Several disparate cultures collided one fateful day on January 7, 2015.
On one side you had France and its culture. The crucible of the French Revolution effectively de-Christianized France and rebuilt it along the lines of the Cult of Reason. The new motto for France was freedom, equality and brotherhood: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The new Republic created a culture that demanded that its citizens take their responsibilities very, very seriously - and as a result, French citizens turn out en masse to elections, pride themselves on knowing the issues and also, where everyone stands on them going into the ballot box. Democracy and rights are hugely important in France, and chief amongst these was a commitment to freedom of expression with a fervor not even the NRA can match in its defense of the second amendment. The very quote about the right to self expression that is almost reflexively tossed out comes from Voltaire - "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Both the King and the Church had been opposed to the idea of free expression, and both the Inquisition and the old guard suppressed publication and speech. The King was now headless, and the Cult of Reason was instituted as a replacement for the Church.
France is a country of readers. Books are commonplace, magazines and comic books are popular and universally available. France values the author to the point that the French justice system suspended a sentence of narcotics trafficking that would have been imposed on William S. Burroughs in 1959 simply because he had a book in publication. The vocation is that well respected, even if the extant work was, (to be fair), to many a highly confused and Dada-ist word salad involving drugs and homosexual pornography.
A long running publication of cartoons and various comic writings in France is Charlie Hébdo ("Charlie biweekly") which made a name for itself publishing a serious of scandalous cartoons mocking religion. Many of the cartoonists were communists and atheists (literally) and had no respect for religion, and as such wrote and published a steady stream of material deliberately designed to offend religious sensibilities. Given my own lack of personal knowledge of French I had to rely on friends to translate what few gags I could find online. Perhaps I am the victim of a small sample size, but I did not find any intelligent, Stephen Fry level bon mots or Bill Maher level lone-eyebrow-raised clever quips. A representative cartoon simply had three rolls of printed toilet paper, with a matching scowling cleric's face alongside each, labelled "The Koran" (imam), "The Torah" (Orthodox Rabbi) and "The Bible" (the Pope), with the caption that is loosely translated as "into the sh-tter with all of them!"
They often found time to have the Prophet Mohammed depicted, sometimes saying "A thousand lashes with a whip if you don't die of laughter!" or in one cartoon circulating in the aftermath of January 7, having his head sawn off by an ISIS member while saying "But I'm the Prophet, you brute!" to which the sword-wielding jihadist simply says "shut your hole!" Frankly, I was disappointed. The material I saw, and granted - it may not be representative - was not only below Reddit's /r/atheism level 3edgy5me, it was approaching 4chan level kindergarten grade toilet humor.
I'm not a Muslim and I have no business judging what is halal or haraam or the relevant shari'a law which applies (if any) in terms of depicting or defaming the prophet. But it is known that certain Muslim groups take great and grevious offense to any depiction of the Prophet Mohammed, never mind one in which he's being beheaded by his own side, or calling his followers "c--ts", or even standing there. And some of them believe, rightly or wrongly, that such actions are deserving of death. They quote the Quran detailing the fate of those who "annoy the Prophet"
Quran 33:61 “cursed: wherever they are found they shall be seized and murdered, a horrible murdering.” The opposition mentions that Mohammed himself was pelted by garbage by a woman daily as he went to the mosque to pray. When one day he found himself unmolested by garbage, he inquired after the woman in question. Finding out that she was greviously ill, he went to her. She was initially scared he would kill her in her moment of sickness and weakness, but instead he provided medical aid, saying that as a Muslim he was required to help even those who tried to hurt him. She supposedly converted on the spot. Given that the famous Islamic warrior hero Saladin sent his own personal doctor to Richard the Lionheart upon finding out he had fallen ill enroute to their battle, I am actually inclined to believe that this is the character of Islam. However, it doesn't change the fact that there is a culture that believes itself in the right to kill in this instance. Many decades ago someone tried to respectfully make a movie from Mohammed's perspective, depicting his life through his eyes without him speaking - to try to tell his story without depicting him in any way, and there were still riots and calls for the deaths of all involved.
But in my mind, as it is in the mind of most on this planet - regardless of these circumstances, it's not worth killing for.
Others disagree. At 10 am on January 7, the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo gathered for their weekly staff meeting. Two men, dressed in black and carrying Kalashnikovs, entered and threatened the desk clerk who let them in, fearful for her life. And then they started shooting, screaming Allahu Akbar!
At the end of the shooting, 12 people were dead, including a policeman who begged for his life. Ironically, a fellow Muslim.
Firstly, the next issue, which defiantly had a cartoon of Mohammed on the cover holding up a sign saying "All is Forgiven", sold out - even as they had prepared for the international support of its next issue by printing extra. Copies went on eBay for well over the cover price, and on Reddit French Redditors promised to buy and ship copies to foreign friends who wanted to purchase the magazine by proxy. Whether the "All is Forgiven" was a commentary on the likely character of Mohammed, a sarcastic thumb-snub at "the religion of peace" or a rephrasing of the old man on the mountain's "Nothing is true, everything is permitted" is up to the reader.
France had one of the largest demonstrations in its history, as millions of citizens took to the streets in solidarity and to express their support - not only for the familiies of the murdered cartoonists, but in support of the very principle of freedom of speech. Many world leaders, with Barack Obama as a notable and very conspicuous exception, descended on France to join in the march.
More ominously, the language changed when talking about islamist violence. When, previously, the director of a film critical of Islam was stabbed to death in broad daylight, and/or similar actions happened in Europe in the past, the condemnation of the senseless acts of violence was tempered with an olive branch to the feelings, not only of the enraged community that exacted revenge, but the "grey area" of unknowns in the middle: Muslims who might have been offended, but not to the point of violence. That language changed. Now the condemnation was unequivocal. We will not tolerate these aggressions. There is a sense that there will be no parley, no reasonable compromise, no acceptable middle ground. Europe has started to draw a very visible line in the sand.
The other culture that collided here was the American Conservative culture, their ratlike ears having perked up at the changed and almost threatening tone. The same ones notorious for disliking the French enough to rename a certain fried potato dish "Freedom Fries". Incredibly, the same folks who were aghast at Piss Christ or any other juvenile "edgy" material like it were suddenly angry at Obama for NOT being present in support of Charlie Hebdo, their new hero. Gone was their attempt, for now, to win a culture war against atheism and mockery of religion - possibly because they were blissfully unaware that the same publication printed a cartoon of a Nativity scene staged inside a Turkish-style squat toilet, complete with legs-spread Baby Jesus, suggesting that was a good "public place" for a religious display. Suddenly Sean Hannity was aghast. Aghast! That in parts of the Muslim world THEY HAD LAWS AGAINST HOMOSEXUALS. That women were considered second class citizens with discriminatory government practices and laws against them. That, By God, there were religious types on earth that wanted to censor free expression! Attempts by your noble author to contact the Sean Hannity show reminding him of talk radio's commitment to "freedom of religion" laws allowing discrimination against gays, that whole "Hobby Lobby" thing, them supporting Chik-Fil-A funding groups that were trying to write laws instituting capital punishment for homosexuality, and that small matter of the Parents' Music Resarch Council unfortunately met with repeated busy signals. Somehow I don't believe they'd entertain a discussion about that on the air. One would think that if Obama HAD gone to the Charlie Hebdo march in Paris, they would have excoriated him for supporting a trashy rag that depicted the Virgin Mary with her legs spread giving birth to Jesus, or the Pope with a kneeling man hiding under his robes clearly performing fellatio. But it is highly amusing, in a grim, black humor kind of way - to see them pretzel themselves in contradiction after "flip flop" in order to justify their barely contained Islamophobia.
A woman who helped them is at large and believed to be in Syria, but the gunmen themselves are all dead. They were hunted down and have now joined the cartoonists and publishers they killed in whatever state awaits us all after we die, free at last, equal in death, brothers in the final and eternal grim brotherhood of death. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
But one cannot help but feel great concern and sympathy - not for the dead, but for the living - on all sides. Religious conservatives in the Muslim world activating sleeper cells, the French military mobilizing against any threat, real or imagined, and the Muslims caught in the middle - including some heroes who sheltered and hid potential victims of the massacre, saving their lives - and the family of the Muslim policeman who lost his life begging the attackers to spare his.
At a time where there needs to be more dialogue, more understanding, and a move to greater respect - the challenge of the 21st century will be living in mutual harmony again in the Global Village just as how different religious groups lived cheek to jowl in peace in Jerusalem in the 1800s - it seems like battle lines are being drawn and people are deciding that their core principles are worth not only fighting to the death for, but inflicting death for.
God help us all.