Cartoons, punch lines and biting satire, the stuff of “Charlie Hebdo,” do more than evoke a chuckle or even a belly laugh. The French magazine, like most jokes, was deliberately provocative and irreverent, too much so for the murderers who gunned down its staff. They believe the blasphemy of ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad empowered them to mete out the most severe penalty.
Humor is not kind. It looks at the other side of things we take for granted; it pokes holes into shibboleths, deflates pomposity and turns the familiar inside out. It takes courage and self-confidence to see the element of truth that motivates mockery. The Muslim assassins, like all fundamentalists, could not tolerate any deviation from their orthodoxy. “Islamists cannot handle free thinking at the best of times, but ridicule is their kryptonite, for it shows that the would-be caliphs have no clothes,” writes Michael Rubin.
A sense of humor is essential in a healthy society; that’s why the murder of the French cartoonists and writers is especially horrifying. The censorship of humor and artistic expression deals a fatal blow to democracy, because it confirms the extremists’ conviction that free speech and religion cannot coexist. Respecting their taboos strengthens their power. They cannot be allowed to determine the boundaries of public conversation.
Update: Video of attack in Paris