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In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, We Should Ask Uncomfortable Questions

01/16/2015 05:25 EST | Updated 03/18/2015 05:59 EDT
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I have always been the opposite of prolific, taking days if not weeks to fully form what I am thinking, not knowing the point I am trying to make until I've sat down and birthed it out.

That's me on a good day. And since last week's shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices an even deeper impotence has settled in, giving me a taste of true paralysis, desperately wanting to say something but unable to form the words.

I'd been hoping to address the tragedy in Paris from a different perspective, for some reason determined to try and link this act of terror to the Bill Maher/Sam Harris/Ben Affleck/Islam Is Full of Bad Ideas debate. According to Maher and Harris there is, apparently, considerable evidence showing that a majority of the Muslim population holds views that could be considered "extreme." Although most Muslims would never actually stone a women to death for adultery or kill a person for leaving Islam, there seems to be an acceptance in the general population of such practices. In essence, Maher's point was that if liberals truly cared about liberal values (human rights, equality for women, gays, minorities etc.) then they should take a hard look at the Muslim world and be brave enough to criticize Islam for promoting bad or anti-liberal ideas.

Maher's delivery may be too straightforward for some, but I felt the question was important in that it ignored the potential to offend and put as its purpose the presentation of an inquiry, that, in light of recent events, was a conversation worth having.

In my opinion, making the argument specifically about the bad ideas found in Islam is not super productive. It makes it too easy for people to get offended or start cherry-picking verses from the Bible, and before you know it you've gotten sidetracked into a mess of emotion and semantics, a who-is-the-worst competition between religions each with their own history of bad ideas and barbarism.

"Now, when we are all in a state of shock after the killing spree in the Charlie Hebdo offices, it is the right moment to gather the courage to think." ­- Slavoj Žižek

"...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." - Salman Rushdie

And so Maher's argument is important because it forces us to do something that the staff at Charlie Hebdo, past and present, would wholeheartedly support. And that is to ask difficult questions. Uncomfortable inquiries often to lead to important answers, and so we don't have the right to be offended, not when there is work to do, not when people are still dying for trying to make a difference.

Therefore onward with the task at hand, I say hopeful that slow and steady may one day win the race.

Yes, it is predominantly Muslims who currently commit the most extreme of acts of religious or political violence (although ignoring the daily terror rained down by Western governments is a convenient exclusion), and so those in the non-Muslim developed world (I mean you white Christians) have a nice and tidy perch from which to sit and judge.

But don't pat yourself on the back for coming second place in a race to the bottom. The fact that Christians don't currently behead people in the name of Christ is a virtue born of circumstance. You are no better or worse than the other guy reading from that other piece of parchment; it's just that the country and culture you were brought up in happens to be more advanced at the moment.

Switch the education and wealth levels between South Carolina and Saudi Arabia and you would find a great number of American Christians acting violently extreme based on some passages found in the Bible. It would very easily go from anti-gay legislation in Congress to something much uglier. You don't get a gold star because your fundamentalism is accidentally white-collar.

And this, I hope, is the elusive connection I've been tonguing like a missing tooth, that path between the words I've heard since the shooting and the more nuanced place I felt was not being reached.

We have to be given more options than Islam is Bad or You're an Islamophobe. The answers will not come by focusing on the specific ills of an ancient religion, nor will we progress by dropping clichés about Islam being a religion of peace and not all of its followers are bad people.

There is clearly a problem. To deny this reality because of your personal positions is a hindrance to the cause you think support.

But it's a problem of circumstance, of culture. And that means it can be solved by evolution, by progress.

Martin Luther King Day will soon be celebrated in the US, a holiday now known as a day off work but that should be used as a reminder that just a few decades ago Americans were hanging innocent people dead from trees because their skin was a bit darker.

And now there is a black President.

In my lifetime I have witnessed cultural transformations that would have previously seemed impossible. Mixed race couples becoming a norm. Gays and lesbians on our TVs being represented as normal people with normal problems rather than fruity frivolous comic relief. My holocaust-survivor grandmother once so obstinately protective and fearful of others that we had to hide our non-Jewish lovers from her, now embracing them as family members, now forgetting that it was ever an issue.

Yes, it will take a bit longer for progress to take hold in the Muslim world. There are deep-rooted societal norms of patriarchy and misogyny and lack of education that, aided by economic hardship and religious governments, will make cultural evolution difficult.

But it will happen.

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Martin Luther King is famed for using this quote during the civil rights movement. I love it. But more than justice which can sometimes never be had, I think it bends towards progress. Things eventually do change.

So ask difficult questions. Have uncomfortable conversations.

When the president of Turkey, supposedly a moderate Muslim nation, says "Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women: motherhood," along with other alarming religious rhetoric, it's up to those young Muslims sitting around the table with their parents to resist it, to argue, to try and open eyes. When Saudi Arabia sentences a young man to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for starting an activist website, every moderate in the region must condemn it as loudly as they can. And when America adds to the problem of extremism by playing god and chess with Muslim countries and lives, it's the duty of every person of conscious to look their country in the mirror and admit their part in the problem.

The record-breaking marches that took place across France after the tragedy were a great sign. French citizens of all backgrounds, Muslims included, getting together to say this is not acceptable, not in our name. Leaders of Islamic nations and even members of extremist groups came out denouncing the terror. Hopefully we are reaching a point where the absurdity of this sort of violence will no longer be tolerated.

Things can and will change, but not on their own. Every step forward was made of million tiny struggles. The arc bends towards progress, but it's us that must bend it.

This piece originally appeared onHeadSpace

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