Does religion Have a Role?
The French now know what 21st-century war will be like for them: no foreign army trying to take control of the country, no nuclear
apocalypse, but homegrown terrorists, trained abroad and killing in the name of their religion.
The massacre of the editorial staff and cartoonists of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo was symbolic: The newspaper had repeatedly
lampooned Islam via its editorial cartoons, and this was payback. To be honest, however, Charlie, self-identified as a “beastly nasty
newspaper,” has poked fun at all religions, and above all Catholicism, ridiculing churchmen even more assiduously than imams. Cops,
politicians and all institutions also had been favorite targets. After all, it is an old tradition in France to make fun of everything, and holding
nothing as sacred has been admired since at least the abolition of the monarchy of divine right and of the laws against blasphemy.
In his novel “1984,” George Orwell had foreseen that totalitarianism implied the destruction of words in order to narrow the range of
thought. Of course, secularized France is not ruled by Big Brother. But the process of her undoing and surrender is underway because of
her weakness for what can generously be called “humor.” In effect, this is actually a means to substitute uncontrollable laughter for the
rational talk that is the foundation of civilization.
Further inconsistencies: When watching the police besiege and shoot the killers live on television on Jan. 9, one couldn’t help
remembering Charlie’s savage caricatures of low-brow helmeted riot squads. Those, too, who staged a mass demonstration in the streets
of Paris on Jan. 11 to identify with Charlie, had forgotten that they had declared similar rallies meaningless exactly two years ago, when
the goal was to protest same-sex unions, which contribute to disintegrating language and civilization by redefining marriage.
As France looks to heal and move forward, two big questions remain. The first: What place is French society ready to give to religion in
general? The separation between church and state in 1905 was painfully conflictual. A number of empirical compromises have been found
since, but the problem remains to determine what the religious neutrality of the state implies and whether the freedom of thought and
speech includes the right to express religious beliefs publicly.
Most secularists — and they are becoming more numerous — tend to see faith as a strictly private affair, believing that it is bound to
disappear earlier than anyone fears or hopes, and that any official recognition would amount to artificially prolonging moribund life and go
against the “sense of history.” They are also convinced that religion is just a polite name for fanaticism, that belief in any absolute or
transcendence turns disputes into wars and that the world will be at peace only once it has become religion-free. On the other hand,
believers argue that there is nothing shameful or antisocial in their faith and that the neutrality of the state does not require the
neutralization or repression of what the individual considers as personally vital.
Nowadays, the secularity of society is no bone of contention for French Christians, who know to differentiate between God and Caesar.
But ideological secularists would definitely like believers of all kinds to be silenced and become invisible until they vanish as expected. In
the meantime, these same secularists claim the right not only to express their views unopposed but also to brand publicly those who do
not share them as ridiculous, spiteful obscurantists. Progress can and should be made in the acceptance and respect of religious
communities within the nation.
If a lack of reciprocity in tolerance can be dealt with by Christians — since Jesus was crucified before rising from the dead and the Church
has undergone worse persecutions — it is much less easy for Muslims. This is the second big question, and not just because of the
prophet’s teachings. Rather, it’s because they find themselves in France in a situation probably without precedent in their tradition: that of
a minority that has no chance of becoming a ruling majority in the foreseeable future (this is pure fantasy); and that of a faction that is not
openly oppressed (even if it is discriminated against for both its ethnic — mostly North African — and its religious specificities) and is even
invited to play by the rules of democracy, the freedom of speech, etc.
This means not simply the right to express and practice their faith, even to win converts, but also the duty of respecting others. Flow can
European Muslims adjust to these requirements? No one can help from the outside. We can only share our experience that Christianity
has grown and survived many trials not by imposing itself militarily or politically (although this was occasionally the case, as Islam did
generally), and not by confronting centrifugal heretical movements (Islam has gone through this), but by taking up the challenge of the
criticism of its sources and its spiritual, as well as theological, developments. The ugly events in Paris may still give way to a salutary crisis
for Islam and all the countries with Muslim populations.
(Excerpted from “The Inconsistencies of'Je Suis Charlie’” by Jean Duschesne, OSV Newsweekly January 25, 2015)