Thursday, January 8, 2015

Satire: The Islamist Kryptonite, by Michael Rubin

The motive for the shooting at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, appears to be Islamist anger at the magazine’s satirical approach toward radical Islam. The issue isn’t simply that its editors and writers repeatedly offended Islamist sensibilities, but rather that satire strikes deep at the totalitarianism at the core of Islamism. Simply put, Islamist terror shows that one of the best ways for the West to engage in the battle of ideas is to poke fun at authoritarianisms of all stripes and Islamists in particular.

 The reason for outrage at the Danish cartoons? It wasn’t the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. After all, the violence started only weeks later. When Islamists took notice, the satire simply struck too close to home. As for those commentators who said that Islam forbids depictions of Muhammad and other prophets? They might take 15 minutes and enter any museum with a collection of classical Islamic manuscripts and they’d see plenty of depictions of Muhammad. No diplomat, academic, or journalist should conflate Islam with the narrow and radical interpretation of it funded by Saudi and Iranian oil wealth.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini never read Salman Rushdie, but he understood the danger of satire and so, sight unseen, banned Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and ordered the British-Indian author’s murder. For all the talk of reformism in Iran, the death sentence still hangs over Rushdie today. When arguments cannot be won on their merits, autocrats address them with bans. (This is why European governments are wrong to ban Holocaust denial; let facts be debated and Holocaust deniers be ridiculed instead).
Nor are the Danish cartoons and Salman Rushdie the only example. One of the first actions the Muslim Brotherhood took upon winning power in Egypt was to target Adel Imam, Egypt’s equivalent of the late Leslie Nielsen, for his work satirizing Islamists. In his famous 1994 film Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist), Imam played a young, naïve would-be terrorist who, after being struck by a car and nursed back to health by a middle class family, realizes there is much more opportunity in the world. Meanwhile, his Islamist controllers are depicted drinking and engaging in all sorts of private behaviors which they condemn publicly. The film struck a nerve when it came out, and helped the Mubarak regime turn public opinion against an increasingly virulent Islamist insurgency.
Satire and ridicule are like carnival caricatures. They may exaggerate, but they strike a chord because their basis in fact resonates with a wide audience. Such is the case also with satire. Islamists cannot handle free thinking at the best of times, but ridicule is their kryptonite, for it shows that the would-be caliphs have no clothes.
Free speech can be a powerful tool, and so Western liberals should rally around Charlie Hebdo. To suggest that the satirical outlet brought violence upon itself is to suggest women wearing bikinis invite rape. Do not blame the victims, but rather the perpetrators. Recognize that free speech is under assault, and that it is a value worth protecting. Let us hope that no government or publisher responds to today’s violence with self-censorship, as some commentators and journalists have counseled under similar circumstances. If they do, the Islamists have won and all man’s progress since the Enlightenment is at peril.