Samstag, 24. Januar 2015

About Charlie

The reasons for being Charlie are varying to a great deal and it is not at all my intent to condemn all of them. The terrorist attacks in Paris have been a huge and ghastly crime, for which there is no excuse and only condemnation and this is the motive for many people, to suddenly discover that they are Charlie. However, there is a tendency in the recent "Je suis Charlie" discourse which I find worrying and which I want to briefly address in this post.
The slogan "Je suis Charlie" is often waved as a kind of symbolic banner for freedom of speech. "We Westerners will never give up our freedom of speech, those damn muslims will never make us silent and stop us from doing caricatures of Mohammed or whoever. Now more than ever it is our duty to print as many caricatures of Mohammed to show that we are not giving in to fear and terror. We will defend our long fought for right for free speech and express-ability, our gem of occidental culture" seems to be the outline of this kind of thinking.
Following this train of thought, newspapers headline with "satire is allowed to do anything" and urge for a fight against muslim terror and for our values, which we are allegedly defending with posting more caricatures of Mohammed. This leads to conclusions like calling it a "victory of fear" when the New York Times decides to not print all of Charlie Hebdo's latest post-assault edition.
But why should this decision of one of the world's leading newspapers be one of fear? It could just as well be one of decency - decency and sensibility towards the feelings of others. Because what we seem to be forgetting in all this heated debate is that only because we are in theory allowed to say everything, we are not urged to do it. For example: we do not make fun of homosexuals. Neither do we make fun of handicapped people, of people with scars in the faces or with other disfigurement. We do not laugh out at a person who is especially small or tall, who has a weird voice or some other things which we might be in theory be able to make a joke about, neither have I ever seen a caricature of a person in a wheelchair that is unable to enter a bus or descend a staircase. Why is that?
Because there are things that hurt people and its a part of basic human decency and respect that we do not make fun of things that hurt other people. It is a fact that it hurts most muslim people if we make fun or produce a caricature of Mohammed, but in this matter we seem to have a blind spot in our decency. When it comes to caricatures of Mohammed we seem to see it as an integral part of the pillars of our Western Enlightenment, that we may print as many of them as possible and celebrate those who have produced some as some sort of semi-heros.
It seems to me that the West - and especially Europe - has some problem in accepting that a) secularism, freedom of speech and laicism is a cultural product of the West, and not a universal achievement of humanity and b) that other cultures have different ways of dealing with religion.
b) Western - especially European - culture has lost most of religiousness in the last 500 years. For about two centuries it is more and more normal to be an atheist / agnostic and to insult and fight the church, the Vatican and christianity in general with all means of provocation at hand. It is worth remembering that most other cultures have never developed such a strong notion of anti-religiousness and atheism as the former Christian one. For example: there is hardly no radical critique of Islam within the muslim world. The huge majority of Muslim reformers do not reject Islam entirely, but seek reform within Islam (like historical reading of the Qur’an and so on). What has always deeply fascinated me, when I was in a Muslim country like Morocco or Indonesia is to see, how one religion can actually work. Despite all the personal problems I might have with the religion, I still couldn't stop feeling awe about how religion can unite a people - how it is a common denominator for one society, holding it together in some completely alien way for a modern Westerner like me. Although I am not at all for any religious hegemony and am happy that Christianity's collapsed in Europe, it was very interesting to me to see, how religion can still me some kind of master narration.
a) Secularism has come into existence in a culture which has witnessed the death of god and is linked with Christian metaphysics of emancipation, which are not universal but something very occidental. So if we claim that secularism and freedom of speech should be applicable throughout the world, we act - in a very weird way - in the same manner as Christian imperialists have acted centuries ago: we think that our world view and its internal value are something universal for all humanity and that it is our duty to bring it to all of the world. In acting so we are still more Christian than we would like to think: we still have the same notion of universality which has led Columbus and his successors to enslave the most of the non-European world. We mistake our local perspectivism for a global universalism and demand it to be applied all over the world. We demand our right to do a caricature of whoever because it is a part of our right, which we have long fought for.
This wrong notion of universality makes us blind and insensitive towards general decency and respect for the feelings of others. Especially when it comes to a culture like the Muslim one, which we find a bit weird, for it has a religious system, which seems to be working - for no reason that our Western understanding can fathom. Just because it is normal for us to make fun of Christian religion and say whatever we want to about it, we must not apply the same standards to the one of Islam - for it has not developed the same degree of internal criticism as Christianity did1.
Added to this, it bears a weird cynicism if we indulge into this special liking in making fun of Islam, for it is - within our context - the religion the oppressed. Not only has "the West" systematically oppressed, exploited and repeatedly fucked over many Muslim countries (like Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan to just name a few of the more popular examples), but also within the West is the percentage of Muslim people in the lower class significantly high. So if we insult muslim people, we do not target a rich Bourgeoisie like we might have done with Christianity a century ago, but we frequently hit the ones we already oppress. This dark cynicism leads to feelings of hatred which become - from this perspective - more understandable and also remind of us the fact, that the entire Parisian assault is not an offspring of a religious problem, but of a social and historical one (very well outlines by Al-Jazeera here). Surprisingly it didn't get much coverage that even the leader of Hezbollah - a Muslim grouping which you really can't call moderate - said that assaults like the Parisian one and Muslim extremism in general hurt Islam much more than any caricature of Mohammed would ever do.

To summarize: What is primarily at stake in this entire debate is not the West's freedom of speech, but its ability for cultural empathy, understanding and decency. We are taking the completely wrong steps if we think, that we are now urged to print Mohammed caricatures more than ever before - this panic reaction makes us insensitive towards the real problem and would result in an hardening of fronts, which will even increase the tensions which already have caused the terrible assaults. Paradoxically, those wrong steps actually lead us to scarifying our freedom of speech ourselves, since the discussion about increased surveillance has already started (let us please not forget this: all the three shooters of the Parisian assaults have been on the terrorist's surveillance list of almost every Western secret service. So: the surveillance DID already work sufficiently revealing at the same time how inefficient it actually is). I am not the first to say that exactly this reaction gives in to terrorism by allowing it to work internally within our system, by spreading fear and potentially causing a real damage to our democratic, secular world and its freedom of speech.
So instead of fighting for freedom of speech and Western values, let's focus on the values themselves and become more decent, more understanding, more open minded. Let's not give in to terrorism and self-sacrifice our values, but lets be stronger than those and lets build up resistance to the inner mechanisms of terror.

1nor does it need to.