How Charlie Hebdo Attack Represents a Genuine Clash Between Civilizations by the Forward

How Charlie Hebdo Attack Represents a Genuine Clash Between Civilizations

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“When somebody says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

— H.L. Mencken, Baltimore journalist and curmudgeon

“And when you hear somebody say this is not about sex, it’s about sex.”

— Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers, during the Bill Clinton impeachment trial

And when people tell you it’s not a clash of civilizations, it’s a clash of civilizations.

— me

No, the Charlie Hebdo massacre needn’t be seen as the prelude to some terrible world war between two civilizations seeking to defeat or conquer one another. It’s not that big. But it’s not a local misunderstanding, either. It’s bigger than that.

Almost from the moment the two gunmen burst into the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and started shooting, people of good will have been assuring each other that the atrocity doesn’t represent a clash of values or civilizations, but something more limited and containable. An aberration, perhaps an act of deranged individuals or a social pathology. If only that were so.

We tell that to each other because we urgently want to believe it. We don’t want to think we’ve peered into some frightening rupture in the fabric of our global system. And yet, most of us sense that this wasn’t just a crime, that there was a deeper, more complex reality at work. That’s why the killings struck such a deep chord in so many people around the world.

On a scale of sheer inhumanity, the attack paled before the latest atrocities by Boko Haram in Nigeria — a wave of assaults that’s left hundreds if not thousands dead, leveled entire villages and grotesquely used schoolchildren as suicide bombers, all in just the last few weeks. On a strategic level, the attacks on Jewish targets, the kosher supermarket being just the latest in a gruesome series, following the Toulouse yeshiva and Brussels Jewish museum attacks, pose a greater ongoing security challenge.

But the attack on Charlie Hebdo took our breath away because it represented at its core something broader than these. It was a clash between two specific values, each distilled to an extreme form, but each intrinsic and sacred to a larger culture — and essentially incompatible with the other: freedom of expression on one hand, the sanctity of the prophet on the other.

To say that the two cultures are in conflict doesn’t mean that every individual on either side shares the same simplistic, unalloyed set of values. There are countless Muslims who value free speech as an indivisible core value, and a good many Westerners who believe free speech shouldn’t include a right to offend community sensibilities. The two cultures aren’t sealed, static or monochromatic.

Charlie Hebdo’s unbridled brand of free expression goes well beyond what most Westerners find polite or respectable. And yet when it was attacked, most of us understood at once what was at stake. We believe freedom of expression is, with very few limits, indivisible. Surely, we think, everyone can understand that.

The armed attack on the magazine in defense of the prophet was so far beyond any decent standard of action, in any mainstream culture, that it took longer for the principle behind it to come into focus. Soon enough, though, we heard Muslim figures on nearly every media outlet forcefully decrying the killings but — nearly always with a “but” — insisting that freedom of speech must have limits. That Muslims have the same right as others to have their religious sensitivities respected. That insulting the prophet crosses the line. Surely, it was said, everyone can understand that.

But we don’t understand, most of us. Westerners point out endlessly that Charlie Hebdo insults every race and religion and therefore can’t be considered bigoted. We Christians and Jews don’t mind being ribbed; why should you? The argument often seems to leave Muslims cold. If you’re not insulted, they respond, that’s your business. We’re insulted.

Muslims point out just as endlessly that Western freedom of speech seems to end when certain feelings are ruffled, usually meaning Jewish sensitivities about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. It seems, many Muslim pundits have been saying, that free speech doesn’t include the right to defame the powerful. It’s only the marginalized — the Muslims of the banlieues — who are fair game for hate speech.

Here’s the spot where our mutual incomprehension blinds us. When Westerners try to limit hate speech, they’re generally thinking of speech that defames a group of people. The taboo is strongest when the targeted group has historically suffered violent bigotry and reasonably fears its revival. Jews are notably sensitive on that score. We’ve learned the unspeakable consequences that hate speech can bring. But we’re not alone in this.

Importantly, Western limits on hate speech don’t usually insulate ideas or religious symbols. There’s no Western taboo on blasphemy. Zealots occasionally try to conjure up such a ban to shutter a movie or art exhibition that offends their reverence for, say, Jesus. But they rarely succeed.

Muslims often complain legitimately, and civilly, about demeaning portrayals of Muslims in the media. But the insults that lead repeatedly to violent conflict aren’t the kind that demean Muslims’ persons. The trigger point is insult to their faith and their prophet.

The indignation isn’t restricted to fringe groups of unbalanced youngsters. As we saw in the cases of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” and the 2005 Muhammad cartoons in Denmark, the protests are led by major religious and national leaders and devolve into mob riots, mass protest demonstrations, bombings and murder.

Not all the protests have been violent. Muslim responses to both the Rushdie case and the cartoon crisis included diplomatic confrontations and recalling of ambassadors. At the United Nations the 57-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation has been trying since the 1990s to expand international human rights law by banning “the defamation of a religion” — that is, blasphemy — that might incite violence. The West objects that this doesn’t expand human rights but narrows them by constricting freedom of speech. The sides have been deadlocked for over a decade.

A cynic might sum up the difference in values this way: The Western notion of hate speech involves speech by Party A about Party B that might incite attacks on Party B by Party C. The Muslim notion is speech by Party A about Party B that might incite Party B to attack Party A.

But that formulation doesn’t get us anywhere. Most Westerners take our individual freedoms very seriously. Countless Muslims take their reverence for the prophet every bit as seriously. On both sides, majorities consider the values inviolable. Neither side can defeat or eliminate the other side.

In today’s wired, globalized world, they can’t even ignore each other. We’re doomed to get along somehow. The first step is probably to listen.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.


J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

How Charlie Hebdo Attack Represents a Genuine Clash Between Civilizations

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