Paris captures the imagination. Paris is Paris, even in the winter. Paris is not Peshawar, nor is it Nigeria. The killing of journalists and police at Charlie Hebdo, followed by the killings at a Jewish supermarket, riveted the attention of a revolted world. That Islamist terrorism is a present danger is hardly news. The Taliban killings of 145 people, including 132 children, at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, took place less than a month before the Paris killings.
When speaking about jihadist massacres in Peshawar, by the way, it is important to specify which one. In September 2013, Taliban suicide bombers blew up All Saints Church in Peshawar, killing more than 90 Christians and injuring hundreds more. At the same time the Paris killings were taking place, it was revealed that the Islamic Boko Haram had massacred some 2,000 in Nigeria. Observers reported the ground was so thick with corpses that it was difficult to avoid stepping on the dead.
Yet that is over there — in the Islamic world. Almost exclusively in the case of Pakistan, and only slightly less so in some regions of Nigeria. When the killings take place in Ottawa (see "The Mace and the Gun" in last issue's Sea to Sea), or in Sydney — or, of course, New York — it strikes us differently, for this is not the Muslim world. The trouble from abroad is visiting us at home. We are right to be outraged, to condemn in the strongest terms the killing of innocents; and for those who care about such things, to condemn the sacrilege of murder in the name of God.
That being said — and needing to be said rather more frequently in recent months — the Paris killings introduced new dimensions into this ongoing bloody story. Does Paris now belong to the Muslim world in a way that Ottawa and Sydney do not? France has some six million Muslims, many of whom live in the poorer suburbs of the capital and other major cities. Part of the intense reaction to the Paris killings is the recognition that jihadist terror is not a problem visiting from abroad but one that lives at home. In less than a decade, some major European cities will have majority Muslim populations, Brussels likely being the first. The issue of Charlie Hebdo that hit the newsstands the day of the massacre featured Michel Houellebecq's novel Sousmission (Submission), released the same day. It is about France becoming an Islamic republic in 2022. Peshawar is not Paris, but parts of Paris are more like Peshawar than they were a generation ago. The massacre at Charlie Hebdo is a rather chilling reminder of that.
The massacre also riveted attention because it was about journalism — a satirical magazine of rather rude sensibilities, to be sure, but journalism nevertheless. And journalists cover stories about themselves rather intensely. It is not at all evident that the horror of killing journalists is more morally outrageous than the killing of schoolchildren, but it does get more attention from other journalists. It is not obvious that killing people for drawing offensive cartoons is a greater attack on fundamental liberties than killing people for going to church, but editors feel the pain of the former more intensely than that of the latter. So the demonstrations were massive, with all France rising up to defend French secularism, French liberty of the press, French irreverence towards authority and all things French in general. The blood of the French ran hot. They marched. They made signs. They created hash tags. Je suis Charlie.
I have spent little time in France, my last visit there being over a decade ago. I don't keep up with their blasphemous leftist periodicals, so before its cartoonists were killed, I would have been more inclined to identify with Charlie Brown than Charlie Hebdo. While the rush to sympathize with Charlie Hebdo is understandable, the eagerness to identify with it demonstrates the impotence of France to confront the threat now manifestly upon it. France prides itself on its long history of democratic development, on its liberty, equality and fraternity, on its creation of a secular State. In the face of lethal jihadism in its capital, Je suis Charlie is a rather inadequate response.
Charlie Hebdo is about a secularism that hates religion in general, and socially conservative religion with particular intensity. In a society with a robust understanding of both religious contributions to the common good and freedom of the press, Charlie Hebdo would be entirely free to publish and would be largely ignored. Genuine pluralism means that the fashionably transgressive get to transgress. Healthy pluralism also means that the common good is not thought to be served by those who traffic in transgressive insults. For the French to declare in large numbers Je suis Charlie is to betray their heritage of liberty. Is that all France has to say about the complex interaction of religion and public life, of religious minorities and the dominant culture, of religious sensibilities and press freedom? To reduce the French response to an identification with the world of Charlie Hebdo is to concede that French identity is rather too enervated and impoverished to succeed in a civilizational struggle. It is one thing for a society, in the face of apparently alien terror, to hold up the best of itself in response — the 9/11 first responders, the soldier standing guard at the cenotaph, the mace-bearer of Parliament. It is altogether different to rally around the essentially negative, quasi-nihilistic indulgence of base appetites and fears that Charlie Hebdo offers.
That there were killings in Paris does not set the Charlie Hebdo massacre apart from what has taken place in New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid, London, Nairobi, Sydney and, yes, Peshawar. What sets it apart is the response; and the response was discouraging.
As we go to press, the trauma in France is still fresh, and traumatized people are not to be judged harshly. As the weeks progress though, one hopes for rather more clear thinking in France — less je suis Charlie and more Quebec-style je me souviens — remembering that the heritage of French liberty, with all its lights and shadows, is far more than the crude caricatures offered by the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo.
Killing The Jews
When the blood flows in the streets, it is easy to get distracted. Yet the focus on Charlie Hebdo overlooked the Jews killed by jihadists the next day at a kosher supermarket in Paris before they themselves were killed by security services. Unless you consider the terrorists to be madmen on a mindless rampage, which the sophistication of their operations indicates is not the case, the latter murders are even more troubling. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were killed because they delighted in defaming Islam, a delight they extended to Judaism and Christianity as well. The Jews at the supermarket? Were the jihadists against supermarkets? Were they against shopping? Or were they against being Jewish? Killing someone for what he has done is not justified, but it is rather more chilling to kill someone for who he is. Killings at a Jewish school in 2012 introduced this brand of anti-Semitic jihadism to France. The response to the recent killings emphasized the defence of French liberties, especially freedom of expression and the press. What was left underemphasized is that killing Jews for being Jewish has re-emerged into French life.
On the Shabbat after the killings, the Grand Synagogue of Paris was closed for the first time since the Second World War. The first time since the Holocaust and the Nazi occupation of Paris. In fact, all Parisian synagogues were closed. There were no Sabbath prayers for the recently dead. For a few days, communal Jewish prayer life was killed off in Paris. Freedom of the press was not suspended in Paris. Freedom to worship was. Upon life returning to "normal," thousands of French troops were deployed to guard Jewish schools. Being Jewish in France was recognized as dangerous.
The Great Mosque of Paris was open for prayers as usual on the Friday after the massacre. There was no great police presence, for everyone knew that there was no danger. That is important to remember when, as is mandatory after a jihadist killing, everyone is warned against the anti-Muslim backlash. After 9/11, various Western leaders went to the local mosques to insist that Islam is a religion of peace. Nobody in Paris did that. Had they wanted to drop by the local mosque, they could have done so. If they had wanted to go to the local synagogue to offer sympathies, they would not have been able to. Fretting about the anti-Muslim backlash that does not come is a strange confusion when the Jewish community is being lashed simply for being Jewish.
Confusions And Clarity
Confusion reigned in the remarks of official France, led by President François Hollande. Reading from a script — perhaps drafted by a United Nations committee and promulgated years back — he said to the nation: "Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion."
After President Obama won the nothing-to-do-with-Islam Award in 2014 for stating that the Islamic State "was not Islamic," Hollande looks like a lock for the 2015 version. It is passing strange for rather determined secularists like Obama and Hollande to deliver theological judgments about what does and does not constitute Islam. It is even stranger that the only time such leaders tell us that Islam is not violent is when great violence has been wrought by people who say it is precisely about Islam, as the Paris killers made abundantly clear, saying that they "avenged the Prophet Muhammad."
That is a theological claim, albeit rather crudely put. It constitutes, therefore, an invitation for a theological response, particularly from Muslims. The presidents of the United States and France are not competent to answer that.
I am not sure of the theological competence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but he seems at least to be less confused than Hollande and Obama. In an address to Muslim scholars in Egypt to celebrate the birthday of Muhammad, before the Paris killings, el-Sisi had this to say:
"I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting on you. The entire world is waiting for your word...because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost at our own hands. We need a revolution of the self, a revolution of consciousness and ethics to rebuild the Egyptian person — aperson that our country will need in the near future. It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible that this thinking — and I am not saying the religion, I am saying this thinking...is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world! Does this mean that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants — that is seven billion — so that they themselves may live? Impossible!"
El-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood president elected in the wake of the Arab Spring, so he has a political reason to marshal Muslim forces against Islamist extremism. That said, the clarity he offers is a welcome contrast to the confusions of Western leaders. El-Sisi appears to go further than just bold words. In previous years, Egypt's Coptic Christians have faced massacre upon attending Christmas Mass, which they do according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar. This year, el-Sisi himself attended the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo for Christmas Mass, a remarkable thing for a Muslim leader to do. The theological war within Islam will not be resolved in Washington or Paris. There are early signs of promise in Cairo.
The Christian Response
Our young century will be largely preoccupied with this theological war within the house of Islam and its lethal effects — the latest of which were in Paris. This past September we began to see how a Christian civilizational response may be emerging to confront the threat of jihadism on behalf of the forces of pluralism and peace. A civilizational response cannot be only military or strategic; it has to have a large cultural component. A new group calling itself In Defense of Christians held a Washington summit that brought together religious leaders from across the Middle East.
Executive Director Andrew Doran was exaggerating only a little when he said that such a gathering of Christians of different churches, nations and cultures had not taken place in 500 years. With the immense burden of history behind them, Christians in the Middle East are as fractious as the Middle East itself. The summit convened, in one place, six patriarchs and included the participation of the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches, senior leadership from the Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Maronite Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic and Orthodox churches, and Anglicans and evangelical Christian denominations.
These leaders represent some 12 million Christians in the Middle East, about five per cent of the current population. A century ago, Christians made up about 20 per cent of the population, but emigration and persecution — not unrelated — have driven Christians to the margins of lands where many of them lived before Islam even existed. The brutal persecution of Christians by ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is the threat that has given urgency to the need for a common cause and united voice.
"We haven't seen this since the atrocities of Genghis Khan in the 13th century," said Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church of England.
That Christian pastors would unite to decry Christian persecution might not be considered remarkable, except that Christians have not been doing so until recently. The patriarchs no doubt found the novelty of such an ecumenical, interreligious, civil and political meeting a challenge.
The theological battle in the house of Islam will be worked out over decades by Muslims themselves. Other Arabs, especially Christian leaders, can contribute to that challenging conversation not just as fellow Arabs but as fellow believers. That they are beginning to do so precisely when Muslim leaders in Cairo are being urged to do the same is welcome.
Winnipeg's New Human Rights Museum
As I noted in "Small Talk," the Cardus team was in Winnipeg in November, just as the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights was opening. The museum bills itself as the only museum of its kind in the world. It does not commemorate a human rights triumph or atrocity. It started life as Izzy Asper's dream for his hometown and grew over the years into a $350 million redefinition of the Winnipeg skyline devoted to the idea of human rights universally. Whether a museum of ideas works as well as one of artifacts will be answered by the visitors who are just now starting to arrive.
There is a reason that Winnipeg's new museum — the sole federal museum outside the national capital region — is the only human rights museum in the world. The very concept invites controversy and disputes. For example, the week I visited, the British Parliament voted to ban sex-selection abortions. Is that an advance of human rights in the name of equality or a retrenchment of the right to an abortion for any reason at any time? Does it expand women's rights by preventing girls from being killed in utero because they are girls or does it contract women's rights understood as the unrestricted abortion licence? Imagine how you would present that issue in a museum and you only begin to understand that you will invite as much aggravation as admiration. I was shown an exhibition on genocides for which the museum was criticized because it did not characterize the Indian residential schools as a genocide. I was struck by the neighbouring display of Mao's Great Leap Forward, during which more than 30 million people were killed in just four years, and thought that no single category could adequately include both realities.
You encounter that at every turn — religious liberty and gender diversity share the same gallery — and the museum's success will depend upon visitors' willingness to tolerate contradictory views and diverse readings of history in favour of exploring why the defence of human rights is so central to the politics of our time. Indeed, it is because human rights are so powerful a concept that everyone advances his cause under that banner. That larger reality is worth celebrating even if the particulars are objectionable.
The museum tries to get around — or constructively into the middle of — all this by beginning with a huge gallery that offers up 100 moments in human rights history, both for good and for ill. Visitors are asked what they would remove or add. In my view, the two most important moments in the establishment of universal human rights are the Biblical wisdom found in the Hebrew Bible: "Let us make man in our own image and likeness" and the injunction of Jesus to "render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God that which is God's." The former is the most solid foundation for human dignity; and the latter, the foundation for the limited State, the sine qua non of human rights. Neither of them appear in the gallery's 100. Much of what is there is comparatively trivial.
There is some irony in the fact that a museum that is not about artifacts should be something of an artifact itself. A museum is not about the building, but this one is. Winnipeg is not barren of attractive architecture, but the downtown core is filled with buildings that range from dull to ugly. For there to be an immense, inspiring, audacious and attractive building nearby at the Forks, a centre of recreational and cultural life, will transform the city's urban landscape. The building is inspiring, even without knowing all the (occasionally forced) symbolism. The principal experience of the visitor is one of ascent — the arduous aspect of fighting for human rights — on glowing alabaster ramps into great spaces of light. It is a fundamentally hopeful building and beautiful, too, in an imposing rather than a subtle way.
The building will attract. That it will attract people to consider the great human rights movements of our time is a worthy project begun. Before departing, visitors are invited to complete comment cards that begin "I imagine...." I fear it may be an homage to John Lennon, whose anthem to nihilism is the very negation of all rights. Yet the project does stir the imagination, and one hopes for it a future full of light.