Paris and Beyond: Is Nothing Sacred?

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It’s been almost two weeks since terrorists entered the offices of a satirical magazine in Paris and killed more than a dozen in the name of Islam, allegedly to avenge the insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Two weeks of anger, confusion, heartache and a loud cacophony of voices. Two weeks of Muslims being asked to condemn the terrorists, asked to condemn ISIS and Al- Qaeda, asked to prove that we stand with freedom of speech and not violence and terrorism. It’s an old, tired subject that we have literally beaten to death, yet we continue.

Perhaps that’s the reason I didn’t write anything on the topic until now. Perhaps I was too busy watching the news like so many others I know. Not just the news of the Paris shootings but the media circus itself. The shootings, the fugitives, the dual hostage situations, the final battle between good and evil… it was all more like a movie than real life. I find it surreal and very disheartening that even a tragedy where innocent lives are lost becomes a battleground of political and ideological debate, an opportunity for hatred and bigotry to raise its ugly head. Everybody would agree that loss of life must be mourned no matter who dies. So this week I have mourned, not wanting to discuss or write about an over-discussed and over-written topic.
I will refrain from the usual disclaimers because they have become an ugly parody of the real thing. I shouldn’t have to condemn ISIS or terrorism or any other horrible thing anymore than a white woman from suburbia should have to prove that she hates the KKK. It should go without saying. I shouldn’t have to answer the question “why don’t Muslims speak out against terrorism?” because they do practically every day. I have come to the conclusion that our society is one that doesn’t listen, doesn’t hear. Sadly, I haven’t come up with a solution to this problem: how to make the voices of a billion people heard. How to talk over the terrorists. How to make people hear the truth. The media is the only mouthpiece we have, and the media of course is not our friend.
The Paris shooting is especially interesting because the media is not only reporting the event but also involved in it. The shooting occurred because a media outlet – a satirical magazine – published some cartoons depicting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light. Let me reiterate something that may get lost in the articles, op-eds, blog posts, television interviews, etc. because Muslims are too busy defending themselves from this latest onslaught brought about by lunatic terrorists. We are too busy condemning everything under the sun because otherwise we may be considered complicit. It’s too ridiculous for words but such is the reality we live in. In the frenzy we have forgotten the real issue, the true question: is complete free speech acceptable, or should it be?
Most Americans would think it should. In an interfaith discussion immediately following the shooting, I heard various rumblings of “if we limit free speech we will have to give up all our freedoms one day… if we stop a magazine from publishing cartoons today, what will we stop tomorrow?” I was amazed at this conversation, not because as a Muslim I have anything against free speech (I don’t), but because I know we do limit the press all the time. Our media censors itself constantly by refusing dissident voices the right to be heard, and many groups are considered untouchable – victims of 9/11 in the U.S. or those of the Holocaust in Europe for instance – yet we pretend as if we desire complete freedom of expression. In England, one cannot satire the Queen, in Germany one cannot deny the Holocaust, in the U.S. one cannot use the n-word. Right or wrong, we do limit our speech in many instances. Yet we pretend that this isn’t so.
If we could stop the name calling and the phobias for a minute, we would be able to analyze the real debate: is anything sacred? Is there any issue or person deserving of our utmost respect and honor? For Muslims it is prophethood – not just the Prophet Muhammad but all other prophets including Jesus or Moses. Just like we would not suffer insults to our parents, so too would we be offended at insults to a holy person regardless of who he may be. Does that mean we should punish satire or even hatred with violence? Absolutely not! But we should at least feel anger or disgust in our hearts instead of labeling it a value to be cherished and upheld.
In the gathering I attended, someone asked what difference does a cartoon make? Imagine a society where nothing is sacred, where everything including who we believe to be God or the son of God or the prophet of God is up for grabs and a few cheap laughs. A society where we can draw or paint a righteous, loving person in an ugly, uncompromising light and expect those who love him to take it in their stride. What effect does this kind of disrespect and disloyalty have on our society? What does it teach our young ones? What place does obedience, brotherhood, self-esteem and faith have in such a society? What do we hold dear, what do we love sincerely and honestly? Nothing.
And that should be a cause for concern. Terrorists will come and go, and in the end I believe that good will prevail because my belief assures me, but in the meantime we will have lost some precious values from our culture, our society and from our younger generations. We will have lost respect, faith, religion, and everything else that we hold dear. All in the name of freedom of speech that is only an illusion to begin with. Let’s hold some things sacred, in theory as well as practice.

Saadia Faruqi is an interfaith activist, editor of Interfaith Houston and trainer of American Muslim issues. Her upcoming book “Brick Walls: Tales of Hope and Courage from Pakistan” will be published in summer 2015. Follow her on Twitter @saadiafaruqi