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

More articles by:

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

December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek