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You Can Talk All You Want

My middle-school put on “The Music Man” when I was in eighth grade, and my big moment was over before the main action started. I was one of the salesmen on the train, and my lines were:

You can talk, you can bicker.
You can talk, you can bicker.
You can talk, talk, talk, talk,
bicker, bicker, bicker.
You can talk all you want:
But it’s different than it was!”

To which an ersatz peer replied:

Not it ain’t, not it ain’t,
cause you gotta know the territory!

It’s so easy to put an opinion out into public today, and given the trauma we’ve had with the Muslim world over the last fifteen years, there’s certainly a lot to be said.

When I engaged in this analysis, the first step that I took was to go to an Islamic Center and talk to the faithful. Up in Livermore, the president shared that, after getting over the hurdle of pride that made him reluctant to bow his head to the ground, the challenge he faced was practicing the morality of the Qu’ran at work, where he often found himself getting run over by his peers. In Newbury Park, I stayed after to read the book itself, and was given a copy as a gift. I read sixty percent of it, and am unashamed to reveal that it is a truly magnificent and beautifully poetic testament of faith.

Of course, what was being put around at the time was that Islam was a perversely militant religion. This came up when I was sitting idle in a juror’s waiting room on Yom Kippur. I struck up a conversation with another juror, who began to relate that the Qu’ran used the word “war” more times than any other book of scripture. I simply asked him “Have you ever read it?”

“No. I read a report by a Canadian academic.”

“Who was that.”

“Oh, I forget.”

Here’s a universal fact: men are designed to change things, and the easiest way to change something is to break it. There’s a rush that comes with destruction of a person, an idea, or a culture. So there are men that go around looking for reasons to destroy things. Making their targets as frightening as possible makes them sound strong, attracting the attention of the “weaker sex.” After a while, it’s the adrenaline and testosterone boosts that rule their logic: it doesn’t make a difference what the facts are. They’ll make them up to suit their destructive urges.

Thus was borne the modern culture of Islamophobia.

Of course, we can serve up counter-examples from the other side: the fatwas against van Gogh and Rushdie, and the murders in France and Texas in reprisal for satirical drawings of the prophet. These incidents are terrible abuses of clerical power and perversions of faith.

But we should ask: whose opinions did Charlie Hebdo change? When the French government asked them to refrain from publishing an incendiary article, did they really have to do so knowing that workers at French embassies around the world would be endangered? Does the right to talk all you want really trump the safety and well-being of others? We forbid people from crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater, after all.

The work of healing the divides that bring us to violence is not done by the Pamela Gellers of the world, but by Pope John Paul II with his convocations of religious leaders. It is done by the Shia and Sunni who pray together in my colleague’s office at work. It is done by people that take the trouble to read the books and share how they relate to their common human concerns: how do I create a better world for my children? What happens when we die? Why does faith (in god, or science, or spaghetti) give me relief from fear, and a sense of peace and purpose, even though I’ll never see the problems solved?

I would be impressed if Charlie Hebdo could claim to have inspired just one person like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who stood up for female rights in Belgium when she discovered that her sister expatriates were being abused by their husbands. I would be even more impressed if they dug deeper into the root cause reported by Ali: radicalism driven by the inability of fathers to provide for the well-being of their families in the European culture that they lacked tools to navigate.

Did anybody from Hebdo go down to the schools to tutor Islamic youth? Did they understand deeply the problems of the displaced, and contribute to their solution? Or did they simply indulge their egos? The families of the police officers slain in the attacks surely deserve an answer.

You see, it’s not about the fine distinction between free speech and hate speech. It’s about doing the work of moving people from sensibilities driven by fear to those enlarged by confidence. That requires, I’m afraid I have to say, a certain self-control. Insulting people only adds volume to the echo chamber.

“See, I’m allowed to insult you” is not evidence of cultural superiority. Rather, it’s the attitude “See, I respect you – and also the people that you fear. Let’s sit down and work out our differences.”

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