Conversation on violence needs to happen

Published 6:01 pm Saturday, January 10, 2015

By Kathryn Jean Lopez

This column begins as a little bit of a “love letter” to Anderson Cooper. And, no, not just because I felt for the man on New Year’s Eve as Kathy Griffin ragged on him on live TV. I write because I think we should acknowledge and encourage good things when we see them.

On the night cartoonists and staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered, Cooper, as CNN news host on live cable television, let a conversation happen. It was an honest, difficult, even dangerous, conversation. And it is desperately needed.

Cooper had as a guest human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s on a Muslim extremist “hit list” as another guest put it, and invitations for her to speak at American universities have spurred debate (Yale) and threats (at Brandeis). Just inviting her is a small act of courage, especially given the news story of the day: a media outlet under attack for what it had published and people murdered for exercising free speech.

About the attacks, Hirsi Ali wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “If there is a lesson to be drawn from such a grisly episode, it is that what we believe about Islam truly doesn’t matter. This type of violence, jihad, is what they, the Islamists, believe.”

She argues that violence is embedded in Islam, the religion she was brought up in.

As the National Review put it in an editorial that day, “A religion that commands murder as the punishment for blasphemy offends the God it professes to worship.”

On CNN, author and activist Maajid Nawaz apologized to Hirsi Ali, saying that Muslims and others had failed her. “I personally wish there were more Muslims on the frontlines defending your right to follow your conscience,” he said.

“What we need to be aware of is that the atrocity in Paris is the extreme expression of a general tendency in the Islamic world to repress dissent and disagreement,” Pakistani-born British Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who has spoken and written extensively on religious freedom, tells me. “This is seen, for instance, in the draconian laws on blasphemy and apostasy in many Muslim countries. These effectively prevent both freedom of thought and speech, as well as freedom of belief.

“We will not be rid of terror against free speech until there is reform, and where necessary, repeal of laws against freedom of speech. The Islamic world needs to learn that criticism should be answered not by repression, violence or terror, but by reason,” he said.

In writing about Christian persecution suffered under Islamic regimes in his book “Hatred,” journalist Michael Coren writes, “Those Muslim leaders who are brave enough to call for … dialogue and compromise tend to speak for small and generally fringe Islamic communities, and they are usually ignored or even condemned by the greater Muslim world when they do speak out in such a way.” This, however, could be changing, as evidenced by remarks recently delivered by Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world,” el-Sisi said, according to one CNN translation.

But there’s no sugarcoating the obstacles Muslims face. As Coren writes, “There is … simply no concept of the separation between mosque and state within orthodox Islam, so that at best the minority religions, including Christianity, can only aspire to toleration and never complete equality. This is totally contrary to the modern Christian notion of church and state, and has been so for centuries. So while even a majority Christian society can welcome Muslims as full and equal citizens, a majority Islamic nation can provide a grudging tolerance in theory, and usually a painful sufferance in reality. This leads to twin solitudes of understanding,” Coren writes, “or a conversation taking place in two different languages with no convincing or reliable translator.”

In the coming days, weeks and years, the media should play no small role in hosting, covering and encouraging those conversations. By watching, reading and subscribing to clear and courageous voices, you support that work.

Let’s never fail to call evil by its name, never look away from it, and never avoid hard conversations. We see how it can be a matter of life and death.

And as we condemn the deaths and pray for the families and friends and colleagues of those murdered, consider thanking an editor, a guest on a TV show like Hirsi Ali or Nawaz, and don’t forget to thank Anderson Cooper.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at