Christian Caryl

Religion Is Not the Enemy

Salman Rushdie blames the "Charlie Hebdo" killings on "religion.” He’s got the wrong culprit.

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It was entirely appropriate that one of the first people to weigh in after the Charlie Hebdo massacre was Salman Rushdie, the man who spent years of his life defying a state-sponsored death threat prompted by a presumed act of blasphemy. Though Rushdie isn’t one of my favorite novelists, I’ve always admired his firm stand in defense of the freedom of speech — and I’m glad that the British government had the guts to defend his rights.

By the same token, I don’t in any way dispute his right to make the statement that he issued yesterday — even though I find myself in rather strong disagreement with it. Here’s what he said:

Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. “Respect for religion” has become a code phrase meaning “fear of religion.” Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.

I don’t have any problem at all with the last sentence. I don’t see how you can possibly have a free society unless you allow for the possibility of disrespect. If any of us can shut down a conversation by claiming that we’re “offended” or “hurt” by something someone else has said, there won’t be any conversation. So we’re fine there.

No, it’s the first words of Rushdie’s statement that bother me. “Religion.” All religion. Not a particular faith (which would already be a huge generalization in itself), but, essentially, anyone who believes. I guess some would argue that this vastly overarching claim is qualified by that oddly tacked-on phrase “when combined with modern weaponry,” but I’m not sure I’d buy that. The appositive about “a mediaeval form of unreason” suggests that it’s the very notion of religious belief that lies at the core of the problem for Rushdie. If you’re convinced that all religions are a form of unreason, you certainly can’t expect to have a rational conversation with them. Believers of any sort, in this view, are quite simply crazy people.

It’s possible that Rushdie intended “religion” as a diplomatic synonym for “Islam.” After all, the attackers, who claimed allegiance to al Qaeda, clearly singled out Charlie Hebdo for its disrespectful cartoons about Islam. Yet to blame the attack on all the adherents of an entire religious community of more than 1.7 billion people seems like a stretch. Many Muslims around the world have quickly denounced the killing. The Arab League and a whole range of governments with Muslim majorities have condemned it. Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most senior institution of learning, called the attack “a criminal act.” (The photo above shows Muslim men praying outside a mosque in the French town of Saint-Etienne next to signs denouncing the killing.)

This doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of problems in various parts of today’s Islamic world. Intolerance toward dissenting views — as manifested, for example, in bigoted and deplorable blasphemy laws — is a big one. (Just try building a synagogue in Riyadh.) But it is too easy to blame all of this on an allegedly monolithic “Islam.” I’ve just read a commentary piece by one American conservative who argues that “intolerance for free expression is rooted in classical Islam” — though I guess his definition of “classical” doesn’t cover the periods when the Islamic world boasted more cultural ferment and free inquiry than its Christian counterparts.

Indeed, one can just as easily argue that the pathologies entrenched in places like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or Iran have just as much to do with eminently modern politics as they do with the Quran — a book that, as Fareed Zakaria rightly notes, doesn’t use the word “blasphemy.” This may come as a shock, but in my life I’ve met a lot of Muslims, and none of them expressed any interest in killing me for my beliefs. I guess they just didn’t get “classical Islam.”

So what about Rushdie’s larger claim — that religion per se is a kind of mental illness that can become “a real threat to our freedoms” at just about any moment? That’s a view that seems to be growing increasingly popular among the followers of atheist thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who pride themselves on their clear-eyed honesty and their heroic willingness to cast away the crutches of irrational belief. (Dawkins predictably took to social media yesterday to blame the attack on all Muslims, everywhere.)

The problem with such arguments is that the ranks of the religious inconveniently include people who have done great good for humankind. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent campaign for justice is unimaginable without his background as a Baptist preacher. The Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis because he denounced the Holocaust and bemoaned the criminality of Hitler’s regime. Fervent Buddhists like Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama have devoted their lives to the defense of human rights. The Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel believed himself to be doing God’s work as he laid the foundations of modern genetics.

Recent Nobel Prize winners like Iran’s Shirin Ebadi and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman remind us that believing Muslims also make excellent civic activists. It wasn’t that long ago that the deeply religious Pashtuns of what is today Pakistan produced Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a pacifist and thoroughly Muslim anti-colonialist whose views were comparable to Gandhi’s.

Nor is being an atheist any guarantee of good behavior. Jihadi crimes are hideous, but even al Qaeda and the Islamic State have a long way to go before they reach the astonishing death toll of 20th-century secularists like Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot, whose combined record of slaughter runs into the many tens of millions. (Hitler, it should be noted, dreamed fondly of the day when he could hang the Pope on St. Peter’s Square.) The most intolerant regime in the world today is almost certainly North Korea, where any citizen who reveals a hint of faith in anything other than the Kims can expect a death sentence or a long term in a concentration camp.

The real problem isn’t religion. It’s a deeper psychological failure that afflicts humans of all varieties, religious and not. It’s called “fanaticism” — that eerie quality of single-mindedness that can lead even the intelligent and the educated to believe that the views they hold excuse any form of savagery. Yes, many of these people gravitate to absolutist versions of religion — but history shows they’re equally attracted to secular forms of political extremism. I doubt that this is something we’ll ever completely manage to uproot from the human experience; I suspect that the struggle against it will continue as long as human beings exist.

But that doesn’t mean that we should give up. And this week in particular that means standing up for the values that the killers in the Rue Nicolas-Appert were trying to destroy. Blaming religion probably isn’t the best place to start.


 Twitter: @ccaryl