Salute Charlie Hebdo, the magazine that refused to be on its knees before a god who is afraid of cartoons
Why is it that certain gods, or more aptly perhaps their messengers, are threatened by laughter? Remember that blind monk in The Name of the Rose, standing between the book of laughter and the Book as the last shield of faith? Did Jesus ever laugh? He asked and would seek his answer in a library on fire. The irreverence of laughter shatters the fragile certainties of religion, and makes gods vulnerable to men. The cartoonists and writers at Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based magazine, laughed at prophets and gods and the sacred inanities around them, and, all the while, they were aware that they were marked by the god who felt safer in a world without novelists of Jahilian fantasies, cartoonists who humanise the divine, filmmakers who take liberties with the holy script, aid workers or journalists who stray into the sandy remoteness of his newly acquired state.
So, this time, the god literally grabbed the headline, as if he was leaping out of a cartoon to kill his creator. The two men in balaclavas with Kalashnikovs who stormed the editorial meeting of Charlie Hebdo and killed its cartoonists and writers were, to quote Charles Allen’s memorable phrase, ‘god’s terrorists’. They left singing greatness to the god who is still hungry and angry.
Isn’t this enough for us to stop saying terror has no religion, the most idiotic refrain since 9/11—maybe before, since Ayatollah Khomeini declared war onhistory, a lie that threatened his god? We still hear it from every politician trying to be a moderate, lest he sound Islamophobic.
Even as I write this on a chilly London morning, the moment I switch on the radio or television, I can’t escape, amidst the mounting moral indignation, the liberal fear of a backlash, and the danger of Islam being generalised as evil.
We should return to the origin of modern Islamist terror—the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Ayatollah wanted a scriptural alternative to the shallow, hedonistic, godforsaken modernity. (The revolutionary alternative, always, originates from the Book with a capital B, whose wisdom is bigger than the collective mind of the masses, no matter the alternative is religious or ideological.) The Iran of 1979 was faith-in-power at its revolutionary peak, but it has been a journey downhill since then. Its most ludicrous moment was when it thought that the whole enterprise was about to collapse under the weight of a book. Again, the Book versus the book. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie also marked the extraterritorial terror of the revolution— and its paranoia. Inshallah, today we are waiting for Rushdie’s next novel, not the mullah’s memoirs.
Any Islamist worth his verses will shudder if we separate revolution from his religion. For only blasphemers and infidels dare to call the war of god, or the struggle for a scriptural Ruritania, an attack on humanity, or an act of terror. Imagine what could have been Osama bin Laden’s response if he were told terror has no religion; 9/11 was, for him, all about Islam, its rejoinder to the transgressions and perversions of the West— what was once the Great Shaitan for the Ayatollah.
The distance between the angry Persian prophet and Islam’s caveman in camouflage has been reduced by a religion’s possibilities to be a doctrine of hate. And unfortunately, as the jihad spread from ghetto to ghetto in the Middle East and elsewhere, promising the abandoned legion in rotten regimes a magic carpet ride to the Great Yesterday, no counter-doctrine emerged from within Islam. In the end it was all a matter of interpretation—who was reading or misreading what. Meanwhile, we counted the bodies.
Beyond Jihad Spectacular, there has been a series of atrocities that told individual stories of daring and defiance, of martyrdoms unsolicited. From writers stabbed and hounded in Cairo to journalists killed in Algiers, the narrative of dreaming and writing under the sword of a merciless religion has always been drenched in blood. A few courageous men, however, stood up and challenged the soul cleansers and hooded butchers of the Islamic State. The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, which is incidentally published from a country with the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, never stopped laughing at the profanities of faith, even as they received death threats. They put their sketchbook against the Book, they mocked the lies of religion as, elsewhere, men of god killed for the perpetuation of the Only Truth.
In an eerie coincidence, the storming of Charlie Hebdo took place on the day of the publication of the new novel by France’s most famous writer today, Michel Houellebecq, who once called Islam “cretinous”, and who was featured on the latest cover of the magazine. The title of his novel in French is: Soumission (Submission in English, and which is also a translation of ‘Islam’). In the novel, France will have an elected Muslim president in 2022.
“I would rather die standing than live on my knees,” Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo who was among those killed on Wednesday, once said. Submission is still not the religion of those who cherish freedom of the mind. Only cowards, armed with the Book and the gun, submit to the call of hate.