A terrorist attack in Paris at the magazine, Charlie Hebdo, focused the world anew on the threat of radical Islam, but an earlier sign was missed: the sign of Jonah.
I happened to turn on FOX News around 9:30 PM on January 14 just in time to see and hear some of my favorite people locking horns in heated debate. Sean Hannity’s guests that night were Catholic League President, Bill Donohue, never one to shy from controversy, FOX News commentator, Father Jonathan Morris, and USA Today columnist, Kiersten Powers.
The incendiary topic of the evening was the January 7 attack at the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that left twelve people dead. It was a carefully planned mission, we now know, jointly carried out by members of al Qaeda and Islamic State who put on hold their own internal war to once again assault the free world on behalf of their prophet.
One columnist who caught that same episode of Hannity that night wrote that it sparked a controversy “for some of our subtlest and most honest observers,” a category in which the writer included Bill Donohue. Well, the honest part is true – very true – but no one would describe Bill Donohue as subtle. Just ask Kiersten Powers.
In some circles, however, the absence of subtlety is seen as evidence of honesty. As I tuned into that night’s mêlée on Hannity, everyone was talking at once, and it seemed to have been sparked by Bill Donohue himself, with a little help from Pope Francis. Both pointed out in the media that the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on free speech, but it was also a fuse lit by the magazine’s own editors as a result of openly ridiculing fundamentalist Islam. In other words, Bill Donohue insisted, they played some part in their own deaths. KABOOM!
The media of the left, which insists this terrorism had nothing to do with Islam, pounced on Bill Donohue for deviating from the media script. Earlier that day, Pope Francis suggested that killing in the name of God is always an aberration, but added that if you insult someone’s mother, you can expect to get punched. KABOOM again!
Sean Hannity, who wasn’t having any of this, used the moment to declare that this Pope is just too liberal for him. Meanwhile, Father Jonathan Morris did a great job calming the storm – or trying to – with some thoughtful reflections on why both points of view had merit. When the dust cleared, I could see the point made by Pope Francis and Bill Donohue.
I once had a friend who was robbed at knife point while walking through one of the roughest neighborhoods of Baltimore, cluelessly counting a wad of $20 bills as he strolled along. When I told him that he contributed to his own victimization, he insisted that he had a legal right to walk through that neighborhood counting money. Indeed he did, and he exercised that right to his peril – or at least to the peril of his money.
The free speech side of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is a given. Of course the magazine and its editors had the legal right to publish what they want. But Pope Francis and Bill Donohue made a valid point. Should religion be subjected to endless ridicule? Catholicism has been, and most viciously in Charlie Hebdo, which has a wide audience in anti-clerical France. Still, it’s difficult for us to imagine a religious ideal for which its adherents murder and destroy anyone or anything in opposition. This latest act of Islamic terror goes far beyond the legal right to free speech.
THE SIGN OF JONAH
Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled, “Michelangelo and the Hand of God.” It described a story not very well known outside the world of art historians. It told the story of how Michelangelo Buonarroti came to paint the famous frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He had become so famous in his 20s because of the Pieta that he was summoned – coerced, really – to leave Florence for Rome at age 29 at the behest of the newly elected Pope Julius II.
Much of the art and architecture revered as the centerpieces of the Catholic Church came into being against the backdrop of shocking scandal and hubris in the Renaissance papacy. The worldly and ambitious Pope Julius wanted to be immortalized for all time with a sculpted marble tomb unlike anything the world had ever seen. Then, after enticing Michelangelo to design and sculpt it, Pope Julius put the plan on hold for an even more ambitious project.
Once Pope Julius saw the young artist’s sketches for the tomb, he decided that he first needed a worthy place to house it. So he set out to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica and forced Michelangelo into another project: painting the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A scene from one of those famous frescoes graced an Advent post of mine, “I’ve Seen the Fall of Man.” Michelangelo had seen it too.
The largest and most impressive of the Sistine Chapel frescoes, however, is also the last one Michelangelo painted. It is the Prophet Jonah. For anyone who has visited the Sistine Chapel, this description of Jonah by art historian Giorgio Vasari will paint a vivid memory:
”Who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah, the last figure in the Chapel? The vaulting naturally springs forward, following the curve of the masonry, but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah…” (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, Penguin Books).
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a Talmud professor at Yeshiva University in New York, is co-author, with Roy Dolner, of another fascinating book, Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican (Harper Collins 2008). In a recent article, Rabbi Blech explained the dominance of the Prophet Jonah in the Sistine frescoes:
“Michelangelo surely identified with Jonah because the artist saw himself as also forced into a mission – leaving Florence to paint at the Vatican – that he wanted at all costs to avoid. Jonah cried and prayed to heaven for the liberation of Nineveh’s denizens ‘out of the depths.’ Michelangelo, who hoped to steer the Church from its hedonistic excesses, identified with the prophet whose task seemed impossible, and yet prevailed. For Jonah’s message was taken to heart by those who heard him – and he thereby saved the people of Nineveh” (“An Ancient Tomb Meets a Modern Horror,” WSJ.com, August 1, 2014).
For the Islamic faith, Muhammad is seen as the last of the prophets. He is seen as building upon and perfecting the examples and teachings of Abraham, Moses, even Jesus. For adherents of Islam, it is the last of the revealed monotheistic religions after Judaism and Christianity, and, at least ideally, it does not hold them in contempt. For Islam itself, the term “Islamization” means to resign the self to the will of God.
It does not mean mass, forced, conversion under threat of death. That is something new, a strain of Islam seen in the likes of al Qaeda and, even more treacherously, Islamic State, whose goal is to ignite a war between Europe and Islam.
In July, 2014, members of Islamic State – then calling itself Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – took the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. On July 25, Islamic State crossed the Tigris River to the ruins of the ancient and revered city of Nineveh and utterly destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah where it stood as a monument to all three faiths for over two millennia.
The tomb of the Prophet Jonah was destroyed by people claiming to act in the name of Muhammad who, Rabbi Blech pointed out, once warned that “One should not say that I am better than Jonah.” Jonah’s message that converted Nineveh was that, no matter how far gone, a people can change its ways and be redeemed. To destroy that very prophet’s tomb was an act of violent contempt by adherents of Islam, an act of violent contempt for all faith, including their own.
The world barely took note because that attack impinged on a right as fundamental as free speech. Rabbi Benjamin Blech wrote that the militants who blew up the tomb of the Prophet Jonah either didn’t know or didn’t care that it was Muhammad himself who described Jonah in the Quran as “a righteous preacher of the message of God.” To then claim that Islamic State avenged a sacrilege against its Prophet is hypocrisy. That sacrilege is Islamic State itself.
The argument of Bill Donohue and Pope Francis, however, is that the right to free speech is itself mocked when it’s used to disparage someone’s religion or race. At Charlie Hebdo, Catholicism was no less a target than Islam. Bill Donohue’s point was represented well in an exemplary post by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, “I Am Charlie? Really?” at Catholic Journal:
“Some suggested that Donohue’s criticism of the Charlie staff amounted to blaming the victim, or, worse, sympathizing with the terrorist butchers … What, after all was Donohue’s sin? Condemning two evils at the same time” (Jan. 12, 2015).
“I am not Charlie Hebdo, and I doubt you are either,” wrote David Brooks in The New York Times. But as Rabbi Blech so wisely reminds us, the desecration of the Prophet Jonah’s final resting place was a tragic blow to his message of concern for people of all faiths, “a message that still remains the only hope for civilized mankind.”
Je ne suis pas Charlie! Je suis Jonas!
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