Charlie Hebdo promotes radical idea: forgiveness

The Guardian reports: The front cover of Wednesday’s edition of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the first since last week’s attack on its Paris offices that left 12 people dead, is a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad.

The cover shows the prophet shedding a tear and holding up a sign reading “Je suis Charlie” in sympathy with the dead journalists. The headline says “All is forgiven”.

Zineb El Rhazoui, a surviving columnist at Charlie Hebdo magazine who worked on the new issue, said the cover was a call to forgive the terrorists who murdered her colleagues last week, saying she did not feel hate towards Chérif and Saïd Kouachi despite their deadly attack on the magazine, and urged Muslims to accept humour.

“We don’t feel any hate to them. We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The angle much of the media wants to play on this story is that publishing another cartoon of the prophet Muhammad is yet another provocation.

Britain’s Anjem Choudray wants to up the ante a few notches more and says this is an “act of war.”

But let’s take Rhazoui at her word and see this cover as a call to forgiveness. (During the attack, she was vacationing in her native Morocco.)

Christians can’t make an exclusive claim on forgiveness as a spiritual value, yet there probably isn’t any other religion that makes forgiveness so central to its message.

So here’s the irony: a stridently secular magazine is promoting a message that’s more Christian than anything one regularly hears from the camp that so often sees its Christian culture and Western values threatened by Islam.

The cover image is also a taunt to the media and everyone else who has so vigorously been declaring “Je suis Charlie” for the last week. How do we defend free speech while objecting to its practice?

Yet the image and text are ambiguous. Most viewers will see it without hearing Rhazoui’s interpretation and like Joseph Harker, many will wonder: who is being forgiven?

Is this aimed at the killers – which would be strange because they barely deserve this after their acts of terror, and they are not referenced in the drawing?

More likely, given the image of the prophet, it’s aimed at Muslims in general. But why do Muslims need to be forgiven?

“All is forgiven” can be read as a Christian message in which case it might seem directed at Muslims, but it’s coming from a very secular and satirical magazine so it might be better read as a challenge to the assumptions we make about power dynamics.

The popular response to terrorism — the one that George Bush reflexively tapped into on 9/11 — was that we must fight back. We either crush them or they will crush us.

Ultimately the drive to survive will always be more powerful than the willingness to forgive, but the deception of terrorism is that by its very nature it can never pose a threat as large as the one it assumes.

Our ability to forgive does not depend on us being willing to martyr ourselves, but simply that we retain a sense of proportion.

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