the technology that enabled the creation and use of weapons of mass destruction and lethality.
But what is lacking is 250 years’ worth of internalizing the values linked to the world of the printed and mass-circulated word and image, together with the ability to make the mental distinction between words and ideas, and their fulfillment in and influence on reality.
Just as grass must be watered for 400 years to look as it should, so the ideas of tolerance, enlightenment, the ability to cope with a complex reality and deal with experiences of great significance need time to sprout and become assimilated into society as a whole.
This is all the more true when it comes to a society that is scattered, in conflict, led by clerics with absolute power, carefully preserves tribal social values, and disregards the stated values of egalitarianism in Western society (even if these values are not followed appropriately there).
The employees of Charlie Hebdo and their readers took words and ideas seriously, and still do. They are aware of their power to do good and evil, build and destroy, incite and conciliate. But at the same time, they insist on denying the inherent danger in these abilities. They are only words and images, not acts or facts on the ground. That is the subtext of every satirist (and journalist, if he is a serious one) who understands his situation: There is no need to take it too seriously.
Those who acted against Charlie Hebdo this time, and those who supported the act (and the violent protests against Rushdie and the Danish cartoons) have no wish to understand such intellectual complexities.
They are acting in the service and for the honor of one deity, and they take everything – that deity, themselves, and those whom they see as enemies, be they people or words – with one-dimensional seriousness. They are not only willing to be killed for their opinions. They first of all wish to kill anyone who dares to be serious and not serious at the same time, while saying that he is willing to die for the right to be so.
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