Messages from the Bishop

We are not all Charlie

Written by Bishop Henry

The January 7th terrorist attack by Islamic militants on the offices of the French satirical Charlie Hebdo in Paris brought, and rightly so, widespread condemnation. The massacre of twelve civilians, including two policemen, one of whom was Muslim, constituted a heinous crime and there is a need to express our solidarity with the French people and the affected families.

On January 10th, the international media reported that up to 2,000 civilians in and around the town of Baga, Nigeria, were slaughtered by the Islamist group Boko Haram.

What I found particularly appalling was that journalists went ballistics about "an assault" on the freedom of speech and expression, while almost ignoring the second massacre involving an incredible loss of human life.

A classic example of what Pope Francis calls the "throwaway culture".

In principle, I'm not opposed to satire. It takes talent and creativity to really nail something, for example, the social satire of Stephen Colbert when he says: "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."

However, the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices or deeply held religious beliefs (that one finds personally objectionable) usually ends up being nothing more than a sophomoric exercise, demeaning to everyone, and truly offensive to the point of serving no useful transformative purpose.

After Paris, the Chaldean Church Patriarch Luis Sako, in addition to expressing his sorrow, said that: "In front of what is happening in the Arab region and abroad, which is unprecedented and threatens relations and co-existence, we call upon all our Muslim brothers to take the initiative from the inside to dismantle this terrorist extremist ideology. And build an open and enlightened Islamic opinion that doesn't accept the political exploitation of religion."

More satirical cartoons are not the answer, nor are empty symbols of political world leaders marching arm in arm, nor are simple protestations. It is not enough to say, "This has nothing to do with Islam" or to ignore some texts taken from the Qur'an which clearly espouse violence against the infidel (non Muslim) or " Islam is a religion of peace." Whether we wish to admit it or not, the vast majority of all terrorist attacks in the world are carried out in the name of Islam, to defend the faith, or the prophet . They do everything saying, "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), before doing it, putting everything under God and the call of Islam, even the killing of the innocent.

Speaking at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, on New Year's Day, 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a forceful and impassioned plea to religious scholars and clerics:

"It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking—I am not saying "religion" but "thinking"—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world!.... Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!.... I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move... because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands."

The struggle within Islam itself must be confronted and the imams will have to lead.

Two immediate flash points need to be addressed:

1. The interepretation of texts.

For all Muslims, whether you are conservative or liberal, a basic premise is that the Qur'an is not the work of Muhammad but of God himself. Therefore it is timeless and not restricted to the seventh century; it is the word of God preserved unchanged over time. The orthodox (and particularly the fundamentalists) believe that each verse has an absolute value, regardless of the context. The liberals propose a contextualized reading and interpretation, taking into consideration place and time. Therefore, they emphasize the necessity of adapting the text to history, current events, and to modernity. Modernity that is not a synonym for atheism, immorality, hedonism and the denial of religious dimension of life, as often occurs in the West.

2. Integration.

Islam is a system, not just a religion. Can immigrants to western countries find a way to meaningfully participate in existing economic, political, legal and social systems?

Patriarch Sako believes: "There is a future for us human beings only by living together in peace, harmony and cooperation as we were before the advent of the radical streams that use violence. We have to accept our historical and moral responsibility in spreading the culture of the recognition of the other, acceptance and respect him based on the principle that "There is no compulsion in religion" and "through honest dialogue, wisdom, clear vison, and intact religious upbringing."

Rather than satire, we need to learn to speak the truth in love.

✠ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary.

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