Friday, January 30, 2015

je suis charlie, je ne suis pas charlie

Though I prefer taking the train to work, this week I drove three times for various reasons. The plus side was that one evening, I heard part of Terry Gross's interview with Jack Miles, author of God: a Biography.

Miles was responding to a question about the murders at Charlie Hebdo and France's “je suis charlie” response, and he said something that (obviously) impressed me. He began by pointing out that we have a tradition of free speech in the West, and that although some of the cartoons were crude, juvenille and tasteless, there are no laws against that. (I believe Gross had asked him something like: Suppose you were the editor of a magazine, would you would publish cartoons depicting the Prophet?)

He also stated definitively that the murders at the magazine's office were an atrocity. That said, he offered two interpretations of "je suis charlie." According to one view, with which I mostly sympathize, "je suis charlie" means:

The spirit of France is one of free expression, and you can't kill it. You think you killed the French spirit by murdering those people at the Charlie Hebdo office? Well, I'm Charlie too, and you can't kill off the French spirit without killing all of us.

On the other hand, Miles also pointed out that unlike Mulsims in many other countries (e.g., the US), Muslims in France are largely from a single ethnic group, have a very high unemployment rate (whether because of their religion or their race I don't know) and therefore are afflicted by poverty. To them, "je suis charlie" may be heard as:

Those crude and tasteless cartoons you saw in Charlie Hebdo? We despise your Prophet too, just like those cartoons said; we are Charlie. And we despise you and want to keep you at the bottom of our society.

So am I charlie? By the first interpretation, yes! It is unconscionable to kill people for publishing stuff you disagree with. Even if it's crude and tasteless.

But by the second interpretation, no! I absolutely disagree with the tasteless and crude cartoon I heard described in that interview. I actually agree with the ideals of our country: equality of opportunity without regard to race, creed or color. I do not despise the prophet Mohammed [pbuh], who said many true things about Jesus Christ; he also reminds me of some of the prophets I have read about in the Bible.

I may go out and buy Miles's book, actually. I learned something profound from him just listening to him for a few minutes; what might I learn after reading 446 pages?

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