Was the murder of 11 members of the staff of a French “satirical” magazine a civilized act? Even to ask that question seems absurd.
Was the weekly output of the staff of that magazine a contribution to civilization? Even to ask that question seems brutish at best, and invites cries of “blaming the victim” and “moral equivalency” between “medieval barbarians” and “heroic defenders of freedom of speech.”
Yet the second question may be even more important than the first, if only because everyone outside of the confines of the putative “religion of peace” knows the proper answer to the first, but few understand why the proper answer to the second may very well be the same.
I do not wish to make too much of the rapid embrace of the phrase Je suis Charlie Hebdo by good people horrified by the meticulously planned and surgically performed strike by militant Muslims on the Paris offices of the “irreverent” weekly. Few who posted those words on Twitter and Facebook and every other form of social media this week know much at all about the actual content of Charlie Hebdo (as the all-too-frequent use of the line “It’s the French version of The Onion” makes clear). Most would undoubtedly be horrified had they seen the viciously antisemitic and anti-Christian cartoons that Charlie Hebdo routinely ran alongside the anti-Muslim images that have been widely circulated. Few (I trust) would be willing to defend, for instance, the cover that depicted the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity sodomizing one another, as a show of support for homosexual “marriage.”
Yet even among those exposed to the truth about the vile content that Charlie Hebdo routinely published, many continue to stand behind the slogan, because as a society we have become so beguiled by the words “freedom of speech” that we regard the quotation routinely and wrongly attributed to Voltaire—“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”—as the very foundation of civilization.
Of course, we don’t act like we believe that. Je suis Charlie Hebdo, cry those on the left, who normally spend their days screaming “Racist!” at those on the right. Would they defend to the death the right of someone to question affirmative action, much less the right to call someone a “nigger”? Of course not, nor should they.
Je suis Charlie Hebdo, shout those on the right, who routinely denounce the antisemitic ravings of Muslim clerics. Would they defend to the death the right of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to call Jews “swines,” or even the right of President Obama to call Islam a “religion of peace”? Of course not, nor should they.
And the good news is that they don’t have to. Civilization, thankfully, does not depend upon the right of freedom of speech, neither the concrete right guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution nor the abstract version ripped from the historical circumstance of that amendment by activist jurists and honed to a weapon lethal to civilized discourse first by leftists in the 1960’s and then by “conservatives” in the 1980’s.
Indeed, in its abstract form, elevated above all other principles and above the complex realities of actual human society, “free speech” has largely become cover for the behavior of those who either do not wish to conform to the norms of civilized society or who wish to undermine those norms with the ultimate intention of destroying civilization itself. It has become, in other words, an ideology, a distortion of reality.
In this, the partisans of free speech and the evangelists of Allah are much closer together than they or we tend to think. A few years after the pseudonymous S.G. Tallentyre (Evelyn Beatrice Hall) inserted her high-sounding words into the mouth of Voltaire, another English writer pointed out the parallels between the beliefs of Islam and those of modern liberalism. In G.K. Chesterton’s The Flying Inn, we see Islam not as the “medieval religion” of atheist and neoconservative screeds, but a thoroughly modern ideology, sibling to liberalism in an iconoclasm that doesn’t simply ignore reality but tries to destroy it. Unlike the Triune God of Christianity Who deigned to become man to save His Creation, Allah is an abstract principle—like “free speech”—to which all of human society must submit, by force if necessary, and through which it must be violently transformed. And just as the most radical proponents of "free speech" can justify anything under its banner, the most radical acolytes of Allah can insist that any action they take in his name is demanded by Islam.
That Islam does not merely prohibit images of Allah or images of Muhammad but all images of creation is telling, because through this prohibition it reveals a fundamental hatred of the created world, and not simply a fear of blasphemy (in the case of images of Allah) or sacrilege (in the case of images of Muhammad). But the iconoclasm of modern liberalism is the same. The promotion of vile obscenity à la Charlie Hebdo isn’t “courageous”; it is a rage against reality, a desire not only to destroy the norms of civilized life but to strike at the very roots of the created order that gives rise to those norms and makes civilization possible.
The iconoclasm of the Muslim murderers of the staff of Charlie Hebdo knows no bounds; but so, too, the iconoclasm of its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, who in 2012 proudly pointed out his renunciation of normal human in life in pursuit of a devotion to the abstract principle of “free speech”: “I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit.” His iconoclasm did not stop there, but extended to his very self: “It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.”
On January 7, two devotees of a different abstract principle granted him his wish. But as horrifying as the act of the jihadists was, the proper response of Christians and of civilized men generally to the ultimate form of Muslim iconoclasm should not be the explicit or even implicit embrace of Charlie Hebdo’s version of iconoclasm. Both have stepped outside the bounds of civilization; they are the two sides of the same debased coin.
The proper response of all civilized men is to uphold the norms of civilization, to condemn both murder and blasphemy and sacrilege; to refuse to countenance the latter (much less to exalt it) just because the former has occurred.
And for Christians, the proper response includes, as it always does, striving to be an icon of Christ in this fallen world, to shine the light of His grace into creation in order to strengthen it rather than to tear it down, to build up civilization rather than to reject it. It means the renunciation of ideology and the iconoclasm of both Islam and abstract “free speech”—and the embrace of reality in its fullness. And finally, it means recognizing the truth about Stéphane Charbonnier that he refused to acknowledge about himself—that he was a man created in the image and likeness of God, and that his murder by the devotees of the ideology of Allah is wrong, no matter what vile obscenities he published.