I posted this on Facebook on January 17, and because of the protest surrounding the PEN American Center’s “courage” award to Charlie Hebdo, I’m reposting it here. I understand the concerns of the letter-signers, but this is how it looks to me from a Dutch perspective. Bearing in mind that we on the left all want to get to the same place and are just arguing about the means—here goes.
I agree that other people and even other cultures—especially poorly understood, marginalized cultures—are entitled to our respect and consideration. But I don’t think that protection should extend to fundamentalism, which seeks power by courting offense and trying to shut down the dialogue that’s actually taking place.
There’s a conversation about values that goes on in Western Europe all the time, one that Americans don’t usually hear. European Muslims, because they’re European, are entitled to make demands on public life. And then Europeans as a group get to hash out whether or not those demands are reasonable. What’s offensive to whom, and what will we do about it?
Should a public mural showing a naked woman be taken down? (Nudity is a surprisingly important Dutch cultural value: Taboo-breaking! Liberation! It does less for me than for some, but there you go.) Should some schools offer sex-segregated swimming lessons, because some Muslims don’t think 8-year-old boys and girls should see each other in bathing suits? (Swimming lessons are part of a Dutch elementary school education.) Can Muslim public schools have their own curriculum? (Yes, Muslim public schools. All schools are public here, even the ones with a religious orientation. Private, fee-paying schools hardly exist.) How can we address prejudice against Dutch people of foreign origin? The dominant group definitely gets away with more. Job discrimination against people of foreign ancestry is persistent. But change happens and understandings are reached. In other words, offending and being offended aren’t set in stone; they’re flexible and negotiable.
Understanding becomes more difficult when the cultural position is “My neighbor is gay, and as a good Muslim I’m going to throw a brick through his window.” So homosexuality is drawn into the conversation. In Amsterdam, to increase acceptance, teams go around to all the public high schools to explain to 9th graders what homosexuality is and teach them that it’s normal. (Nice, no?) Last year, for the first time, a Moroccan-Dutch group felt safe enough to participate in Gay Pride.
Antisemitism is the most intractable problem of all: since the murders at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last fall, there’s been a permanent police guard post in front of the Anne Frank House.
But for the most part there’s a healthy discussion—up to the point where fundamentalism gets involved. Fundamentalist values aren’t flexible; they’re both arbitrary and absolute. Fundamentalists take offense because being offended is what fundamentalism does, how it exercises power over the conversation. Fundamentalists can be provoked by drawings of Mohammed, education for girls, atheism, extramarital sex, contraception, Harry Potter, and/or the existence of the clitoris. A blogger can get sentenced to 1,000 lashes for calling on fundamentalists to stop “claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth.” (Raif Badawi! Write a letter!) I offend all three monotheistic fundamentalisms just by existing as a woman and an unbeliever.
I see Charlie Hebdo as directing its satire, not against Islam, but against fundamentalism in any form, whether Islamic or Islamophobic, coming from Muslims or the Front National. It wants to set boundaries on our right to be offended. It wants to mock and expose these threats on both sides so the dialogue about values can continue.
Satire is a risky response to fundamentalism. It’s wild and not well controlled and there’s a risk it will hit the wrong targets.
But every fiber of my female, educated, unbelieving being longs to satirize like hell.
Photo Dorinde de Tempe, Paris, January 12.
I had Stephen Fry’s thoughts on Charlie Hebdo in mind when I wrote this. On the PEN question there have been excellent comments from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, Laura Miller in Salon, and Katha Pollitt in the Nation, among others.