Je suis Charlie, et je suis Ahmed
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about, but evermore
Came out from the same door where in I went.
--The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald
The massacre of 17 people in Paris by fanatics is an appalling tragedy, but all the worse for the way it intersects with innumerable incidents of bloodshed, grief, and hatred. Everyone has expressed an opinion about the massacre--in print, on Facebook, on Twitter--and almost everyone has been inundated in turn by commenters who say they have missed the point, or are part of the problem. The various sides can't even agree on how to communicate. The cartoon on the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo--a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad, saying, "Tout est pardonne" ("All is forgiven"), was obviously meant to be conciliatory, at least to Westerners. To most Muslims in the Middle East, however, the cartoon was just one more intolerable insult against their faith.
Yasmine Bahrani, a professor of journalism at American University in Dubai, made the Muslim perspective clear in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. It was incomprehensible to Muslims, Bahrani wrote, that world leaders should rally in Paris to mourn the Charlie Hebdo dead, while giving scant notice to the thousands of Muslims killed in Africa and the Middle East by fellow Muslims.
The 132 schoolchildren murdered in Pakistan last month by the Taliban are a case in point, according to Bahrani. "To Muslims, it is bad enough that these children's deaths appear to be taken less seriously in the West," she wrote. "But now cartoonists who drew purposefully offensive drawings are being hailed as heroes."
This is not lost on Bahrani's students, and neither are the growing anti-Muslim demonstrations and attacks in Europe. They believe as a matter of course, she wrote, that many if not most Western anti-terrorist actions against Muslims are frame-ups. "Nobody in my classroom believes that Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty," she wrote. "My students are convinced he is being set up. I explain that there appears to be a great deal of evidence against the young man, but they will have none of it."
I have no idea what to do when the various sides simply cannot or will not believe each other. Nor am I certain that anyone else does. Mutual incomprehension between different cultures has been a fact throughout recorded history. In this instance, at least we can start by acknowledging there are many sides, not just two. In fact, it would be helpful to simply acknowledge this as a general rule. ISIS does not speak for all Muslims, any more than Marine Le Pen speaks for all Westerners.
Ideally, there should be as many religions as there are people, all persons approaching and interpreting their faiths in their own way. Malala Yousufzai, a devout Muslim who dares to question those who would be dictators of her faith, is one of the world's great heroes. Those who shot Malala are a constant danger; so are those who applaud the shooters, or are indifferent to Malala's fate, or see no difference between Malala and her assailants.
I mourn for the editors of Charlie Hebdo; I also mourn for Ahmed, the Muslim policeman who died trying to save them. And I mourn for the Pakistani schoolchildren, and for the Nigerian villagers slaughtered by Boko Haram, and for all those who die because others believe they have the right to kill them.
I have no answers for the mutual incomprehension that governs the world. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold, the sea is just as unplumbed, salt, and estranging as it ever was. The only lessons I can draw are those that have always existed: Love everyone. Mourn everyone. Think for yourself, and speak freely. And, above all, this: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.