Recently, I saw a Hollywood guild screening of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Last Wednesday, two gunmen killed 12 people at the Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo. (As I write, French security forces have just killed the terrorists.) The film and the murders tell overlapping yet different stories.
If you’re thinking, “Wait. I’ve got to go to see Exodus: Gods and Kings,” save your money. What makes this movie silly isn’t its use of imagination. Vast gaps exist in the biblical narrative. Jewish Midrash has sought to fill them for 2,000 years. The movie, however, changed the biblical narrative itself. Also upsetting to some, the film portrays a human image of God—a young boy. This goes against both Jewish and Muslim tradition, the latter formulated almost two millennia after Sinai and the commandment against graven images.
Should we threaten those involved with Exodus: Gods and Kings? Pass restrictive laws? Shut theaters? Not at all. First, Hollywood is Hollywood. Truth and reality play second fiddle to storyline. Second, we revere free speech. By “we,” I refer to America and the West. Hollywood can make silly movies. Moviegoers can adore or trash them. We permit the tension produced by the foolish or even tasteless. In general, the Muslim world does not.
Morocco and Egypt banned the movie. The United Arab Emirates is thinking about it. Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? In many areas of those and other Muslim nations, you’d be lucky to find a theater showing anything produced in the West. Or even to find a theater. Governments replacing discussion and argument with bans create a restrictive worldview that imperils freedom and ultimately life itself. The murders in Paris represent one example.
This wasn’t Charlie Hebdo’s first encounter with violence. In 2011, the magazine was firebombed after running a spoof issue “guest edited” by Muhammad. Tasteless? Offensive? Maybe. That’s the nature of satire, and satire is a key element of free speech, pricking the pomposity of the powerful and power-hungry. This time, the magazine suffered a catastrophe undertaken by Islamists seeking vengeance in the name of God.
Does God need human protection? Since Muslims revere Moses, I wonder if the killers were familiar with the Book of Exodus, which the Jewish Torah cycle has just begun. They might not like the outcome of the Exodus story: the Israelites march off towards the Promised Land. But Moses and Aaron don’t defend God. God defends the Israelites. The Ten Plagues testify to the biblical God of history Who has all the muscle He needs.
The West is going through a difficult time. European rightwing, anti-Muslim movements are mushrooming. Callers to American talk-radio shows are foaming at the mouth. Few can provide a rational response, particularly when confronted by the fact that a Muslim policeman was one of those killed in the Paris massacre. He was there to defend Charlie Hebdo. To defend us all.
What to do? Maintain security for one thing. We’ll probably be contending with Islamism for a long time. Maintain good will towards Muslims of good will for another. And continue to support free speech.
In memory of those killed at Charlie Hebdo, I’m attaching a short story (PDF) I recently wrote—satire, naturally—“The Laughing Room.” The Laughing Room-Perlstein Give it a read. And pass it on. Let’s add to the growing chorus of, “Je suis Charlie.”
I’ll take a break next week and post again on January 23.
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