"Je suis Charlie"

Some Brief Applied Philosophy on the Public Reaction to the Recent Islamic Barbarism



We'll see about that.

“Je suis Charlie.”

Are you really?

Insofar as this little French sentence is an expression of sympathy with those killed at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, it is a nice gesture. But it is nothing more than that, because most of the people expressing it do not understand what they would really have to do and say to be Charlie. It is easy indeed and entails no sacrifice to express sympathy and thereby to share in a small part of the honor that properly belongs to the victims, but to be Charlie, people would have to do what Charlie did, namely fearlessly identify the Islamic threat to our society – and very few of them are ready to do that. As it is, all they do is indulge in uncontroversial bromides about the freedom of the press. Some of them go so far as to denounce “religious fascism”. That is not what Charlie did, or what it was; it said precisely what religion we were talking about. I never cared much for the publication in question, or for French humor in general. They hurl scatological insults at each other and call it funny. The people at Charlie Hebdo were revoltingly vulgar, and considered nothing sacred. But in their vulgarism and ignorance of fact in many areas, they also happened to be brave. “Je suis Charlie” is entirely uncontroversial and therefore not brave.

What makes “Je suis Charlie” all the more bloodless is that many of the people who are suddenly so strongly supporting freedom of the press are those who have all along encouraged self-censorship, either out of political correctness or out of a fear of retribution. The most prominent example is naturally the American president, whose press secretary in 2012 said that Charlie Hebdo had questionable judgment in publishing cartoons of Muhammad (White House press briefing on September 19), and, the president himself, that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam” (address to the U.N. General Assembly on September 25 of the same year). He should be happy, then, because several of those who did so are now dead. The law does not only intend to allow X and prohibit Y. The law also intends to serve as a general guide. If the law says that the freedom of the press shall not be curtailed, it also means that we should not indulge in self-censorship, that we should not curtail ourselves when we believe something is true; it intends to guide us to a more open and fearless spirit. If the president himself does not understand this, who will?

So to say that freedom of the press is important is not to be Charlie – it should be perfectly obvious to anyone with even the shadow of a clear mind that freedom of the press is important. To be Charlie, to be brave, would rather be, for example, to acknowledge that Islam is a type of fascism. The reason that it is, is perfectly simple: Islam explicitly weds its theocratic principles to a political construct. It is not a critique of Islam to point this out; Muslims themselves, and Muhammad himself, starting with the establishment of the first Islamic state in Medina in 622, have prided themselves on the notion that, unlike the other Abrahamic religions, Islam is not merely a religion, but also a political aspiration, and they will happily explain that Islam is a total system that makes little or no distinction between personal belief and political authority. This is especially evident in the Medinan suras of the Quran, as opposed to the Meccan ones. (The state in Medina was probably quite liberal for its time and place, but that soon changed once Muhammad and his merry men set out on their conquests.) Western apologists of Islam, who like to accuse Islam’s critics of ethnocentricity, are in fact themselves the true ethnocentrists, because they view Islam through a Western lens, where religion and political life are kept separate. This is not so in Islam. And once one combines Islam’s political aspect with the element of proselytism, which Islam also contains, of course the result is a type of fascism. Obviously, not all Muslims are fascists, nor do all believing Muslims aspire to political triumphs, and there are Muslims who are trying to rework or reinterpret their religion to make it more democratic and appropriate for Western ideals – I hope they succeed – but Islam itself in its original and still prevailing form is fascist. Islam can and does exist in the West, just like communism and various forms of right-wing fascism can and do exist in the West, but, like these homegrown Western dogmas, Islam is essentially anti-Western, because, like communism and “normal” fascism, it seeks to restrain much of what is great with the West: freedom of speech and press, equal rights for women, open inquiry, scientific and philosophical skepticism, human rights, and much else. For the most part, Islam has only been tolerant when it was powerless. It is therefore our task to keep it powerless in the West, such as by curbing immigration from certain countries (and certainly not by horrible, anti-Muslim violence); small but not large numbers of Muslims are tolerable among us, just like small but not large numbers of communists and fascists are tolerable among us before a critical mass is reached.

By comparison, Christianity is proselytizing but in its founding philosophy apolitical: most famously by Jesus’ urging to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto god what is god’s (Matthew 22:21); by Jesus’ reply to Pontius Pilate that his kingdom is of another world, and that therefore his followers will not fight for him (John 18:36); by Paul’s claim that people must obey the polity of which they happen to be part (Romans 13:1). Judaism, though its politics is more nuanced and difficult to define, is not proselytizing. Whereas Christians and Muslims believe that only their own kind will be saved, so that they want to proselytize other peoples for those peoples’ own sake, as it were, Jews believe that righteous gentiles will also reach salvation (Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 105a, and elsewhere), and the proselytizing urge is thus lessened. In fact, there is only one single instance of forced Jewish conversion in all history, namely of the Idumeans by the Jewish Maccabee ruler John Hyrcanus around 125 BC.

Euripides, one of my best friends and greatest heroes, who never ceases to teach and to inspire. Here I ran into him in Berlin.

The claims to be Charlie will slowly dissipate, and the people will forget what it was all about, thereby showing in yet another way how little of Charlie there is in them. This is why I have waited a bit with writing this, so as to keep insisting that it is important. Indeed, it is always the case that once a particular idea becomes a mass phenomenon, it is inevitably sullied and debased, and people will latch on to the idea in whatever way they can only in order to gain an advantage. We like to think that this is a recent phenomenon due to the proliferation of mass and social media, but it has always been the case, since it merely reflects the opportunism of human nature. One of the best and most famous treatments of mass hysteria from antiquity is Euripides’ play Bacchae, which shows very clearly and poetically what Nietzsche succinctly summarizes in a short phrase, namely that in individuals, insanity is rare, but in groups it is the norm (Jenseits von Gut und Böse / Beyond Good and Evil). The suddenly outraged masses were complacent before, and will, I assure you, very soon be complacent again. No one in France ever said anything about the police vehicles always stationed in front of synagogues, as if it were perfectly acceptable that such a thing should be necessary, no one thought it lamentable that in many European countries small children going to Jewish school must pass by several armed guards in order to reach their place of instruction. There are victims of Islamic terror all the time, everywhere in the world, but when it happens to actual Frenchmen in France, the world is suddenly ending. At almost the same time as the attack in Paris, about 2000 Nigerians were reportedly killed by Boko Haram. But why should we care, since we are busily grandstanding about freedom of the press among the Paris cafes? The mass demonstration in Paris on January 11 is a perfect example of how the mass of well-intentioned (and sometimes not so well-intentioned) people rape an idea and cower behind numbers: In this crowd were dictators suppressing free speech in their own countries, Islamic fascists waving Palestinian flags in support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and, yes, many well-meaning Frenchmen rightfully saddened by recent events but unwilling to look more broadly, unwilling to see their own complicity, and thus utterly incapable of understanding the futility of their gesture. Everyone wants a piece of “Je suis Charlie”. Some, when they see that I explain why Islam is a type of fascism, will call me a racist and Islamophobe (a misnomer if ever there was one) and will wish I had censored myself – that is their sense of freedom and Western ideals.

The Greeks despised those who were not willing to die for their beliefs and, above all, for love. This is why Orpheus is a subject of mockery in some Greek thought (most prominently in Plato’s Symposium), because he was not willing to die in order to be with Eurydice. If we are not willing to die for the Western ideals of love – such as, for instance, the right of a man to love another man, the right of a Jew to love his god, the right of artists to engage in their craft (because art is love) – if we are not willing to die in combating the Islamic fascism that would deny us these things, then what would we ever die for? If there is nothing for which we would die – most of all the right to love – then we also have no particular right to live.

Will you stand up and say things that you know might cost you your life one day, but you say them all the same, because you believe you are speaking the truth, knowing perfectly well that your words will make you enemies among the barbarians and among the ignorant? If you cannot answer this question in the affirmative with all your conviction, vous n’êtes pas Charlie.