After Islamic terrorists invade a newspaper office and murder 12 people, the first reaction from impartial observers should most assuredly not be to condemn Catholics for the Spanish Inquisition.
Yet this is the disgusting and ahistorical message many liberal advocates of moral equivalence shared on social media. Remember that Christians have been violent, too, in the name of religion, and don’t say anything bad about Islam. Jon Harmon, the legislative director for Cincinnati Council member Chris Seelbach, tweeted, in an attack on CNN anchor Don Lemon, “Embarrassing. Will @donlemon ask Catholics if they support molester priests or the Spanish Inquisition?”
We don’t have to ask. The Catholic Church years ago apologized for the Spanish Inquisition. On March 12, 2000, Pope John Paul II said, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.” In fact, Pope John Paul II apologized for a number of things during his papacy, including the crusades and the imprisonment of Galileo.
The apology doesn’t take away from the brutality of the act, but at least it acknowledges wrongdoing. What does the Inquisition have to do with the attack on Charlie Hebdo? Nothing, specifically, unless you consider how the actions of Islamic terrorist groups today such as the Islamic State are as vicious or worse than the Inquisition.
Why Is Islam Exempt from Criticism?
But it is instructive how some on the Left are so quick to condemn Christianity for anything—even for something (the attack on Charlie Hebdo) that Christianity had nothing to do with. It would be hard to imagine a liberal reminding readers about 9/11 after a Christian extremist bombed an abortion clinic, for example, or urging tolerance of the moderate Americans, the vast majority, after a bigoted extremist shoots up a mosque. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, the New York Times originally included a claim by a victim that an assailant spared her but demanded she convert to Islam. Later, the paper edited the passage to remove the call for forced conversion.
The reticence to publish cartoons of Muhammad contributes to an atmosphere where one religion is put on a pedestal above all others. On one hand, people are legitimately scared to do so. No one needs to be told why. A 2012 cartoon in The Onion after the “Innocence of Muhammad” controversy depicted Jesus, Moses, Ganesha, and Buddha engaging in a graphic orgy under the headline, “No One Murdered Because Of This Image.”
Ironically, it is the absence of Muhammad in print that speaks the most negatively about the religion. Who would be scared of offending the sensibilities of a follower of the “Religion of Peace”? It is understandable why media institutions take the policy they do for reasons of safety, but that policy should not be couched in terms of morality or sensibilities. If it were, then that would call into question why so much other imagery is fair game (as such imagery should be).
They’re Scared for Their Lives—Which Says Something
Sometimes even the most ardent atheist critics of religious fundamentalism find they must attack Christianity or “religion” before zeroing in on Islam. Beyond fearing potentially for their lives if they offend the wrong person, they also fear for their reputations, lest they get tarred as “Islamophobic.”
Bill Maher can be praised for being consistent. After the attack, Maher went on Jimmy Kimmel’s show and said, “I know most Muslim people would not have carried out an attack like this. But here’s the important point. Hundreds of millions of them support an attack like this. They applaud an attack like this.” It was an echo of his argument with Ben Affleck on his own show in October, in which he and Sam Harris pointed to surveys that showed a distressing amount of Muslims in various countries support criminalizing blasphemy with the death penalty. For that, Maher and Harris were called “racists.”
After his comments on Kimmel, Salon’s Erin Kean denounced Maher for “sounding eerily like the religious extremists,” a claim of moral equivalence that again puts speech on the same level with murder. Richard Dawkins was slammed on Salon for having tweeted, “No, all religions are NOT equally violent. Some have never been violent, some gave it up centuries ago. One religion conspicuously didn’t,” and Sean Hannity got the treatment for suggesting that immigrants should be “assimilated” so as not to support such extremism.
Earth to Liberals: Discussing Islam’s Problems Isn’t Bigotry
Of course no form of bigotry is justified, including anti-Islamic bigotry, but discussing major problems is not the same as bigotry. Liberals have spent the past few months condemning police institutions for what they view as racist policing practices that contribute to the shootings of unarmed black men. The Tea Party has been slammed by liberals as “racist” ever since it came into existence. Although the individual characterizations of both issues can be debated, no one should condemn the practice of using harsh rhetoric to confront harsh realities. Religious institutions should not be off limits just because they are religious.
If Maher and Dawkins were wrong, then why would their critics have to reach back centuries to pull out a sufficient counterexample? Organized Christianity doesn’t exert near the radical influence now as it did then. Reformations within the church and the Enlightenment have changed matters.
That we even have the debate of whether to publish the cartoons illustrates the point. Artistic exhibitions that offend Christians have been displayed in America and Europe without violent reprisal. Whether it’s “Piss Christ” or paintings of the Virgin Mary toting a gun, followers of the Virgin Mary’s religion don’t come running in with guns and bombs. There have been some exhibitions, such as Cosimo Cavallaro’s “Chocolate Jesus,” that have been canceled due to pressure from organized Christian groups, but the pressure in that case came through boycotts, not bloodshed.
A comparable depiction of Muhammad would never even get past the approval stage of a major museum. Jesus is depicted frequently in cartoons and comedic television shows, but Muhammad is almost always censored in depictions.
News Talks about…News—Not Ancient History
The reason that Islamic violence dominates the headlines today is because it happens now. News is about timeliness. The Spanish Inquisitions of centuries past were barbaric. Historian Henry Kamen estimates that 40,000 Jews were forced into exile because of the persecution, and up to 5,000 people are thought to have been executed, according to various sources. The Inquisition targeted Muslims, as well.
That’s why the Inquisitors were feared at the time and why the Black Legend, a fearful reading of Spanish history, was so powerful. Some early scholarship may have posited death tolls that were higher than the true total, but even if the death toll was in the thousands and not the hundred thousands, it was still an egregious moral wrong that the whole population was denied religious freedoms and that thousands were tortured and executed.
The first response to the Inquisition should not be “Catholicism Faces Rising Tide of Bigotry” any more than the first response to the murder of journalists should be “France Faces Rising Tide of Islamophobia.” It also faces a rising tide of terrorism, which is the starting point for any broader discussion. But that was one of the headlines that ran in the Telegraph in the 48 hours after the attack. If everything must be a “-phobia”, then this is “debateophobia”—“fear of a free and frank discussion,” as sociology professor Frank Furedi called it—to condemn any attempt at understanding the underlying motivations of our current terrorists.
If those liberals who spent the past two days condemning the inquisitions truly believe forced conversions and state-backed murders are so bad, here is something they can resist now. As the Islamic State ravages Iraq and Syria, already having killed more in two years than the Spanish Inquisition killed in its entirety, including thousands of Muslims on the basis of their religious views, it won’t do the victims any good to tell them, “Centuries ago, Christians were also violent.” They are more concerned about surviving today. We should share their concerns.