Paris and Beyond: Is Nothing Sacred?


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

7 thoughts on “Paris and Beyond: Is Nothing Sacred?

  1. Sanity cannot prevail in confusion and turmoil. If anyone feels that ridicule of anything will lead to it, they are sadly mistaken. We need to rethink and redefine concepts of ‘free speech’ and ‘freedom of speech’ to ensure that fundamental human rights are not trampled upon.

  2. I support the right of these cartoonists to publish any cartoon they wish to. I think that the retaliation against them was terrible. I fully support and am greatly encouraged by the massive outpouring of support for them and for the principle of freedom of speech.
    But I have to ask what is the purpose of this particular exercise of free speech. If it is to reach out to its targets; to educate them and to change their minds, then I would suggest that it is extremely doubtful that it will succeed; people do not generally respond positively to being attacked. If this is not the goal, what is? Just to offend? To prove something to ourselves?
    Is it irrelevant to point out the Golden Rule here? What about the large number of fellow human beings who venerate Muhammad because that is simply what they believe, and who are non-violent and pose no threat at all to anyone? What do we gain by insulting them? The right to offend does not mean that to offend is right.

  3. Very well written, Sadia. Thanks for sharing it. Freedom of speech without boundaries incites illegal actions. Hate mongering does not promote any social good, for any wrong doing definitely has its own repercussion.

  4. You are so right. Free speech is an illusion. I think about the Westboro Baptist Church Group and their protests at military funerals with anti-gay signs that are not only inappropriate, they stain what should be solemn occasions. The Supreme Court ruled it was their “right” to do this; it was “free speech.”
    What have we come to? We don’t want a Muslim point of view in the USA. Nor do we want a black, Native American, Jewish, LGBT, or Latino voice.Most Americans want a white,conservative, far-right voice. To hell with everyone else.
    Like George Bush infamously said, “You’re either with US, or you’re with the terrorists.”

  5. I’m Greek/Jewish and both my parents’ ancestors suffered at the hands of Muslims in their respective countries: Dad’s from the Ottoman Turks, Mum’s from the Iranian Muslims. I stumbled upon this site and this article today expecting to read something very different! I applaud you for standing up for the right of all people to feel their religious and spiritual experiences are free from attack. Like you, and like every person of sane mind, I condemn the murders at Charlie Hebdo. But like you, I too cannot see anything good coming of us constantly insulting each other. For one thing, when you insult a religion, you’re not insulting the person who wronged you. You’re insulting a whole faith system and its creator. What did Mohammed do to deserve such insults? What did the millions of good Muslims who practise kindness in their everyday lives, even laying down their lives to protect those WE think they think are their sworn enemies? (The guy at the Jewish supermarket). What do the millions of Christians who are persecuted daily for their faith in places like Africa, China and Afghanistan owe to those who think they’re ‘pushing their faith’ on others?
    Ultimately, we all know love is the only truth in relationships. There are two kinds of people: those who embrace this truth; and those who fear it. It’s up to the individual to decide which road they will take. To quote a passage from scripture: ‘When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, He makes even his enemies live at peace with him.’

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