I am forever indebted to the Catholic Church and Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo. When I was a happy and irreverent twenty year old student at the Pontifical University, I published an article in which I openly insulted the Holy Father.
“The Meddling Pope”, it was called. I say that I am forever indebted to the Church because at that time, they restricted themselves to expelling me from the Universidad Pontificia Boliviariana (with three other iconoclast friends) when, according to the time honoured Catholic tradition, the correct thing to do would have been to burn us at the stake, make a public example of us, put us on trial for blasphemy, and deliver us over to the secular arm to put us on the rack until we died from the pain. But no, they did me the simple favour of expelling me, and as a result I went to a good university, the University of Antioquia, and ended up travelling to Italy to study literature.
I mention this incident because it illustrates very well the welcome change that has occurred within the Catholic Church and within Catholic countries after so many centuries of evolution. The Protestant Reformation and the smiling Enlightenment philosophers, in my opinion, tamed Catholicism. After the Protestant split there came the century of the Enlightenment. Voltaire and Diderot used the wonderful weapon of laughter to teach the Church (well, not counting the diehards like Archbishop Lefebvre and his followers) the difficult virtue of tolerance. The Church accepted that if religious wars were to be avoided, it would have to put up with other forms of Christian belief, and it would also have to put up with non-believers, satirists, atheists and anyone who makes fun of religion.
Much of Islam is still in the medieval phase of their beliefs. The timing coincides: Mohammed started preaching in 622CE. If we take this number from 2014, we can see that they are still at the year 1392 of their history: they are still living in the time of the Crusades, the fatwas and the jihads. The Renaissance had hardly stuck out its nose, the Americas had not been discovered, and they were still a century away from Luther and three centuries away from Voltaire and Diderot. They are riveted by their beliefs, and they have no qualms about imposing the death penalty for adultery, blasphemy, apostasy and atheism. And its most extreme factions commit barbarities like those that occurred in Paris this week. It is true that using historical transpositions and simple arithmetic is very simplistic. The medieval phenomenon, like the current Islamist one is more complex than a few simple dates. Despite there being a kernel of truth in this generalization it overlooks something very important: while Islamic terrorism is governed by a pre-modern ideology, it uses contemporary weapons that cause a lot of damage: rifles, planes, cars and mobile phones.
The Charlie Hebdo Weekly used (and it will continue using it against fanatics!) the best weapon against violence and fanaticism in the best tradition of the French Enlightenment: making people think by making them laugh. Using caricature and ferocious criticism, they laugh at Jews, Muslims, Catholics, capitalists etc. This publication is not in the least a weapon of the racist and colonial Right, as some ignorant local people think – they sacked an anti-Semite from the editorial staff. It was (and continues to be!) an iconoclast and libertarian publication. For them, the pope, the prophet, Israel and even freedom of expression are not sacred. They subject everything to critical scrutiny, and put it to the supreme test of scorn and mockery.
Charlie Hebdo’s last title page before the attack referred to a political fantasy – a kind of futurist novel – which is being published this week in France: Submission. In it they make fun of its author, Michel Houellebecq, predicting that he will lose his teeth this year, 2015, and what he will do at Ramadan in 2022.These predictions follow on from the catastrophic fantasy of the novel that narrates the nightmare of France governed by the Islamists, where the women are paid not to work, and where university professors have to convert to Islam (a word which in fact means “submission”) or resign. Terrorism teaches us that the time has come to struggle against submission. We cannot submit to its horrific blackmail. All of us, whether Muslims (“muslim” means, submitting to God), or non-believers, have to fight against submission using laughter and reason.
Héctor Abad Faciolince, is a Colombian author and columnist for the Colombian daily, El Espectador. This is his column of 11 January 2015, translated by Kieran Tapsell and published with their permission: