The recent assassination of cartoonists of the publication Charlie Hebdo was deplorable. Producing humor that helps us deal with the day-to-day stress of modern living should not be a life-threatening occupation—even if it is the traditional tasteless French “gouaille” humor, which is intentionally outrageous and offensive.
Satire is a good tool for social commentary. Satire doesn’t (usually) kill anyone. It is an irreverent rebellion against the target’s power and influence. The fact that a satirist has made us laugh about something forces us to at least wonder if there is some truth in it; maybe we were wrong, after all. Since considering that we may be wrong is the hallmark of an intelligent mind, this is a very good thing.
Satire seems especially legitimate when it makes fun of the powerful. It can bring them down a peg. That’s why it is acceptable for a humorist to make fun of politicians. They have some power. Ridiculing them—in theory, at least—is an act of courage.
By the same standard, it certainly is not acceptable for people to make fun of those with, say, Down syndrome. They have little power, and ridiculing them is an act of bullying.
Cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo have claimed to be protecting the separation of church and state. Laurent Léger, who survived the attack, once told CNN, “Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept.” But Gérard Biard, another survivor, once told the New York Times, “You’re not meant to identify yourself through a religion, in any case not in a secular state.” This seems to imply that it is wrong, in Biard’s view, to declare or celebrate your religion at all. This is quite different from only attacking extremists. One worries that he feels justified in attacking anyone who wears a hajib/burqa, turban or even a cross in public.
Let’s consider the case of drawing pictures of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). On the one hand, there is no reason for non-Muslims to follow Muslim rules. When we eat with Muslim neighbors, they never eat pork. We would not even consider serving them pork. But we can eat all the pork we want, because we are not Muslims and not subject to their dietary restrictions. So why should we have to avoid drawing those pictures?
We do not have to. But, besides courtesy and manners, it brings up something like “the ethics of humor.” As we have to keep reminding ourselves, the vast majority of the 2 billion Muslims in the world are peaceful, hardworking neighbors who just want to raise their children in a world that is safe and provides opportunities. Drawing pictures of the Prophet Muhammad deeply offends all Muslims—not only the few radicals we mean to target. Attacking Muslims in general is not only bullying (to the degree that they gradually become scapegoats like the Jews of the 1930s), but it also plays right into the hands of radical Islamists. They are delighted to have examples they can characterize as a part of a Christian crusade against Islam in general.
As Pope Francis recently said, there is freedom of expression and there is respect for a person’s deeply held beliefs. Although this is a matter of etiquette more than a restriction on free speech, these things do have to be balanced by thoughtful people, including cartoonists and humorists. Making fun of religion is certainly acceptable to me. I am the coordinator of the Iron Range Coalition of Reason, which exists to protect the rights of non-believers. But, if Muslims become :the new Jews," I do not want any part of adding to their persecution.
By all means, let’s ridicule Islamic terrorists. Anytime we make light of a fearful situation, it helps us cope. If it is done carefully and with respect for the dignity of Islam, such humor might even encourage mainstream Muslims to speak out more loudly against extremists. But in the process, let’s not ridicule Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, afternoon prayers, or anything else that attacks all Muslims indiscriminately and aids radicals in recruiting.