Trivializing Freedom at Its Source


Statue de Marianne par Léopold Morice, place de la République, Paris.

Let me begin by saying that I love France. It is a country to which I have traveled often, and whose language I have struggled to learn. I am grieved to see her harmed by these latest murderous attacks.

However, I am also ashamed for her. To see emblazoned in lights on the Arc de Triomphe the words, “Paris est Charlie” and to hear “Je suis Charlie” chanted by large crowds and reproduced on innumerable placards, moves me to say, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.” I would have been happy, by the way, to say, “Je suis Juif,” in solidarity with the French Jews who were executed in the Jewish grocery store on that terrible day. Why not Charlie?

The slogan “Je suis Charlie” illustrates a hollowness in the soul of France, Europe, and the West that is particularly dangerous as we confront those who use their version of Islam to justify our destruction. As we all know by now, Charlie Hebdo is a sophomoric, satirical magazine, 10 of whose staffers were despicably shot to death by Islamist terrorists. The publication is notorious, or celebrated, for its pornographic blasphemy. Its cartoons directed against my Christian faith are among the most loathsome I have ever seen. I can easily imagine how Muslims must feel about the comparable cartoons directed against their faith.

Saying “I am Charlie” trivializes freedom of speech. Yet freedom of speech is not trivial: it is founded upon freedom of conscience, which itself is rooted in the sanctity of the individual. Human beings are sacrosanct because they are made in the image and likeness of God, and for no other sustainable reason. Vilifying the very source of freedom is a dangerous game.

Is this the price we have to pay for a free society, as some suggest? In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan claims, “We resolve these things peacefully in the West . . . We know on some level that this is how civilization keeps itself together.” No, civilization keeps itself together by respecting what is sacred to it. And that is why our civilization is falling apart.

Islamists are not the problem; we are the problem. Were we still a healthy culture, the challenge of Islam in any of its forms would not be major. We need to recover some sense of ourselves based upon our Judeo-Christian faith; and it is our faith that ultimately undergirds the integrity of reason. The crisis of self-confidence in the West is due to the disintegration of belief, which leads to lack of will. It is the sacred which gives meaning to our lives. Evacuate the sacred, and you evacuate the meaning. What happens then?

The regnant multiculturalism in Europe makes it impossible for most of the people there to understand this problem. Perhaps the only thing that European multiculturalism can help explain is why, according to research by the Washington Institute, the Islamic State enjoys more support in Europe than it does in the Middle East. How could this be?

In an article in Tablet last fall, Lee Smith asked why teenaged Europeans are joining ISIS. The answer:

Because, for all the awesome social services and consumer goods it can offer, Europe has become incapable of endowing the lives of its citizens, Muslim or not, with meaning. A generation of young European Muslims are giving up their relatively easy lives in Malmö, Marseilles, and Manchester for the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, because Europe is devoid of values worth living—or dying—for.

Exactly. Much of the Muslim world sees our presentation of freedom as morally empty. They’re not wrong in this.

In a prescient 1994 novella called My Son the Fanatic, the British Pakistani author Hanif Kureishi has a telling scene where an immigrant Muslim father says to his Islamist son: “I love England . . . they let you do almost anything here.” The radicalized son responds: “That is the problem.” Freedom with no moral orientation—freedom as inimical to moral order—is indeed the problem.

Is it any wonder that the West has come to be seen as the center of unbelief and democracy has come to be seen as corrosive to faith? As many Muslims have clearly demonstrated, they would rather die than live without meaning in their lives. That is why they think we are the enemy—because we undermine meaning.

One member of the team that carried out the first attack on New York’s World Trade Center in 1993, Mahmoud Abouhalima, made this very clear in an interview, saying, “The soul, the soul of religion, that is what is missing.” The 17 years he had lived in the West had shown Abouhalima a lot about “secularism or people, you know, who have no religion. I lived in their life, but they didn’t live my life, so they will never understand the way I live or the way I think.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Volls says France is now fighting “a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism, against everything that is intended to break fraternity, liberty, solidarity.” If we are going to be successful in this, we had better come to understand the way people like Mahmoud Abouhalima live and think. We might begin by examining the metaphysical and spiritual sources of “fraternity, liberty, and solidarity” that we supposedly share. Ultimately, this would require a recovery of the sacred.

The likelihood of that happening is not great. One French mourner, Lucie Cabourdin, a television producer, helps explain why. According to the Washington Post (“French Leader Declares ‘War’ on Radical Islam after Attacks,” she said, “I just want to walk the streets naked with a sign that says, ‘Oops, I forgot my burka this morning.’ I know it’s ridiculous, but it would be symbolic. This is France, and I will do whatever I want.”

French superciliousness in these situations is not new by any means. A counter-demonstration took place in Paris several years ago after Muslims had, without a permit, occupied several streets to pray in public, a disruption which itself was not disturbed by any police action against it. The demonstrators marched along having cocktails and eating pork hors d’oeuvres. It apparently did not occur to them that this action exhibited a lack of seriousness that would not gain the respect of the Muslims against whom they were demonstrating.

The mantra of freedom untethered to any higher purpose translates as a form of materialism to most Muslims—and to many others as well. They decide upon submission to a higher purpose as it is presented to them by the Islamists. Are “fraternity, liberty, and solidarity” going to be able to compete with that?

“Fraternity, liberty, and solidarity,” in fact, are not enough. Some people can survive without freedom because they have meaning in their lives (like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). Others cannot survive freedom because they have no meaning in their lives. So they choose meaning over freedom.

As long as the choice is between personal freedom with no purpose, and personal submission to an Allah who demands the blood of infidels —so long as we let the Islamists frame the question in these terms—we will lose this fight.

Of course, that dire possibility is nothing new, either. In 1956, Andre Malraux wrote that “the Western world seems hardly prepared to face the problem of Islam.” That was certainly reconfirmed by President François Hollande’s reflexive response that “Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” As they say in France, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.