By Sam Groves | Editor in Chief
According to most news outlets, the terrorists who entered the Paris offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and shot 12 people to death with assault rifles were “radicals.”
And perhaps they were, in the sense that their radical version of Islam is a perversion that rejects subtlety and, with stubborn and babyish simplicity, embraces the most literal and one-dimensional view of everything. It is, in other words, a version of Islam that the vast majority of practicing Muslims around the world would not recognize.
But in a larger sense – one that examines all of humanity and all of history – these men were not radicals.
For most of human history, human beings have not been free. The author Philip Pullman writes that “every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.” On Wednesday, Jan. 7, that fight continued. To call these men radicals when the side they represent – the second one, which wants us to “obey and be humble and submit” – has been in power for most of the last 10,000 years, ruling either through lawlessness and chaos or authoritarianism and control, is to pay them a wildly inappropriate compliment.
A radical is someone who stands in the shadow of history and dares to defy it, not someone who wants to drag the world back, deeper into that shadow, to an earlier and darker time. By this much truer definition, Malala Yousafzai is a radical. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. were radicals. Mahatma Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Paine – all were radicals.
But these terrorists? They are part of an old order, which rears its head every time Russia bans gay people from driving cars (as they just did), every time North Korea tries to stop a movie from being released in the United States (or perhaps more aptly, every time North Korea exists), and every time the Taliban in West Asia or Boko Haram in Nigeria shoot or kidnap girls for attempting to get an education.
You want to see an act of radicalism? You’re looking at one. This newspaper, itself an exercise in the very same freedom of expression that the Charlie Hebdo gunmen are so incapable of understanding, the very same freedom of expression that Kim Jong Un is practically allergic to, is an act of radicalism. The school that publishes this newspaper is a radical institution, because it assumes that all human beings have a right to a comprehensive, nonbiased education.
You want to do something radical?
Adopt the symbol that more than a million people, including Frenchmen and women, world leaders, and sympathizers from around the globe, did at the unity rally in Paris on Sunday, Jan. 11: the pencil. That doesn’t mean you literally have to write something. It can also symbolize every positive contribution human beings can possibly make, from art, to literature, to technological innovation, to scientific discovery, to (especially in the case of the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo) humor. It’s a pretty broad symbol, and that’s a good thing: the world needs more radicals, not fewer. It’s also a symbol that doesn’t necessarily ask much of people. But acting upon it still takes courage. As the attack in Paris demonstrates, it may even get you killed.