Charlie Hebdo Lives: Charb’s Open Letter

It would be impossible to write for CounterPunch if I feared I would be censored, but I also confess that religion does not interest me enough to write about it. Ditto God, who I am certain does not exist. My proof? Mankind: horrible, hypocritical mankind. I seriously doubt any god would create so many hateful people I hear about, read about (and sometimes encounter) every day. And, sadly, these horrible people appear to be increasing in numbers, as politicians do everything they can to demonstrate that they have no empathy for anyone less successful than they are; as racism threatens to destroy the world; as gun wackos insist on taking their guns everywhere (including churches and classrooms); as capitalism illustrates that dishonesty, fraud and cheating are legitimate practices for companies to become profitable. So, yes, I’m an atheist, as most of the intelligent people I know are. And I am certain that that confession—in the eyes of many—makes me lower than a worm. A recent poll that asked people what might make them unlikely to vote for a candidate identified “atheist” as the worst offender. Fortunately, I have no intention of running for office.

Fortunately, also, I am not alone, though with the escalating attack on reason coming from worldwide religious fundamentalism, things are becoming much more complicated than they were when I was younger. I write this essay on the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris that left twelve people dead, including five of the cartoonists for the satirical magazine. This is also the occasion of the English translation and publication of the book that Stéphane Charbonnier (the editor of the publication who died in the massacre) completed days before he was murdered. Thus, there is increasing commentary on the anniversary, including a Washington Post article (Jan. 8th) that asked numerous cartoonists what they believe has most changed during the past year. Many of them imply that they must look over their shoulders more frequently than they did in the past and that the “security presence” that is sometimes needed since the Paris murders is something they had not foreseen.

The WashPost article, written by Michael Cavna, notes the isolation of Islam as a religion, as various countries uphold or introduce what they consider to be anti-blasphemy laws in regards to Islam. Signe Wilkinson, a cartoonist in charbPhiladelphia, is quoted as saying, “Equality will come when we treat prophets of all faiths equally…. If the devout do awful things in the name of their prophets, they shouldn’t be surprised to see their prophets in cartoons, and we shouldn’t be afraid to put them there,” even though many cartoonists (especially in Europe) have been intimidated. Ergo, if the god is Christian, you can draw him (her?). If the god is Allah, forget it, which points at the absurdity of the entire issue.

Absurdity is the right word to segue to Open Letter. Charb writes of the fundamentalists of both Islam and Christianity, who take their holy books literally: “In short, the problem is neither the Koran nor the Bible—tiresome, incoherent, and poorly written novels though they may be—but the faithful who read the Koran or the Bible the way you read the assembly instructions for an Ikea bookcase,” i.e., literally. “If you don’t do exactly what it says on the paper, the universe will blow the fuck up. If I don’t slit the infidel’s throat along the dotted line, God will banish me from Club Med when I die.” And those seventy-one guaranteed virgins—we dare not even go there.

Let’s examine the first passage above. Charb states that both holy books should be regarded as novels because there is so much in each one that is literally impossible. Notice the irony here. The faithful do not understand that some incidents in their holy books cannot be taken literally, but they still expect you (you non-believer) to regard them that way. Forget all the impossible incidents (hundreds) described in the Bible. Let’s move to the Koran instead and provide another terrifying example. The Bangladeshi secular blogger, Asif Mohiuddin, was brutally attacked by Islamic fundamentalists because he wrote in a science magazine that “It was scientifically impossible for the Prophet Muhammad to ascend to heaven on a horse.” I haven’t read Mohiuddin’s article but I suspect he said that although Muhammad could have entered heaven, it would be impossible for the horse (presumably a non-believer) to do so. Perhaps the faithful believe that the horse actually was a believer, or maybe that thought never crossed their minds.

It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that like the Charlie Hebdo staffers, Mohiuddin and other Bangladeshi secular bloggers have been violently attacked and some have been murdered. Avijit Roy—another Bangladeshi blogger who lives in the United States—expressed it another way, “Religion has been used all throughout history to justify war, slavery, sexism, rape, racism, homophobia, polygamy, mutilation, intolerance and oppression of minorities.” That’s quite a long list, and he added, “These atrocities are the products of virus-infected minds.” I don’t have any disagreement with that statement, and I’m certain that Charb would agree. The quotations from Mohiuddin and Roy are from a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 3rd, called “Fighting Words,” though the piece might more accurately be called “Dying Words.”

What all this adds up to is that Stéphane Charbonnier’s killer believed that he would enjoy the benefits of Club Med. I say that because of his statement in Open Letter that “‘Sacred’ texts are only sacred to those who believe in them.” So why do the believers need to force their beliefs on others? Worse, if there is a just God and his duty is to sort out the lives of the deceased and punish or reward them, why do people need to be punished while they are still living for what they will certainly be punished for afterwards? Thus, Charb asks, “Does God—the creator of the world [according to the believers], this swaggering broad-shouldered guy who toys with our planet the way a driver stopped at a red light toys with his boogers [according to the non-believers]—really need some ambulance chaser to uphold his honor?”

Shouldn’t the God the believers believe in be bigger than that? Does he really need literalists to keep the non-believers in tow? By extension, are cartoonists who depict the Prophet holding a machine gun or a hand grenade Islamophobic? Is the media correct in calling these cartoonists Islamophobic, meaning racist? Are Muslim cartoonists who depict all Jews with large noses not racist? Or, to quote Charb again, “When you draw an old man engaged in pedophilia, you are not casting aspersions on all old men or suggesting that all old men are pedophiles (or vice-versa), and other than a rare few idiots, no one would accuse the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo of that. The drawing is just an old pedophile, nothing more.” Are the Charlie Hebdo cartoons an affront to all Muslims?

Ideally, much more of Open Letter should be quoted in this review, but that is impossible. Instead, I urge you to read the book, even though you have already noticed that Charb is not very subtle (which is true of most satire), given to four-letter and/or unsavory words, such as boogers. Why is that necessary? Let me tell you. Religious literalists cannot understand secular literalists because they (the former) are almost always intolerant of anything that is not from their own perspective. Thus, religion trumps reason, which is why I consider Charlie Hebdo funny and the fundamentalists do not. But I do not want the fundamentalists murdered or even harassed. They should be left alone. Ditto racists, conservatives, and all world’s hypocrites, although there’s a great amount of overlap in those three categories. What would killing them accomplish? It would be giving into their narrow-minded fear of otherness.

There’s already enough carnage in the world. We can’t give into an eye for an eye. And Stéphane Charbonnier? May he rest in peace wherever he is.

Charb: Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression.

Little Brown, 82 pp., $16

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.