After Charlie Hebdo

At the time that news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre broke, I was lying on a PET scanner, meditating on life and death and praying for the needs of my friends, online and off. I mention this detail because it underscores the fact that the most horrific events take place while most of us are unaware and quietly going about our own business with its small joys and griefs and interludes of boredom and dissatisfaction. We all  ‘knew’ something of this kind would happen ‘one day’, but when it did, we were unprepared. The rush to comment, to express shock and horror, reflects our unpreparedness. Some has been predictable. Many, especially professional media types, have been asserting that Charlie Hebdo stood for all that we most value in western democracies, especially freedom of speech and expression in which satire and humour play an important part; for others the murder of twelve people was an act of war by militant Islam against the West; others again, including the majority of French Muslims, maintain that this outrage was perpetrated by a sick minority who do not represent Islam and have called for unity and solidarity in line with that urged by M. Hollande; a few, who disliked Charlie Hebdo’s approach and thought it rash at best, have stuck with Voltaire’s view that one may detest what someone says but nevertheless defend to the death the right to say it; and, inevitably, a handful have trotted out the ‘all religion is violent’ line.

Where does this leave us the day after? Although I think we are still reacting rather than reflecting, I’d say that, first and foremost, it leaves those of us who pray with the duty of praying for the repose of the souls of those murdered. None of us knows how prepared or otherwise they were for death, what unresolved conflicts were weighing on them or those they love. This may not mean much to anyone in good health with, please God, a long future before them; but to anyone who knows their time may be short, it is the wrongs done to others, the sins of which we may have not repented, the things we may not be able to put right, that press most heavily. One of the (to me) most beautiful aspects of Catholicism is its confident prayer for the dead: we trust in an infinitely loving and merciful God, but we are in such awe of his holiness that we do not presume. To pray for those who have died is a work of charity, one we in the monastery undertake several times a day; and we do so not with abject fear but with what I call peaceful insistence. It is a way of sharing in the experience of, and expressing solidarity with, the whole human race.

We must pray for those who grieve. How many families said goodbye yesterday morning in a typical Wednesday morning rush, not realising it was the last goodbye they would ever say? It was not only the magazine staff who were gunned down, but also the police whose task it was to protect them, at least one of whom was apparently a Muslim. That surely drives home to all of us how senseless and brutal was that attack, and how very far from any conception of justice and right action. We must pray, too, for those who must deal with the aftermath: those who must search out the murderers; those who must maintain order in society and prevent further violence; and finally, and most importantly, we must pray for the perpetrators and whatever it was that inspired them to such a heinous crime and legitimized it in their own eyes and the eyes of many others.

It is that last point I find especially troubling. I believe in reverence and would no more mock or denigrate the beliefs of others than I would my own. But, of course, as a Christian, I distinguish between mockery of God (which I find painful) and mockery of the Church and her saints (which can be useful, and, if well done, extremely funny). It seems to me that many Muslims accord Mohammed an inviolable status we Christians give only to God, and not always to him. We don’t understand that the prophet is off-limits for any kind of jesting. There is in Islam nothing I can think of that corresponds to our medieval mystery plays, for example, where love and devotion are accompanied by poking fun at the object of devotion. That is a cultural difference, certainly, but I think it is legitimate to ask whether or to what degree western society, which is now largely secular, should accommodate to the cultural sensitivities of the many groups within it.

France is proudly secular and appears to be having great difficulty coming to terms with the very different world-views of some sections of its population, especially its Muslim population, which is the largest in Europe. As a westerner and a Christian I can sympathize with the difficulty, but we mustn’t forget that the men who carried out the murders at Charlie Hebdo were themselves Frenchmen. Much is being made of their Algerian descent, but it is a western principle that we do not have second-class citizens. We are French or British or American or whatever, with equal rights and obligations under the law, and our legal systems, although imperfect, are precisely what we rely upon for the working out of our differences. We do not take the law into our own hands. We do not privatise justice or exact personal vengeance. As Lord Denning once remarked, ‘Be you never so high yet the law is above you.’

I hope that the Charlie Hebdo massacre will not lead to further polarisation of our society, or attacks on Muslims, in France or elsewhere. At the same time, I also hope it will lead to more questioning. The question I have for my Muslim friends is very simple. What is it in Islam, however perverted a form of it we may be talking about, that leads people to think that they are doing a godly act by killing others, including that Muslim policeman gunned down outside the Charlie Hebdo offices? How is it legitimized? How can justice be privatised in this way? I truly do not understand, but until that question is answered, I think we shall all live in fear. I do not think the question can be answered by saying it is a response to western aggression in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the result of French colonial activity in the past. We are not talking about the past: we are talking about here and now, today, this very minute; and human beings who, for me as for many others, are created in the image and likeness of God, the holiest of all symbols of his presence and action in the world. To some, that will seem ridiculously naive. To others, it will merely be the truth, and the reason what happened at Charlie Hebdo has to be explained.


19 thoughts on “After Charlie Hebdo”

  1. I’m praying for them and we said prayers at Mass this morning for all involved.

    You make the very points well, that I wish that I had made myself.

    I’m fast coming to the conclusion that for some people any thing can be regarded as insulting or blasphemous – so the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo were obviously not funny to those who carried out this cruel act, whether revenge or just calculated cruelty is hard to discern.

    I pray for God’s peace and love to prevail in human hearts and live in hope that those prayers will be answered.

  2. I share your hope in prayer for the dead. If “the tree lies where it falls” according to the belief of many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, then truly we should feel a sense of desperation at the disposition of so many. I hope that we Catholics are right. I believe that all is possible with God.

    As for these terror acts, I understand in principle the reaction to anger when you feel that your faith is being mocked or marginalized in some way. I feel it too, and probably all to often. The difference, of course, is in the response. We believe that the taking of life is a wrong response. I believe that Muslim people for the most part believe that too. Religion is always available, unfortunately, to not only the sincere of heart, but to those who would use the faith of others to manipulate them toward unfortunate ends. I believe that is what we see. That is not limited to religion, that is a sad fact of our disunity, where we gather in groups, and seek advantage over or protection from some other group(s).

    I believe that the correct response is what I heard of in Austrailia recently reportedly spoken by a bus rider to a muslim woman who was fearful…”I’ll ride with you”. The correct response to violence is peace, wherever possible, the correct response to hatred is love.

    • Thank you, Wayne. While I agree that violence is not the right answer to violence, I am serious about the question in my last paragraph because we see many Muslims using violence against others, and I genuinely do not understand how such violence can be legitimized. I don’t think we can dismiss the question by saying that they are not ‘true’ Muslims or are misusing religion for irreligious ends, however much we think their view of religion distorted.

  3. I do very much agree with the points you have so prayerfully made.
    As to the last question you pose about what grounds there may be in anybody’s mind for inflicting violence, or even taking life, and believing this a godly act, I think we do well to remember that many claiming to be Christians have been similarly motivated by their own particular version of faith. Demonizing others, or believing oneself an avenging or corrective arm of God, is not something peculiar to Muslims.

    • Thank you, Hazel. No one is suggesting that Muslims have a monopoly on violence, and I would hope anyone who knows me would never think I was demonizing anyone; but at the present time, it does seem that more people calling themselves Muslims are perpetrating such acts of violence as we see in France, Nigeria and the areas controlled by IS than Christians. I therefore think it reasonable to ask the question I do. I’m familiar with the kind of theological justifications Christian have used down the centuries to justify violence. I’ve read the Koran several times also, but I’m still at a loss.

  4. Your question is one I would like answered too. Meanwhile, as so often, your compassionate voice breathes coolness and balm into the heat of our actions and reactions. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Kate. By the way, I emailed you just before Christmas but I used the wrong email address, for which I apologize. I still hope it arrived, though, and that your health is improving.

  5. Sister I wish that I could answer your question but I’m afraid that I can not. Perhaps the answer is in the question itself… Do others view those outside of their own faith as created in the Image and likeness of God? If this view is taken to heart, then how do we explain the very violent culture that we all live in, much less the particularly violent actions of terrorists? I don’t know, but I would suggest that an appreciation of our fellows as created in God’ image and likeness ( an extraordinarily powerful concept) is in shorter supply than we would hope.

  6. Charlie Hebdo mocked God, not only religion, with their 2012 revolting cartoon of the Holy Trinity engaged in sodomy. What the terrorists did is absolutely wrong but these “journalists” should not be mourned more than the
    hundreds of Palestinian children killed by Israeli bombs.
    Charlie Hebdo ought to have been banned because it incites hatred on the grounds of religion and deeply offends without justification millions of Moslems, many of them refugees and hard-working people trying to integrate into the deeply immoral society of the West.
    Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is never forgiven, not even by God. As an Orthodox Christian, moi je ne suis pas

    • I personally had no time for Charlie Hebdo’s stye of journalism as, I suspect, readers of this blog are well aware; but the point of my post is not Charlie Hebdo and whether it was a worthwhile journal but rather the duty of prayer that falls on those of us who are Christians, and the questions I raise in my last paragraph about how such acts of violence can be given a justification in any form of Islam. If we don’t go beyond the particular to the general, we shall be forever reacting to the latest tragedy/latest outrage, e.g. the murder of several hundred people in Nigeria during the last couple of days by Boko Haram may not be attracting as much attention, but it seems to stem from the same mind-set. It is that mind-set I want to understand as a first step towards countering it.

  7. Maybe the problem distills to tribalism, which is an unfortunate component of many if not all groups. I’ve not read the Koran, so can not comment on it other than to ask if it does or does not support violence to those outside of the Muslim faith…either in text or in interpretation? It certainly would appear that to Terrorists, including to at least an equal degree Muslim terrorists, those of us outside the group, who are infidels, must seem sub-human. I say that not to criticize Islam in particular but to offer evidence that this violent attitude toward others is a matter of man’s (and woman’s) disunity with God and with one another.

    This is from Rafi, a Muslem mystic (sufi) and poet from the past:

    For those in love,
    Moslem, Christian, and Jew do not exist….
    Why listen to those who see it another way? —
    if they’re not in love–their eyes do not exist.

    These words from a venerated mystic of Islam from the past seem to be falling on deaf ears today. One day, by grace of God, shall we all worship as one, and not from this mountain or that? I can’t ascribe limits to the Holy Spirit, so it is most certainly not only in our interest but also our duty to pray. Unless and until this happens, we may never have answers to these questions; we may never have peace.

    • I don’t think it is enough to have read the Koran for oneself. It needs to be interpreted by someone familiar with the religious tradition of which it forms an essential part (just as the Bible does), and therein lies the problem. We must pray.

  8. Thank you, as always, for your insightful words.
    I too ponder, pray and anguish over the questions as to ‘Why’ people behave like this and ‘What’ is the answer.
    Yes, the radicalisation has to be addressed, but how and is poverty, deprivation and being an orphan the cause – I somehow doubt this as others of similar backgrounds do not become radicalised.
    I am more and more convincing, but have no idea how to truly follow this, that Jesus’s two commandments are the answer. If everyone loved their God (and for non believers loved the world) and if everyone really loved their neighbours as themselves, then surely such atrocities such as the recent French massacre of journalists and police, beheadings by IS, the actions of Al Qaeda, Boko Haram et al would be a thing of the past.

    • Thank you, Sarah. You are right to mention the complexity of the questions we have to address. For myself, I can only urge that we concentrate on fraternité rather than the other two revolutionary slogans. If we forget our common humanity, any horror is possible.

  9. I read an article describing a call to moderation and end to violent jihadist from the President of Egypt. I think that it is a shared phenomena ( or at least it is mine) that groups of people appear monolithic to those outside, so that perhaps we are unaware of the existence or extent of the differing forces within that group. Hopefully the Lord is working in the hearts of those involved to bring an end to hostile means, and this hope can be reflected and shared in our prayer as well.

    • I believe over 2,000 French imams condemned the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and thousands more world-wide. None of my Muslim friends here in the UK or overseas has ever said a word in favour of violence; but I am still keen to discover, if possible, what the religious justification of violence is for those who espouse it, e.g. Boko Haram, IS. I share your prayer that the Lord will free all hearts from the desire to kill.

  10. Sister Catherine, I’ve been thinking about this question since you initially posed it. I think (for me) that it must be posed better as a rhetorical question, as there seems to be no concrete answer, at least in my own thoughts. I can only say that were I to put myself in a position of wanting to find justification in scripture for such an act as murder, I might look to scripture and find places where the people of Israel, entering the promised land, are sometimes commanded to utterly destroy what they find in front of and opposing them. In my own case I understand the exodus as a story about God’s relationship with us, and overcoming our rebelliousness, of eradicating and destroying completely that which stands between us and God. If I were of a mind, however, to physically destroy another person, might I find justification to do so from scripture? I’m not suggesting of course that scripture is supporting the murder of others, but I am suggesting that people tend to hear what they wish to hear, and see what they wish to see.

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