Charlie Hedbo; Boko Haram; Freedom of Speech; Religious Violence; Religious Critique

January 16, 2015

This is an odd post for me in terms of format. I invited your general comments here and stated I was going to try blogging again but from a new vantage point. Here’s where I start doing that, but as it’s the first such attempt it’s quite scatter-shot. I want to throw out every line of thought I have on these events as seeds for my future series of posts which will address controversial art and culture, different conceptions of “God” and how they work themselves out in society, etc. This piece is quite lengthy too and I’m sure by speaking on Hedbo and Boko Haram I will anger someone though that is not my point. So as a warning here it is in case my lines of argument meander: I am thoroughly anti-terror; anti-extremism; pro-pluralism; pro-free speech; anti-Islamaphobia; anti-racist; anti-hate speech; and a few other things along the way. Here goes.

Terrorists committed acts of senseless violence in Paris and Nigeria in the name of Islam once again. Once again, people are pondering what role freedom of speech, censorship, and religion plays in all of this. But are we talking about the right things and are we talking about them in the right context? I have studied Islam for many years. I’ve studied religion as a whole even longer. It’s impossible to know if I would have initially studied Islam as intensely as I did if not for 9/11, but I know that event certainly caused me to look deeper into a religion I before knew very little about. Yet the things that sustained my interest in Islam and kept me pouring so deeply over its texts—the Quran, hadiths, as well as books on Islam’s history, theology, and ethics, not to mention Sufi poetry and works on Arab, Persian, and “Islamic” culture—was much deeper, richer, and more complex than current events and terrorism. What kept my attention was this concept of a stark, complete Monotheism; monotheism of a sort that was somehow mystical and holistic, and really quite sensible as far as religious beliefs go even if it never was my own belief. What kept me studying and working around Islam in some way was becoming aware of the progress, cultural development, and unique history of inventiveness in Islamic history and culture so often overlooked by the west and left silent in most western history classes and textbooks. It was the way Islam intertwined science, philosophy, theology, art, and a type of de facto pluralism for so many years during their brightest hours. It was a host of writers, Muslim and Non-Muslim who had a love and deep knowledge of the subject on deft display in their work: Rumi, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Seyyed Nasr, Khaled Abou El Fadl, W. Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Iqbal, Abdualiziz Sachedina, G. Willow Wilson, Malcolm X, Eboo Patel, Marshall Hodgson, and many other writers, theologians, teachers and students ancient and current. And of course, it also became the friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years who identify as Muslims—students, teachers, and coworkers who are diverse, passionate, funny, forward-thinking and devout. Every time a tragedy like these recent events occur I think of those folks I’ve met over the years who work so hard to make progress—progress in religious study, science, academia, non-profits and society as a whole who time and time again find themselves pressed to defend their culture, their religion and ultimately their own identity in a way Christians and secularists never are when violence is done in the name of Christ or rationalism. Admittedly right here right now radical Islam certainly has a huge corner of much of the market on extremist violence in the way those other ideologies at the moment do not—but there are many factors for this and I hope to get there in this series of posts. Inter-religious dialogue, inter-faith action, and religious pluralism were (and in many ways remain) passionate interests and objectives of mine. I think these areas must also include dialogue and cooperation with atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists though.

So I want to talk about violence as it pertains to religion. I want to be as honest as I can and welcome as much comment as is given. This is the first of many in this new set of dialogues, so give me time to get there.

During my own spiritual development I have been many things. I was a southern Baptist as a child for reasons most people are what they are—because that’s what my parents were and that’s how they raised me. In my late teens I was nothing for awhile, but not adamantly nothing. I was “Christian” but disillusioned with church. I wanted something that seemed real to me. Then I became an Episcopalian as a twenty-something, in love with ritual, symbolism and seemingly ancient styles of worship on the one hand and progressive theology on the other. I attended a Presbyterian seminary sometime after, pursuing a Masters in religious studies. I then attended Unitarian Universalist churches but never committed. I’ve attended so many places of worship as a student, visitor, and inter-faith participant—synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and practically every Christian denomination. When visiting most places of worship regardless of the type I’ve always been fascinated with what I see and met the kindest people, but as a whole I have never “felt” those services. For me, I have to reinterpret and re-contextualize so much of what I encounter in a place of worship to make what is presented something palatable and relatable, so much so that at the end of that effort I no longer recognize it as that which it really is. So I guess I’m secular now. The thing is, some of those I debated early on—on this blog, in classrooms, and elsewhere—likely felt this was the only place I could end up. I was adamantly in the “progressive Christian” camp for awhile, arguing it on paper and in person quite thoroughly. Those on the more conservative end of the spectrum saw it as a slippery slope to where I find myself now. They likely saw this result as inevitable. But I really know that the place I was arguing from was a real and authentic place even if part of me knew even then I was eventually to move out of that space. I know so many heartfelt, intelligent, active individuals working to make the world a better place fervently and cognitively in that camp now and they’ve been there longer than I was and will likely remain there. I’m always hesitant to word things in a way that makes it seem like I have “evolved” past particular viewpoints because I don’t see it that way and wouldn’t want those folks to think I did either. Part of me wishes I could still claim that same territory as my own but I can’t and the most I can say even close to negative for those who can is that I am unable to see how they remain there sometimes. But I digress. Secular Humanism is yet another label though and I’m increasingly wary of religious (and irreligious) labels. I know that I am (perhaps doomed is a strong word) to remain in conversation with religion on a deep level forever. It intrigues me, abhors me, invites me. Many of my heroes and many of those I see making the most positive impact on the world continue to be religious people. Certainly scientists and rationalists make huge impacts but the work of heroes like MLK Jr. were so intrinsically interwoven with their own faith in all that I could never write off the power and promise of unabashed religion.

Conversely, critique of religion and art that stands in defiance of the religious culture it finds itself in, particularly of the excesses and hypocrisies of that religion have always attracted me. In hindsight, were it not for my love of rock, metal, and hip hop music as a young teen I might not have challenged my church’s agenda on almost every issue as I did. I loved my Metallica CDs so much so that my youth leader’s insistence that such music was evil and that as Christians we should only listen to music that explicitly praises God forced me to step back, re-evaluate, and argue against a slew of church party-lines. This reached a height of debate that was totally out of place as I look back on it yet that was instrumental on practically everything else I’ve done regarding religion ever since. I would show up to youth group meetings prepared to debate the issues. I had studied scripture, other interpretations of that scripture, and how other churches related differently to the issues and I would fight my point. Not raising my voice, not intentionally being disrespectful, but always arguing. I argued women in ministry (pro), evolution (pro), “hell houses” (anti), Bill Clinton (pro) and more than anything music, movies and art (pro). This was really an odd way to spend youth group and Sunday school as a 14-16 year old kid, but that’s how it went for me. All credit due to the church leaders for not simply tossing me out. One in particular always welcomed my engagement and argued his opposing view in a friendly, paternal way. Another, no t so much. Yet if it weren’t for my deep love of music, music which might shock, offend, or engage, but more than anything, music that was just willing to address every type of emotion or thought without filter or censorship I might never have truly evaluated what I thought about my religious beliefs.

So now, I step back to really think about some things in this regard. A lot of conservative commentators have dredged up the old “piss Christ” artwork from several years ago that caused a stir but certainly wasn’t attacked, defaced or even de-funded. Conservative pundits have complained of the American press’s defense of such art and their criticism and perceived ridicule of religious conservatives angry over such things in contrast to those same voices now claiming Charlie Hedbo overstepped boundaries. Why have blasphemous artwork in public museums and in media archives but not reprint the controversial Hedbo cartoons? I can’t help but think of myself; how Islamaphobic comments have always made me bristle, especially since getting to know so many great Muslim people and studying so much of Islam’s rich history and modern theology. I’ve always been vocal that terrorists do not represent Islam and that most loud criticisms of Islam—from Bill Maher or the late Christopher Hitchens—sadly misunderstand and lampoon authentic Islam. Yet on the other hand, I’ve never had a problem with art or music that radically challenges Christianity even when I was at my most “Christian.” Be it Ennis’ graphic novel “Preacher,” Kevin Smith’s film “Dogma” or Marilyn Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar,” (looking back at time-appropriate references to my teen years) I’ve always found such work served a purpose even if I disagreed with the specifics of the statements being made. In fact, I’ve always been drawn to pop culture that directly addresses such matters even if from what many would consider an offensive vantage point. Metal music fascinates me because of this—few avenues of popular culture or art address, critique, and deconstruct religion of all kinds and in every way as much as extreme metal has over the years. But here’s the thing. Christianity in the modern west functions much differently than Islam in the modern Middle East or Africa or even in Europe. We’re all born into a subtle Christian culture which is all around us even when not spoken of It’s just assumed that one is Christian in America and this has provoked much of the reaction against it. It seems to play a role in very selective political issues, often with hypocritical irony. Usually those that criticize Christianity in places of power come from nominally Christian backgrounds even if they reject that religion. Yet if we in the west are to criticize Islam on the same grounds in the same way, we do so as outsiders of that culture and tradition and often without true understanding of that religion or the cultural and ethnic identities inherently tied up with and born into that religion. The staff of Charlie Hedbo did not deserve the violence that was inflicted upon them; but they were not criticizing Islam in the same way or with the same impetus and method as say Marilyn Manson attacked Christianity in the 1990s. They lampooned Islam from an outside perspective, isolating and provoking a minority community in France and often with racial overtones. Should they have had that right? Sure. Yet it’s not quite the same thing as, say, Nergal of Behemoth writing “The Satanist” in response to being charged with blasphemy for “non-Christian activity” in his native Poland; especially since he’s on record as happy to continue to be surrounded by Christians as long as there’s diversity and he can defy their viewpoints in his art. And at least his work is steeped in the knowledge of the text and traditions he is criticizing. He goaded a majority from a minority standpoint, primarily in a way to emphasize individuality, liberty, and personal rights; the Hedbo cartoons played on xenophobia, racism, and Islamaphobia. They did so in a very volatile milieu under steady threat and as such stuck to their guns bravely, but I feel a bit ambivalent about defending such work in an argument on free speech. Yet I mourn their death and decry the acts of terror.

Bill Maher says we should hold all religions up to ridicule because that’s what they deserve. The problem is that we will not solve anything by doing so. Secular humanists and atheists should certainly work in partnership with Christians and Muslims to solve problems but they cannot do so by agitating and ridiculing on-edge communities and they cannot do so by lumping an entire culture into a false stereotype. The only way to stem the tide of Islamic extremism is by fostering a healthy and vibrant progressive Islam. Those who attack religious conventions in societies where a monolithic religion reigns around them do so because their outsider status in that community is isolating. Rejecting, attacking, and critiquing the overall religious environment they find themselves in is healthy even when the specifics of the statements are problematic. Attacking a minority religion from a majority perspective is dangerous.

Now, as I write this the horrific events in Nigeria have been reported. I’m reminded of one additional fact in considering the carnage and senseless acts of terror that were perpetrated there—Muslims are the biggest victim of terrorism. Extremist Muslims violate every religious law they claim to follow on a consistent basis. From the Muslim security guard murdered in the Charlie Hedbo shooting and the Muslims slaughtered by Boko Haram as direct victims at the hands of those misguidedly claiming the same religion to the millions of cultural, ethnic, and practicing Muslims around the world who continuously find themselves asked to defend their religion and identity; not to mention the outside violence and retaliation terrorism brings back to Muslim homelands. By and away the largest victims of Islamic extremists are average Muslims.

So I’m conflicted. I believe in freedom of speech intensely. I believe any religious or ideological thought or belief is fair game for critique in the court of public discourse. Yet I do not believe in castigating someone’s identity and culture in a marginalizing way that heightens tension and increases the potential for violence. I also do not believe that the way to bring about an end to extremism lies in forcing a group to ridicule its own identity. In this entire conversation I think we are not talking about the right things. We’re not talking about the inherent identity of religion– that for most people religious identity is determined by birth place and parents. We’re not talking about how Islam is a diverse, complex religion and its adherents vary drastically around the world. We’re not emphasizing that so many of the victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves. We’re not reporting the huge number of Muslims and Muslim groups who are speaking out against terrorism and working actively against it in partnership with other religions and secularists. We’re not talking about our role—the West’s—in helping form and spread modern religious extremism. That’s it. That’s what I’ve got right now. When I continue I will be more focused and to the point; this time it was all about throwing out every conflicted thought I had on these events in preparation for a more focused future approach and series of posts. I invite your comments below; please be aware I am not trying to be authoritative on any of what I’ve said above other than the part about my own religious journey. I welcome opposing viewpoints but please don’t approach it as if I’ve issued the “right” answer and will tackle a formal defense. Thanks for reading.


One Response to “Charlie Hedbo; Boko Haram; Freedom of Speech; Religious Violence; Religious Critique”

  1. […] still heading in the direction I hinted at in my last post, but in honor of February and Martin Luther King Day I want to take a step back and discuss King […]

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