I was deeply troubled by news of this week’s killings of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, France’s beloved satirical newspaper, by two French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi. I’ve been haunted by footage I saw of these gunmen’s shooting of a police officer in cold blood on a Parisian street where our good friends live and where we regularly stay. The killing of four hostages in the Jewish kosher grocery store by another jihadist activist, followed by the French police’s shooting of all three gunmen, has made this a traumatic week for France and the world.
Should we be surprised by these killings? Offense, resentment, and shame carried by many young Muslim men and others on the margins today incite rage. In this case, the rage is directed against the dishonoring gaze and mocking words of journalism that appears to consider nothing sacred, except free speech.
In the twenty years of my chaplaincy ministry in our local jail and in prisons around the world, I have witnessed the consequences of the exercise of free speech over and over. Exercising your freedom of speech to say whatever you want in a prison context (and many other places too) is possible, but it is not advised, especially if your words increase offense and lead to a sense of powerlessness and shame when the offended one may not have an effective way to respond. If you disrespect someone’s mother, girlfriend, or even fellow gang member, you will likely pay the consequences at some point.
Cartoons of a naked Prophet Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo, as well as images of the victims of Israel’s recent bombing of Gaza or America’s tortured detainees add to many Muslim people’s experience of being disrespected by the powerful status quo. Chérif and Saïd Kouachi sought to vindicate the honor of Mohammed (and his followers).