Courtesy: Jwh at Wikipedia Luxembourg
To the mourning parents, siblings, children, spouses, lovers, family and friends of those who were gunned down in the horrific massacre in Paris, what can I say? Except that I am with you in your grief even as I cannot even pretend to imagine the depth of your pain and suffering. And that I am sorry and deeply ashamed that your near and dear ones were done to death in the name of a god and a prophet that I am supposed to have in common with the mass murderers.
Though I have not been much to speak of in the matter of faith for a long time now, my education began in a village madrasa. “Bismillahirrahmanirrahim” was the very first thing the maulvi sahib taught me. I was taught to recite the Quran in Arabic so I had no clue as to what it all meant. But what Bismillahirrahmanirrahim meant was made clear to me again and again by my family and my maulvi sahib — “I begin in the name of Allah the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful”.
Allah, I was taught, wants us to do good deeds and, therefore, all my endeavours, from prayers to playing, must always begin with Bismillah. Next I learnt that Allah is not just Rabbul Muslimeen (sustainer of Muslims) but Rabbul Alameen (sustainer of the entire universe). And that He had sent Prophet Muhammad to this world as a Rehmatul lil alameen (mercy upon all mankind). How then can the god of the merciless killers be my god, their prophet my prophet? Yet I am sorry and ashamed and I seek your forgiveness.
To those at Charlie Hebdo what can I say? Except that I unequivocally condemn those who silenced your comrades and colleagues. And that I defend your right to offend even as I hope that at some point you’ll spare a thought to what Michael Lerner, political activist, editor of Tikkun (a progressive Jewish interfaith magazine) and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, California has to say.
Shouldn’t free speech and individual human liberties be our highest value? Here is Rabbi Lerner’s response: “(1) No, individual human liberties are not our highest value. Our highest value is treating fellow human beings with love, kindness, generosity, respect and seeing them as embodiments of the holy, and treating the earth as sacred. Individual liberty is a strategy to promote this highest value, but when that liberty gets abused (as for example in demeaning women, African Americans, gays in public discourse) we often insist that the articulators of racism, sexism and homophobia be publicly humiliated (not shut down, but using our free speech to vigorously challenge theirs). (2) Free speech is not defeated when we use it to try to marginalise hateful or demeaning speech. So let’s call demeaning speech, including demeaning humour, what it really is — an assault on the dignity of human beings.”
To the multitude in Paris and elsewhere who have been chanting “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) what have I to say? To those among you who were part of the 10 million men and women who in an unprecedented show of solidarity marched on a single day — February 15, 2003 — in 600 cities across 60 countries (including 200,000 in Paris, three million in the streets of Rome) to protest former American President George W. Bush’s impending, illegal war on Iraq, my respectful salaams. But to those of you inclined to fuel Islamophobia, projecting the Paris attack by a few terrorists as “Islam’s war on Western civilisation and values”, allow me to draw your attention to a tweet from Dyab Abou Jahjah, a commentator based in Belgium: “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so”.
Free speech is not defeated when we use it to try to marginalise hateful or demeaning speech. So let’s call demeaning speech, including demeaning humour, what it really is — an assault on the dignity of human beings: Ravi Lerner
To the world leaders who linked arms with each other and French President Francois Hollande to lead the march of a million Parisians last Sunday, what have I to say? “Paris is today the capital of the world. Our entire country will rise up and show its best side to the world”, President Hollande has declared. I applaud you Mr President, but… Let’s forget the past. May we hope that in future in defence of the freedom of expression and opposition to the killing of unarmed civilians, the new world capital and the world leaders who assembled there will be consistent?
May we hope that the French government will lift its June 2014 ban on pro-Palestine demonstrations in the republic of liberty, equality and fraternity? Will the right to “absolute” freedom to offend now be extended to the French satirist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has hitherto been damned as an “anti-semite”, a “danger to society” and whose show Le Mur (The Wall) was banned earlier this year.
May we hope that the next time the Israeli government rains death and destruction on civilians in Gaza, including children in a UN-run playground, and the United States responds with fresh supplies of deadly arms and ammunition to occupying forces, world leaders will link arms and lead a solidarity march in occupied Palestine? And may we also hope that Western leaders will at least now introspect over their continued flirtation with Wahhabi Islam, and their enthusiastic collaboration in the nurturing of “good terrorists” such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria across the Arab world?
To the Western mass media, what have I to say except refer back to Rabbi Lerner. Himself a “serial offender”, he is now scared of being in the cross-hairs of Islamic extremists. But he is no less worried about fanatical Jews who have targeted him in the past while the champs of Western values have looked the other way.
“When right-wing ‘pro-Israel’ fanatics frequently sent me death threats, physically attacked my house and painted on the gates statements about me being ‘a Nazi’ or ‘a self-hating Jew’, and called in bomb threats to Tikkun, the magazine I edit, there was no attention given to this by the media, no cries of ‘our civilisation depends on freedom of the press’ or demands to hunt down those involved (the FBI and police received our complaints, but never reported back to us about what they were doing to protect us or find the assailants)”.
What more can I say?
(This article was first published in The Asian Age on January 13, 2015)