Sticks and Stones and Kalashnikovs

Yesterday’s appalling massacre in France has reminded me of the power of satire and humor. For a lot of people, direct and vehement opposition to their most cherished ideals and beliefs is far more tolerable than jokes or satire aimed at those same ideals and beliefs. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen’s Front National party openly opposes further immigration of Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, yet no one is attacking her offices with assault rifles. Suicide bombers likewise have not targeted the increasingly large, anti-Islamist PEGIDA demonstrations in Germany. But a few satirical cartoons in a Danish newspaper and a French magazine provoked rage and violence, culminating in murder in both countries and rioting in several places around the world.

It’s tempting to compare the Kouachi brothers (the alleged killers) and their ilk to insecure tweens with very fragile egos–of course, heavily armed, but tweens nonetheless. Nothing sparks a middle-school feud like ridicule or mocking–usually for wearing the wrong clothes or having the wrong hairstyle–and these men (using the term loosely, given their clear immaturity) have lashed out like a fragile child who has been teased over jeans from Wal-Mart. But, just as in middle school, it is the reaction that reveals the weakness. And these jihadists, rather than wrap themselves in glory for having defended the honor of Mohammed, have shown just how vulnerable they are to well-placed mocking and satire. Despite all the bluster and bravado and videos of beheadings and suicide bombings, these guys are showing the world what really scares them: ridicule.

Why is that? I’ve often pondered the reactions my little blog has provoked. Obviously, my blog has focused largely on the LDS church and its ideology and practices. Compared to the church–a large, well-organized corporation with deep pockets–my blog is pretty inconsequential. And for the most part, what I write doesn’t get much reaction from Mormons (which is fine with me, as I write for myself, not them), even when I’m highly critical of the church. But without fail, if I write something satirical or humorous about the church, traffic increases greatly, and I get angry responses from people I’ve never heard of. I even have one commenter who shows up to lament my psychological and emotional problems, of which my satiric writings are a clear symptom. And it was my sarcastic humor that drove some misguided souls who threatened me with violence and sent threatening emails to my LDS wife.

I think I know why humor is so threatening: when you can laugh at something, it means you aren’t afraid of it, and you don’t take it seriously. By extension, you don’t take its ideas, beliefs, and practices seriously. It’s like a bad horror movie; when it wants to be scary, it’s funny. People love watching “so bad it’s good” movies, but such films are always failed dramas or action or horror films, invariably films that take themselves too seriously. On the other hand, a comedy that isn’t funny is just bad, and it fades into obscurity.

Islamic jihadism in its various guises (al-Qaeda, Daesh/ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and whatever may crop up next) wants us to be afraid. The whole purpose of the beheading videos, the rapes, suicide bombings, slavery, and so on, is to scare anyone who might dare oppose them and their medieval-cum-fascist ideology. By nature, bullies are effective only when they are scary; fear is what allows bullies to maintain power over their victims. A bully who can be mocked is a bully who isn’t scary and has no power. What Charlie Hebdo demonstrates is that the jihadists are not scary, and they merit nothing but scorn and mockery from the rest of the world. And they know that our ridicule robs them of their power. That is why they attacked a meeting of magazine editors and proclaimed that they had “avenged the prophet.” Could any act have displayed their weakness and cowardice more clearly and effectively?

Obviously, these cowardly, overgrown tweens have guns, and there are thousands like them terrorizing people in several parts of the world. We must and will defeat the enemies of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. We have no choice. But we also must remember the fundamental weakness of an ideology (fundamentalist jihadism, not Islam per se) that portrays itself as an army of God sweeping the world yet is afraid of someone holding a pencil and paper.

Jihadists ought to be mocked and ridiculed, and it’s high time we started laughing at them.

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16 Responses to Sticks and Stones and Kalashnikovs

  1. CAB says:

    Wee said!
    Satire is our greatest tool in addressing the threats of institutionalized insanity.
    For example, the light-hearted “Wear Pants to Church Sunday” inspired several death threats. That’s insanity.

  2. CAB says:

    Sorry–“well said.”

  3. Ray Agostini says:

    Anyone who has followed my inane babbling will know that I’m 100% opposed ISIS and Muslim extremism. I abhor the ISIS criminals and the murder and degradation they have perpetrated across the Middle East. Their inhumane depravity is indescribable.

    Yet, I’ve had some very strange emotions regarding the Charlie Hebdo murders. The French government constantly warned Charlie Hebdo journalists that by exercising their right to free speech (which *is* their right), they were endangering not only themselves, but French society. How sadly true this has turned out to be, and I have this pervasive intuition that this won’t be the last we see of “Islamic terrorism”, as in “Islamic State”.

    I Googled some of CH’s cartoons of Muhammad, and frankly, they are disgusting. Would you like to see your wife, husband, son or daughter, in nude and compromising positions blasted all over the Internet? I think the answer is obvious. So “free speech” is okay? What would YOU do? Have a laugh and say “don’t we just love free expression?” I’m sure. When we laugh at the expense of someone held sacred by others, we invite unwanted, and often devastating ramifications.

    The really horrible, horrible thing about this, is that I don’t share the general disgust for the Charlie Hebdo killings that the vast majority do. Of course it was wrong, and of course I don’t approve – but it was coming, for years now. It was only a matter of time. Is “satiric entertainment” really that important to us? Really? As one media commentator (the editor of the UK Sun newspaper) said (paraphrasing), “the pen may well be mightier than the sword or gun, but in this case the sword and gun prevailed”. And the boldness of the killers is stunning. They even left clear evidences for the police of their identities, probably so they could become “martyrs for Islam”, or their brand of radical Islam.

    They actually *wanted* this kind of reaction, and were hoping that all the major media in the “West” would publish Charlie Hebdo’s obscene images of Muhammad, in a “retaliation move”. Why? Because they don’t care about “moderate Muslims”. They want all Muslims to be like them. The British police officer shot in the head at point blank range, Ahmed Merabet, was himself a Muslim. While I don’t know, he may even have begged for his life in Arabic, but no mercy was shown. And the fact is that ISIS has murdered more Muslims than non-Muslims.

    One blogger more or less voiced my sentiments: http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2015/01/in-the-wake-of-charlie-hebdo-free-speech-does-not-mean-freedom-from-criticism/

    So THINK before you exercise your “right to free speech”, and how you would feel if it involved your closest loved ones, or people you hold in high esteem.

  4. Ray Agostini says:

    Sorry, that should be French police officer, not British (senior moment). In all of this, please bear in mind, too, that at this very moment there’s a four months long war going on in the Northern Syrian town of Kobani, where Muslim Kurds are fighting the Muslim extremists ISIS in what can only be called a “battle to the death”. I’m pretty sure the Kurds deplore ISIS and its extremism, and the majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim.

    How are we going to heal the rifts in the West? Certainly not by insulting Muslims and drawing deeply offensive caricatures of Muhammad, even when done in the name of “freedom of expression”, or “humour”.

    Unless there’s a dialogue, and some “bridge building”, the terror will go far beyond the shores of France. It’s only a matter of time. And I almost fear to say it, but 9/11 may look tame by comparison to what may yet be. Put down your pens and pencils, and stop glorifying as “heroes” people who made a living out of mocking others, and especially others’ religious beliefs.

  5. “Obviously, these cowardly, overgrown tweens have guns”

    Have you considered that others are as cowardly? There is a certain cowardice in standing behind the right to offend that ignores the impact of the offending action. There is a great comic (satirists comic strip, not stand-up) response to the attacks in France, that some might find interesting.

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/jan/09/joe-sacco-on-satire-a-response-to-the-attacks?CMP=twt_gu

    I was a student of the Middle East before 9/11, and my perceptions have been shaped by an understanding of history that, despite decades of involvement in the region, few Americans feel inclined to understand. Why is it that there is no concern for the impact of that history? Why are so many Americans/Westerners/etc… so arrogant and superior that they feel this level of understanding is beneath them?

    The individuals who attack like places in France, those who killed others, are demonized for their actions, and those who tried their hardest to offend, are lionized as heroes. Nevertheless, their actions are ultimately trapped in the same cycle of antagonism and reaction that will ultimately result in more of the same. It is folly to ignore the ultimate cause and effect relationship. Is there any surprise that those who find themselves dehumanized and disregarded would step outside of the boundaries of the society that dehumanized and disregarded them?

    Thomas Merton wrote of the Jesuits in China, and their successes in establishing themselves as a Catholic force, where other Catholic orders failed. The Jesuits learned how the culture worked, how the culture functioned, and then fit themselves into that culture. Others, Franciscans I believe but I could be wrong on that point, essentially showed up as Franciscans and were ejected. Jesuits adopted the persona of learned scholars, dressed in Chinese clothing, and were successful in integrating themselves into the Emperor’s world, with obvious Catholic motives. Nevertheless, their methodology, seeking to understand, then be understood, is important to recognize.

    Dealing with the Middle East, for far too long, there has been a perception that their views, their mores, do not matter, and when a line is crossed in their world, but not in the Western one, it hardly is inconsequential. And we are surprised that there is some response to this, some reaction?

    Your comment, “I think I know why humor is so threatening: when you can laugh at something, it means you aren’t afraid of it, and you don’t take it seriously” is interesting, because it is a very Western perception. Certainly everywhere on the globe functions according to your perceptions? This is certainly not an example of cultural superiority….? How does humor function in the Middle East?

    Satire functions because it crosses lines, but it also knows what lines to cross and which to not cross. But what about when the lines are not clear? Is simply proceeding without understanding considered good comedy? Then when a line is so egregiously crossed, you can simply stand behind the “freedom” to do so?

    No one is going to defend murder, but too few are arguing for responsibility, either. In the end, a plague on both their houses.

    • CAB says:

      I have studied the culture of Islam (am a member of the Sufi Order of the West), but no doubt not as much as you apparently have. However, I think there is NO, zip, zero, nada, defense for killing innocent people. You apparently do not consider the satirists and other workers of Charlie Hebdo to be “innocent,” but what about the people held hostage at the Jewish market and subsequently murdered?
      Western society has a lot to answer for, as you point out, but that does not excuse the actions of young men who grew up in France, not the Middle East. They chose to become offended and angry.
      Yes, humor is not the same all over the world, but radicalization is not the answer. There is always a choice. We choose our enemies and we choose to become enemies.
      And I do know something about marginalization.

      • “However, I think there is NO, zip, zero, nada, defense for killing innocent people.”

        What part of my comments do you believe excused murder? I would have thought that the closing comment “No one is going to defend murder” would have indicated that this is not a defense?

        Also, you seem to have a considerable misconception of the individuals involved. You said, “that does not excuse the actions of young men who grew up in France, not the Middle East. They chose to become offended and angry.”

        What makes you think that these individuals were a part of French society? Because they were born there? Isn’t the problem that they were NOT part of their society, despite being born there? Isn’t part of the problem that the derision of their beliefs and values by the very society that should have included them, led them to seek some sort of association elsewhere that would accept them?

        No one wants to address this elephant in the room, the individuals turned to violence because they found an ideology that would accept them, and in doing so, they were failed by the very society that they violently reacted against. There are copious stories of how poorly Muslim youth are treated, disenfranchised, discriminated against, and ultimately rejected. As I stated previously, when rejected by a social entity, it is hardly unbelievable that they would violate the norms of that entity?

        This is not unusual. It is fairly obvious based on recent racial tensions in the US, that there are a significant number of black young men in America that do not feel like they live in the same society as the rest of America, and for good reason. There is a great article in the New Yorker that describes the difference in sentencing between a corrupt former Governor of Virginia, and young black man who was involved in a robbery. Given the different worlds each lived in, one got a mild sentence; the other is in prison for life. Can you guess which one had access to fantastic schooling, great opportunities, and a more lenient sentence? Which one had access to terrible education, had almost no opportunity, and is in prison for life?

        The problem here is that no one wants to look at the underlying social problems that cause the disenfranchisement of these young men in the first place. And mocking them more will in no way make them feel more connected to their surrounding society.

  6. runtu says:

    Just so we’re clear: there’s a difference between mocking a religion and mocking terrorists. I’m talking about the latter. Scratch that. It’s ideology that needs to be criticized and sometimes mocked. Either way, you don’t kill people for that.

  7. runtu says:

    I shouldn’t respond when I first wake up. My point all along is that part of freedom of speech is the freedom to cross lines. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, we can discuss where those lines are as soon as you put down the gun. I am not in favor of indiscriminate mocking of other people’s cherished beliefs for its own sake, but I support the right to do so. IMO, the mass outpouring of support for free speech, tolerance, and the police who put their lives at risk to defend such things, is a good sign. That the next issue of Charlie Hebdo will be published is also a good sign, whether or not I support its content.

    I’ve seen some of what Charlie Hebdo published, and some of it is terribly disrespectful to Islam. I wouldn’t publish anything like that, though I know Mr. Abraham thinks I have already done so. I have my own boundaries and lines I won’t cross. For example, I did not include a description of the LDS endowment in my book because in the end it wasn’t integral to the story and would clearly offend a lot of people. But that was my choice, and I didn’t make it because someone was pointing a gun at me.

    As for my alleged sense of cultural superiority, we’re not talking about how humor functions in the Middle East. We’re talking about the function and role of humor in Western society–in this case, France–and the proper response to it. The murderers were French, and their victims were French. Just out of curiosity, do you think humor in the Middle East has a different function? I recently heard a long interview with a Palestinian satirist, and it was his statement about humor and taking things seriously that I was paraphrasing in my original post. Was his view an example of Western cultural superiority? Was my repeating it?

    In the end, you seem to suggest that I’m advocating some kind of tit-for-tat reaction and escalation, as if a satiric cartoon is somehow functionally or morally equivalent to murder. It is not. The proper response, as recent events in France have shown, is to stand together to support basic civil rights and against terror and murder.

    • Well, let’s put your comments in context. You specifically say “The murderers were French, and their victims were French”.

      Please explain.

      How are many younger Muslims of African ethnicity treated in larger French society?

      Does this treatment matter?

      Does this treatment have repercussions, vis-à-vis, the feeling of “Frenchness” of this group (the Muslims)?

      Did the attackers and victims really live in the same world? Did they live in the same France?

      If not, did the mockery contribute to this divergence between worlds, or did it bring the worlds together.

      As the satirist I referenced in my first post concludes in his comic strip, how do these people fit into each other’s worlds?

      • runtu says:

        I find it interesting that the two police officers killed were both ethnic minorities, and one of them was a Muslim. Are you suggesting that the killers weren’t French in the same way these two were? Did they not live in the same France? By your reasoning, these two officers were marginalized and treated badly by larger French society, so they did not live in the same France as the shooting victims. What exactly is the difference between these two police officers and the killers? Why were they not out shooting unarmed civilians in response to the cartoons? How did they manage to fit into a world that you tell me they shouldn’t fit into?

      • Well, let’s consider that. You live where you live. If I travel 30 miles could I find someone who has nothing in common with your life, your background, your social class, your educational class, your economic background, your cultural background, etc…?

        Do you live in the same America as a poor black man who lives in poverty, who has no chance at education, no chance to climb the economic ladder, and who has limited choices?

        If so…why?

        How is it you fit into the American world that this poor black man has not?

      • runtu says:

        I don’t believe there is a single human being on the planet who has nothing in common with me. Do you? What we ought to be doing is building on our common ground instead of using our differences to destroy each other.

      • CAB says:

        Whoa. I in no way defended the actions of the satirists–just so we are clear on that. Or the racism of French society, especially toward the people from former colonies.
        I just think the issues are far more complex than most people want to make them.
        From what I have learned, the men were not religious, but had been politicized.
        Humans seem to have a need to make enemies–that old us vs them mentality: “If you are wrong, then I am right.” I wish we could grow past our savage roots and learn respect for all peoples, regardless of what they look like, say, do wear. We don’t have to like or agree with the other, but respect for their right to be who they are is essential if we are not going to kill each other.

      • runtu says:

        Exactly. No one is condoning racism or discrimination, French or otherwise. The roots of ethnic and religious discrimination and marginalization are indeed complex, and we should all work toward eradicating them. In the meantime, I am repulsed by the apparent belief that the murders were somehow justifiable because Muslims of North African descent suffer discrimination and that Charlie Hebdo was just another manifestation of that. Sorry, I can’t agree with that.

      • Interesting conundrum.

        In 2005 a Parisian designer commissioned an advertisement featuring models dressed in their fashion in the semblance of the Last Supper. The French Supreme Court ruled it “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs”.

        As one lawyer put it…

        “When you trivialise the founding acts of a religion, when you touch on sacred things, you create an unbearable moral violence which is a danger to our children,” said lawyer Thierry Massis

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4337031.stm

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