Sunday, 29 March 2015

Right to Insult or the Responsibility Principle? -- Thoughts on the Charlie-Hebdo-Massacre

The murderers of the Charlie-Hebdo-cartoonists got their deserved punishment. In terms of popular sentiment, it was okay that they were killed by the security forces. From their own point of view and from that of their spiritual kin, however, the murderers were highly successful. They could not only avenge the insult to their Prophet – for them a great cause – but they also died as martyrs, what they probably themselves also wanted to.
    But the murdered cartoonists did not die as martyrs. They did not want to die. They had applied for and received police protection. The chief editor had, of course, once said that he would rather die standing upright than live kneeling. But that rather testifies to his stubbornness, nothing else. For what he and his colleagues died for – namely the right to insult Prophet Muhammad and millions of Muslims – is truly not a great cause. Compare this with the bloggers in Bangladesh (one in Saudi Arabia) who are being persecuted, even murdered, for trying to make their country a secular state.
    How should one, for example, characterize a person who wants to play football on a known minefield other than by the word "stubborn" or “reckless”? You can after all play football on a different pitch! Or was it supposed to be a serious and important political cause? For example, criticism of religious superstition or criticism of the status of women in Islam? Moreover, you can criticize Islam, or religion in general, in other ways, in ways that that do not lead straight onto a minefield! It's after all known at the latest since 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published its notorious Muhammad cartoons, how furiously Muslim masses all over the world react to such things. Since that time, all people know that particularly insulting Mohammed cartoons deeply hurt the feelings of devout Muslims and that at least some of them are ready to avenge the insult to their Prophet through murder.
    Given this history, CH’s Muhammad cartoons were a pure provocation, nothing else. For before this event, the right to freedom of expression was not at all in danger, neither in France nor elsewhere in Europe. These bad Mohammed cartoons are also no expressions of free speech; they are only insults. One had almost forgotten the Salman Rushdie case (1988), even the cartoons of Jyllands-Posten. Through their infantile provocations, the CH-cartoonists have not only caused their own death, but also that of three policepersons and four Jewish hostages. Indirectly they have also further deepened the already existing deep divide between Christians and Muslims.
    In many of the media comments it was, inter alia, insisted that one who lives in France must also accept the constitution and the laws of the country. I agree one hundred percent, although I do not exactly know whether also insulting Islam and the Muslim community by means of Muhammad cartoons is really covered by the laws. In Germany, probably also in France, it is a criminal offense to voice the opinion that the Holocaust did not really happen. In France, you are not allowed to express the opinion that in 1915 the Armenians had not suffered a genocide, but only, as the Turks maintain, a few hundred thousand deaths through war events. I have heard that in France it is not allowed to insult the tricolor and the Marseillaise. And almost everywhere in Europe the police also sometimes prohibit, for security reasons, the freedom of expressing one’s opinion by means of a demo. One could of course say: such simply is the legal position, that’s that, end of discussion. But that is a legalistic attitude, not a political one. Is the discussion really over? In view of the seventeen-fold revenge murder in Paris, and the revenge murders that may happen in the future, it is necessary to remember an English proverb: "When the law is an ass, someone has to kick it".

The Responsibility Principle

But isn’t there, apart from constitutions and laws, also the common sense precept that everybody should act reasonably and responsibly? On a stretch of autobahn without speed limit one is allowed to drive as fast as one wants to. But is it responsible behavior to drive there tempo 280? No doubt, the producers of CH acted within the limits of what is legal, but they acted irresponsibly. Their murderers have virtually said: Yes, we know the constitution and the laws of the country; with our action we are going to contravene these; we know that we shall be punished for this action; OK, we accept any punishment for our decision to follow the laws of our religion and violate those of the state. Stubborn mule against stubborn mule. In any constellation that would lead to disaster. That simply is the reality. The constitutions of the world are after all nothing more than so many often questionable principles that just stand on paper.
    There is a famous Kant quote that one could here use as a criterion for right, as opposed to lawful, action: “
I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” (Alternative translation: "Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” German original: „Handle so, dass die Maxime deines Willens jederzeit zugleich als Prinzip einer allgemeinen Gesetzgebung gelten kann.)1 This was written in the age of Enlightenment. I remember from my student days that the Enlightenment comprised reason and tolerance as two of its most important values – both absolutely necessary for social peace. This Kant-quote lays down the moral rule for right action. It does not speak of one’s right to act within the framework of current legislation of a particular country, it speaks of maxims of one’s actions that could also at any time be valid as the principle of a universal legislation. What can be a higher principle of universal legislation than the maintenance of social and international peace?
    I can here also quote a modern philosopher. In his book The Imperative of Responsibility (Das Prinzip Verantwortung), Hans Jonas wrote about our responsibility for peace with nature. In a conversation with an interview partner he showed he had little faith in democracy. He said: "The philosopher must certainly have the courage to say that democracy, of course, is highly desirable, but it cannot itself be the indispensable condition for making human life on earth worth the trouble."1a In the same sense, we can say that the democratic political order and constitutions and laws adopted by democratically elected parliaments cannot by themselves be enough for maintaining social peace. Jonas wrote in the aforementioned book:

" 'Act in such a way that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life on earth'; or expressed negatively: ‘Act in such a way that the effects of your action are not destructive to the future possibility of such life'; or simply: 'Do not endanger the conditions for the indefinite continued existence of mankind on earth'; or again expressed positively: 'Include in your current choice the future integrity of humans as co-objects of your willing.' "2

    Jonas wrote these sentences out of concern for the state of our natural environment. We know that the greater part of mankind’s current economic activities – even those that are covered by the constitutions and laws – is continually destroying our natural environment. Therefore, we must also appeal to the sense of responsibility of all economic actors. Following Jonas, we should be allowed to tell all people – especially the political leaders of society, Intellectuals, creative artists etc. – : Act in such a way that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human social existence; or in negative terms: Act in such a way that the effects of your action are not destructive to social peace.
    The CH-cartoonists knew that their Mohammed cartoons deeply offend their five million Muslim fellow citizens – many of whom had been highly welcome as they once came as guest workers. They also knew that these cartoons could provoke some among these fellow citizens to commit murder. Five million are about 8 percent of the French population, not a negligible size. In spite of that they published their offensive cartoons. What is worse, many political leaders of the world and one million French people reinforced through their subsequent demonstration in Paris the destructive effects of the cartoon publication. This is evidenced by the fact that about five weeks later (February 14), in Copenhagen, an assassination attempt was made on a public meeting in which the same person participated, who had in 2005 published the first Mohammed cartoons in Jyllands Posten (one of them depicted Mohammed as a dog.)
    Don’t such people have more important and more urgent things to do? By the end of this year, in Paris, the political leaders of the world must decide on measures for preventing further climate disasters. (Till now, Paris has not seen a demonstration of one Million people for climate protection.) The wars in Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine etc. must be ended. Adequate answers to the problem of millions of refugees all over the world must be found. The rise of radical right-wing parties and xenophobic groups must be contained. And there are many more such important and urgent tasks. But the European states are currently totally busy trying to enlarge and strengthen their anti-terror apparatus. Such a petty thing, the right to publish Mohammed cartoons, has pushed the said great and difficult tasks away from the stage.

What To Do?

We know that Islamist militants have in the past not only reacted with violence to Mohammed cartoons. They reacted to Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses (1988) and to some texts and statements of Taslima Nasreen (Bangladeshi writer) (1994) with Fatwas and calls for killing them. It cannot go on like this. It is not acceptable that the one minority again and again insults and provokes and the other minority reacts with murder and death threats. But you cannot also always exercise self-censorship in the interest of social peace, especially since not every criticism is an insult or provocation. How should we – leftists, progressives or simply secular-minded people – behave in such cases?
    Unfortunately, what Richard Dawkins calls “God delusion"3, continues to exist in the world. Most people in the world practice, seriously or not so seriously, one or another religion. The aggression of militant Islamists against infidels and people of other faiths, or their aggressive response to certain acts of the latter, has parallels in other religious communities. Among Christians, the days of the belligerent/murderous version of aggressive religiosity, are, thank God, largely over. The conflicts in Northern Ireland and Nagorno-Karabach are two exceptions, which, however, are also cases of territorial disputes. Unfortunately, in two other major religious communities – the Hindus and the Buddhists – that is not the case yet. In India, mutual violent aggression between Hindus and Muslims do not belong to past history yet. Of late, even Buddhists, namely Burmese and Sri Lankan Buddhists, are persecuting their Muslim compatriots – citing the Buddhist identity of their country. In addition to actions of the police and security forces against violent fundamentalists, as they are required by law, any sensible person should, in the sense of civil society activities, fight against such aggressive religiosity. But how do you do that? How can we bring the militant fundamentalists of any religion to their senses?
    One thing can probably be regarded as indisputable: One cannot get any positive results through insults and provocations. On the contrary, they only stir up hatred and violence. We have observed that in the last 25 years. With this method one can only start a new conflict again and again. This is true even if the victim of insult is not a religion. Not all people react to an insult by going to a court. Even among non-religious people, for example, if X tells Y that the latter’s father was a thief and mother a prostitute, then, make no mistake, Y will first give X a sound spanking – regardless of the veracity of the assertion. That is the reality.
    It is also not possible for the security forces to finally win the fight against religiously motivated violence and terrorism. After every single success in this fight, they are and they will be confronted with new acts of violence and new threats from new militant groups. This too is a part of our experience of the last 25 years. Militant jihadists, who are not afraid to die, who are even prepared to blow themselves up in order to kill the enemy – the usual threats of punishment have little effect on such people. In such situations, the security forces of the world are at a loss.
    So we have to get to the root of the problem. But for this we must recognize the root first. I first published a short article on this subject ten years ago. The occasion at that time was the assassination of Amsterdam filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had insulted Islam. I ask my readers to read that article. Here is the link:
As to the question "what to do?", I set out my current and preliminary thoughts below:

It is a fact that most people are religious – that is, roughly speaking, they believe in the existence of one or several more or less powerful supernatural beings/agents (God, gods, goddesses, spirits, ancestors etc.). According to scientists such as Richard Dawkins3 and Pascal Boyer4, this is rooted in the phylogenetic inheritance of the human species. The proof of this assertion is the fact that religion in its broadest sense is a universal phenomenon. So we atheists and leftists cannot hope that the phenomenon religion will one day cease to exist all by itself. Moreover, our experience shows that, generally, when a person is born into a religious community, this religion has become, at least to some extent, an integral part of the identity of this person, which can be extremely difficult to strip away. This explains why, for example, recently the Yezidis in northern Syria refused to be converted to Islam and accepted to be killed by IS fighters.
    We must then work in the long term to at least contain the influence of the radical-fundamentalist versions of the big religions. We should not criticize this or that religion, not Allah, Jehovah, Jesus or Shiva. We should try to reduce, actually question, the relevance of religion per se – especially in practical life. We can quote the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. He is reported to have said:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?5

    We can tell our fellow humans who are religious: Dear friends, you pray to God so many times a day. Nothing against that. But your God, as we know, does not help you. So let's leave our gods and our religions in our private prayer room, and let us together try to make this bad world a little more bearable. Salvation can wait, but we must eat everyday.
    This is a very difficult job. For all religions are interpretable and applicable in a fundamentalist way. As Klaus Kienzler, scholar of comparative theology, writes on the major religions:

"We have seen that a number of indispensable fundaments belong to the essence of religion: inter alia the religious sources such as scripture and tradition, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, ... [So] it can also be said here that all religions are in danger of being turned in a fundamentalist manner. .... ".5a

    It is especially so, because it is claimed (except in Buddhism) that the scriptures or at least the more important parts of them were directly revealed, even dictated (the Qur'an) or handed over (the Ten Commandments) by God. Of course, modern Christian theology does not understand revelation in the scriptures in this way. But "in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy of 1978 it is stated ...: 'We profess that the scriptures as a whole and in all their parts up to the individual words of the original writings were inspired by God.' "6 With such understandings of the respective scriptures, a person with a militant character, whose main identity is his religion, may not find it difficult to persecute non-believers or even to kill them, or to blow up an abortion clinic with a bomb. We must bear in mind that, of course, the spectacular attacks are perpetrated by individual culprits or small groups of militant fundamentalists, but they draw their inspiration and courage from a large field of hundreds of thousands of fundamentalists. That is why it is not enough that security authorities monitor potential assassins and render them harmless. The problem must also be dealt with broadly, i.e. macro-psychologically.
    What we can certainly do is to tell our devout fellow citizens of the world in a friendly and polite manner that they should not take their scriptures as clear words of God. Believers know that all their holy books were finally written down by humans. All prophets, also Prophet Muhammad, were humans, fallible like any other. The texts of "God's words" are far from clear. That's why there are so many places in the holy books that are in need of interpretation and have also been variously interpreted. Fundamentalist interpretations and moderate/liberal interpretations stand opposite to each other. Let me give here an example. Asghar Ali Engineer, a devout Muslim and an Islam scholar, writes about the term Kafir (infidel, heretic):

„The Qur’an … created a category of Ahl al-kitab (people of the book). All those to whom Allah sent His messenger and the book were called people of the book. The Qur’an mentions Christians, Jews and Sabaens in this category. However, it does not exclude those who have not been mentioned in this category by the Qur’an. Many others like Zoroastrians were included in this [second] category. The Sufi saints like Mazhar Jan-i-Janan included the Hindus in this [second] category, arguing that how can Allah forget to send His messengers to India as He had promised to send His messengers to all the nations. He accepts the Vedas [of Hinduism] as revealed scriptures. He also felt that Hindus were monotheists as they believe in God who is nirgun and nirakar (i.e. without attributes and shape) which is the highest form of tawhid (monotheism).”7 

This shows that Islam too is amenable to reform and liberal interpretations. That is the reason why there are in Islam, just as in Christianity, so many movements and sects.
    However, to be able and allowed to say that to believers and persons of other faiths presupposes that we have and care about maintaining regular social contacts with them. Only through such contacts can we – atheists, secularists, and leftists – succeed in promoting the values of Enlightenment, tolerance, and a minimum of mutual respect. Only thus can we overcome the existing mental barriers. It is counterproductive to promote or accept a multicultural society. That would mean to promote and accept the separate existence of parallel societies. The people of other faiths must instead be included in the social life of the majority community.
    It is clear, to take up and maintain regular contact with established radical and militant fundamentalists is simply not possible for us. But the vast majority of people in any religious community, including the Islamic one, is anything but having a fundamentalist mindset. They believe in the principle live and let live and they do not comply with all the commandments of their scriptures. Moreover, there are in the world, even in Muslim majority countries, many liberal, modern, progressive and even leftist Muslims. They are culturally Muslims, even though they may not pray five times a day. In Egypt and Tunisia, recently, several million Muslim citizens ended the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. By working with such people we may be able to create an atmosphere in which all devout Muslims would react to an insult to Islam or the Prophet with the sentence: "That leaves me cold." I actually heard this sentence in a TV show; an Islam scholar, who teaches this religion in a school, said that. This gives us hope.
    What would help even more is that liberal-Muslim Islam scholars, who also practice their religion, dare to publish historical-critical works on the scriptures of their religion. Above I have given an example of this: the quote from Asghar Ali Engineer. If in real life and in a given situation it is too dangerous, such works could be published anonymously. There is no sense in attracting the wrath of murderous fanatics. In political movements it is (has been) common practice to publish anonymous pamphlets. A few days ago I heard on TV some good news: A French Muslim academic has given a call for reform of Islam. He has also called for a historical-critical study of his religion. I heard roughly the same in TV news on 23rd February: Also Islam scholars of the famous Al-Azhar University of Cairo spoke of the need to reform Islamic education.
    One thing we cannot do is to mitigate the hatred of all kinds of Muslims for the Euro-American imperialists and Israeli colonialists, who have since long been subjugating and humiliating Muslim peoples politically and economically. A byproduct of this is that most, if not all, Westerners are generally suspected of being enemies and haters of Islam and the Muslim world. History also gives enough reason for this suspicion. Just think of the Crusades, the second Iraq war of 2003, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the treatment of the Palestinians, etc. Clearly, Muslims cannot maintain any friendly contact with actual Islam-haters among Westerners. That is why it is extremely important that Westerners who are willing to establish friendly contacts with Muslims demonstrate anti-imperialist sentiments.
    But mere anti-imperialist politics is not sufficient. What is needed is a great cause, a positive one, to which young people may feel inspired to commit themselves. Their hatred for the imperialists led thousands of young Muslims into the camp of Al Qaeda and ISIS, where their great cause is an Islamic “state of God”. The energetic Muslim youth who stomped the Arab Spring out of the ground with as much vigor, need a great cause for which they could engage themselves again. I can offer them the following sentences of Asghar Ali Engineer:

„Qur’an uses … the word jihad for moral struggle. It is every Muslim’s duty to continue the struggle for moral excellence, of his own as well as of the society he lives in. To fight against corruption, against environmental pollution, for human rights, for justice for weaker sections of society and such other noble causes is part of jihad. Anything, which brings relief to suffering humanity, is part of jihad in the way of Allah.”8

Without the reference to Allah, one could call it the struggle for an eco-socialist society.


1. Immanuel Kant (quoted from the internet).
1a. Jonas, Hans : Gespräch mit Eike Gebhardt, in: Ethik für die Zukunft - Im Diskurs mit Hans Jonas, Ed. by Dietrich Böhler, Verlag C. H. Beck, Munich 1994. P. 210-211. ISBN 978-3406386558, quoted in: (quoted from the internet).
2. Jonas, Hans :The Imperative of Responsibility. (quoted from the internet).
3. Dawkins, Richard (2007) The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.
4. Boyer, Pascal (2002) Religion Explained – The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors. London: Random House.
5. Epicurus (quoted from the internet).
5a. Kienzler, Klaus (1999) Der religiöse Fundamentalismus – Christentum Judentum Islam. Munich: C.H. Beck. P. 23.
6. ibid. P. 41.
7. Engineer, Asghar Ali (2008) Islam – Misgivings and History. New Delhi: Vitasta Publishing. P. 222f.
8. ibid. P. 227.