Paris – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf – Postscript on Charlie Hebdo

Below is an article written by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, all about Charlie Hebdo and it’s aftermath…


Postscript on Charlie Hebdo

By Hamza Yusuf on January 19, 2015 – sandala.org

An intriguing aspect of Muslim culture is that murders are rarely committed over wealth. While there may be theft in Muslim countries, theft that involves murder is almost unheard of. The idea of killing someone over something as ephemeral as a car or money or a cell phone is a rarity (except perhaps in war-torn countries where all civil society has broken down). Murder in Muslim societies tends to be motivated by political issues but more often by a misguided sense of honor. This was the case earlier this month in France, where clearly deluded and uneducated men from the ghettos of Paris, after rediscovering their faith, felt compelled to take their misperception of Islamic law into their own hands in order to “uphold the honor” of their prophet who, they believed, was being denigrated by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. Without a doubt, such murders are criminal and wrong, but they can be rationally understood within the context of a society that holds the sanctity of prophets, those men of God, above all else.

In classical Muslim law, any willful and knowing denigration of a prophet is a capital offense. Blasphemy laws have always been the prerogative of the government, implemented only after trial and sentencing, and limited to Muslim lands where it was understood that this law was applicable. Historically, however, Muslim rulers were loathe to execute these laws without attempting to find excuses for the accused. In the case of the “Martyrs of Cordoba,” for example, when fanatical Christians, distraught at Christian conversion to Islam, attempted to revive Christian zeal by entering into mosques and denigrating the Prophet, the Muslim rulers, troubled by the deaths of their Christian subjects, used the ruling of insanity to exempt them from the offense. Such pre-modern laws, while also found in Christianity and Judaism, are no longer considered valid in the West due to a long and complicated process of secularization that has not occurred to the same degree or even in the same fashion in the Muslim world. Hence, many Muslims still feel strongly about the sanctity of all the prophets but specifically of the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings upon him, and while the vast majority of Muslims would not think of killing anyone for doing so, they will not find it hard to understand why some would. The prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and their lives and what they stood for represent the Muslim world’s highest values.

What then, in the West, do we hold above all else? It seems wealth has now become the highest value, and murders are often attempts to take that away from another. People kill others to take their money, their cars, their cellphones, or their drugs. Some even engage in meaningless violence, simply going into a public place and killing innocent people, not for any misguided political sensibilities, nor for wealth, but simply because they feel an urge to do so (perhaps acting out Grand Theft Auto or some other pathologically violent video game in order to experience the thrill of the real deal). Undeniably, like the West, the Muslim world also has mentally disturbed people, but they don’t go into schools and kill little children for the thrill of it. In fact, the horrific assault last December on the school in Pakistan was done in classic Jahili retaliation for murders of their own youth. There was a method to that madness, as they did not indiscriminately kill anyone in sight but spared the young children and targeted only those who had passed the age of puberty, as they were considered adults. While it was a brutal assault, it had a type of misguided rationality that can be understood in the context of vengeful tribal cultures in a way that Western school shootings cannot, irrespective of their context.

While the “whole” world is mourning the cartoonists who made their livelihoods as equal opportunity denigrators, perceiving this as an attack on freedom of expression, there is an aspect of this that is disturbing. The West displayed no moral outrage over the countless lives of innocent and honorable people whose only crime was being at home when a drone, intentionally or not, bombed them out of existence. No one is shedding tears over the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, and many others in the Muslim world who were killed due to Western misadventures in the region. The Brookings Institution has noted that for every drone strike that has occurred, ten or so civilians have died. More people, many of them civilians, have been killed by U.S. drone strikes than were killed on 9-11. Take a look at the Wikipedia page that lists the drone strikes on Pakistan alone since 2004; and keep in mind that drone strikes are also waged against people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Libya, and Somalia.

The murders of Charlie Hebdo’s staff were a crime; they were wrong, plain and simple. But lest we forget, the people at Charlie Hebdo knew exactly what they were doing. They acted much like Steve Irwin, the Australian crocodile hunter, who went around poking wild animals only to provoke a response from them. Eventually, he decided that the countless land and river animals were not enough and chose to dive into the vast ocean in search of sea creatures to provoke until a stingray, in apparent solidarity with its fellow land and sea creatures suffering at the hands of humans like Irwin, poked back and killed him. But, like the Charlie Hebdo staff, Irwin well knew the risks he was facing when provoking these wild animals and fell victim to the consequences. The editor of Charlie Hebdo knew the game he was playing and enlisted a guard to protect his staff given the many death threats they had received. He was cognizant of the real dangers of provoking those he deemed open game and sport for the paper’s “satire.”

Today, much of the Western world expresses its moral outrage in solidarity over the murder of twelve people who knew the risks of provoking angry extremists yet argued, “These people want to frighten us into respecting their religion; therefore we will not be frightened”; and so they continued to poke fun at that which Muslims hold most sacred. This was not done in the long-standing Western tradition of satire, which takes aim at the powerful to empower the powerless; these cartoonists engaged in mockery for the sake of mockery and had no higher purpose. They suffered the fate of a man who gratuitously calls another man’s mother a whore and is surprised when that man stabs him. Pope Francis said it well: If a close friend “says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him,” he explained. “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith.” This is a man who believes in “turning the other cheek,” yet true to his Argentinian roots, he displays classic Latin attitude toward the dishonoring of one’s mother. For Muslims, the Prophet reminded us, “None of you truly believes until I am more beloved to him than his own parents.” Hence, to slander our Prophet is a greater injury than an attack on our mothers. If the Pope will punch someone, even his close friend, should he insult his mother, then what are we to expect from uneducated and volatile street urchins with the same sense of honor?

Retaliatory murders for honor or otherwise are clearly wrong under Islamic law, or any other reasonable system of law, as they should be. But even the cofounder of Charlie Hebdo, Henri Roussel, blamed the editor for knowingly endangering the lives of his employees. “What made him feel the need to drag the team into overdoing it?” Roussel wrote in Nouvel Observateur. “He shouldn’t have done it, but Charb did it again a year later, in September 2012.” Roussel continued, “I believe that we [were] fools who took an unnecessary risk…. We think we are invulnerable. For years, decades even, it was a provocation, and then one day the provocation turns against us.” Addressing the slain editor, whom he referred to as a “blockhead,” Roussel said, “I really hold it against you.”

Just for a moment, let us imagine that this incident had been about twelve murdered black Nigerian cartoonists instead of white French ones: would world leaders have descended on Lagos to march lock-armed with President Goodluck Jonathan in solidarity? Can we imagine Netanyahu heading to the West Bank to hold hands with Abbas in solidarity for the dozens of Palestinian journalists who, in clear crimes against free speech, were targeted by Israeli forces for simply being witnesses to atrocities and reporting to the world about them? No, there will be no demonstrations or gathering of world leaders held for the untold numbers of innocent civilians, including women and children, who, without any provocation, have borne the brunt of bombings, drone strikes, and other nefarious means of modern warfare. It is at times like these when it seems as though we live in a cartoon world where millions are shedding tears or displaying moral outrage for twelve white people who, without denial, were brutally murdered, while too many of those same eyes remain blind and dry to the countless deaths and suffering of the world’s Muslims.

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