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.