Charlie Hebdo magazine and the burning of books

Charlie Hebdo magazine and the burning of books

‘People are killed every day around the world in numbers and in circumstances that should put the events in France in perspective.’ Hizb ut-Tahrir,Australia, Monday Jan 12, 2015. They refused to condemn the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine last week.

But for the media, and for us as Westerners (even in the south), it is true that not all lives are valued equally:

  • Boko Harum kill up to 2,000 last week, with little fuss.
  • Amount raised in the UK in 24 hours by Just Giving campaign for Manchester Dogs Home after fire killed 60 dogs and left 150 homeless – one million pounds. Amount raised by various Just Giving campaigns for victims of floods in South Asia, which are estimated to have killed 500 people and left at least 2m homeless – £20,000 (Private Eye, Sept 2014).

One problem is that so many of the deaths occurring now in Iraq and the region are between Sunnis and Shias, the major denominations of Islam. What is the difference?


Hizb ut-Tahrir would like to burn all copies of Charlie Hebdo, but killing the people who create it sends a stronger message. The murder of journalist is a step further than fire-bombing a printing or publishing house . . . but, “Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings.” Heinrich Heine (from his play Almansor, 1821).

The thought that you alone have the right to say what is true, what deserves to exist is ancient. Book burning has a long tradition, though not as long as murder and massacre:

354 AD: An edict ordered the closing of all the pagan temples and the execution of pagan priests began, along with the first burning of libraries in various cities of the empire.
364: Emperor Jovian orders the burning of the Library of Antioch.
370: Book burning occurs in the squares of the cities of the Eastern Empire.
1010: The library of Cordova held an estimated 600,000 books, estimated to be ten times the number held by all other European libraries put together and encompassing a world of thought. The city was sacked by Berbers and the library destroyed.

1562: Fray Diego de Landa, acting bishop of the Yucatan, burnt the sacred books of the Maya.

1914: At the start of World War I, the Germans shot the mayor of Leuven, the university rector and all the city’s police officers. The university library, famous for tens of thousands of irreplaceable books and Gothic and Renaissance manuscripts, was deliberately destroyed on August 25.

1933: On April 6, the Nazi German Student Association’s Main Office for Press and Propaganda proclaimed a nationwide “Action against the Un-German Spirit,” to climax in a literary purge or “cleansing” (Säuberung) by fire. On May 10 1933 around 40,000 persons gathered in In Berlin’s Opernplatz [now called Bebelplatz] to burn 20,000 books and hear Joseph Goebbels. There’s a video of him surrounded by young men shouting: “The triumph of the German revolution has cleared a path for the German way; and the future German man will not just be a man of books, but also a man of character and it is to this end we want to educate you. To have at an early age the courage to peer directly into the pitiless eyes of life. To repudiate the fear of death in order to gain again the respect for death . . . No to decadence and moral corruption!” consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”

Heinrich Mann’s ‘Zola’ (1915) celebrated the French author’s political commitment, and proposed a role for artists and writers in society. He attacked the war, causing a breach with his Thomas who defended the war while asserting the artist’s need for independence from political concerns. With the rise of Nazism, Thomas came around to many of his elder brother’s views.

‘The only people who attain power are those who crave it.’ Erich Kästner.

Other writers’ books burnt included those by Bertolt Brecht, August Bebel, Karl Marx, Arthur Schnitzler, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann and many others. In Bebelplatz a circular section of clear glass reveals a white room filled with white empty bookshelves, six or seven feet deep.

1936: Federico García Lorca was arrested on the 16th August and three days later he was dragged into a field and shot. His writings were subsequently burnt in the main Plaza in Granada.

2013: Between the 13th and 17th centuries, Islamic scholars composed millions of manuscripts in Timbuktu. The Ahmed Baba Instititute was established in 2009 to protect these documents. In recent months it has been used by rebel fighters as sleeping quarters and they reportedly set light to the manuscripts as they left in January.

Why tyrants hate books and burn books: “It’s not so much what the books contain, the content, though that’s the usual reason. It’s because reading itself is an act of freewill, nothing can became you and the act of reading a book . . . it does mean independence of mind and spirit.” Jeanette Winterson (Sydney Writers’ Festival, 22 May, 2008).

I have had wonderful times in Islamic countries like Syria, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan and Indonesia, and experienced great hospitality. I enjoyed visiting ancient souks, places of worship and meeting people. However, the lack of voice of moderate Islamic scholars and leaders and the political, tribal and schismatic divisions have been a disaster and this is unfolding still. The death cult of martyrdom is no better than that of the Nazis that Goebbels referred to in his speech.

“One of George Bush’s most insidious legacies in Iraq thus remains its most mysterious; the marriage of nationalism and spiritual ferocity, the birth of an unprecedentedly huge army of Muslims inspired by the idea of death.” Robert Fisk, The cult of the suicide bomber, The Independent 14 March 2008

I sit cross-legged and drift into a memory of sitting cross-legged on carpets in Sultanahmet’s vast Blue Mosque, cool meditative relief from Byzantium’s rushed noise and upwelling sweat, adventure for a boy hitchhiking, collaborating with whatever was going, spending days by the roadside in nondescript epics, a skinny long-haired youth who held his arm out, cocked a thumb and rotated the wrist anti-clockwise in a classic manoeuvre, but Iranian drivers stopped to ask me what I was doing strolling through Persia, stepping over mountains, wading through the marshes, trekking across deserts, walking the streets, meeting Baluchs, Kurds and Turcomen and earnest students tortured by SAVAK, and earnest students throwing punches later.

I recall my first sight of the Naqsh-e-Jahan of Shah Abbas, the pale blue tiles of Imam Shah’s large dome, exquisite as an enlarged Faberge egg, formed from mosaic tilework (large ceramic tiles in one colour fired, broken and set in plaster). The craft fired tiles in all the shapes to fit like a skin over the brick fabric of the building, involving complex mathematical designs, particularly difficult to execute when they cover the curved frames of arches and ceilings organising such elusive spaces. A series of tiles may use one or two shapes but the patterns the tiles make may all be different or a few shapes might combine to generate complex inter-locking patterns, formal puzzles, aerial Mandelbrots. Lost in Isfahan I get back to the bazaar, repel the traders’ calls and boys urging me to visit their brother’s best price shop, one treasure trove offered chai and laughter,

I made an offer for a carpet bag shook my head and walked away, strolled back, started over, incremental results, went back three times, all in a day’s play for one shoulder bag and two antique decorative belts which I never even tried on and then found were too small, even in those days. Even then not knowing what I was doing. Leaving via roach infestations and the rose gardens of Shiraz, a close call at Persepolis and riding a melon truck stopping at each opium den in the Taurus Mountains up to a rose-lipped dawn, eddying into a mosaic of other mosques: Cairo’s simple antique grey Amr Ibn El-Aa, Koutabia in Marrakech and Lahore’s Wazir Khan. In Konya a carpet drapes Rumi’s tomb with golden calligraphy, a large black turban tops it off, a passerby translated a note on the door in 74 or 5 as ‘Dervishes on holiday’.

I passed through a mosaic of Muslims, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, woven when Durer and Michelangelo were born, when making carpet changed from small nomadic looms worm-weaved from memory to lavish court productions. The golden age was Safavid: from Tabriz and Herat cartoons were sent throughout the empire. Silk delineated extraordinary detail – ruby poppy fields near Zahedan, caravanserais in hottest Dasht-e Kavir, and chelo kebab so good I went into one kitchen and asked the cook for the recipe. The second visit was unfamiliar, I was spat on and punched, learnt to say I was from New Zealand during daily demonstrations tumbling past blackened cinemas, the revolution firing plumes of hashish and the Shah flying out. Is this what art can do, coax the body to remember or recreate old vocabularies?

The vocabularies of transcendence are what is so problematic. Terms like God, martyr, volk, freedom, democracy – have no fixed meaning, yet can overpower the reality of humans living and trying to make the most of their lives. The use of a vocabulary has consequences, as Richard Rorty noted.

Just to add that Richard Rorty stressed the importance of vocabulary. Whereas primates have up to twenty distinct calls, the average human knows about 60,000 words, though 98% of speech uses 4,000 odd words. Survival doesn’t require such a huge vocabulary (Richard’s and Ogden’s Basic English for international communication uses 850 words.) It’s what you do with words that counts.

“To see keeping a conversation going as a sufficient aim of philosophy, to see wisdom as consisting in the ability to sustain a conversation, is to see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately. To see the aim of philosophy as truth — namely, the truth about the terms which provide ultimate commensuration for all human inquiries and activities – is to see human beings as objects rather than subjects, as existing en-soi rather than as both pour-soi and en-soi, as both described objects and describing subjects.” Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

Social reality develops through embodied practice interacting with our environments, but ideology can warp our connections to the environment of the natural and human worlds. Like any other concept, our most closely held moral principles and concepts have prototype structures not essentialist structures, which offers flexibility but not objectivity. (Prototype theory goes back to Eleanor Rosch, ‘Cognitive Representations of Semantic Categories’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 1975. Mark Johnson is critical of ‘moral absolutism’ where, ‘reason is defined by an abstract structure that stands above and transcends any particular instance of reasoning in actual historical contexts.’ Mark Johnson (Moral Imagination – Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, U of Chicago P,1993).

From his experiences in a concentration camp as a young Viennese doctor (prisoner No. 119,104) Victor Frankl realised, ‘everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ (Man’s Search for Meaning,1946).

“We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these idiots, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a kind of death cult trying to frighten us all.” Steve Bell, Guardian cartoonist.

I turn back to our garden:  “Tend your vines, and crush the horror.” Voltaire

Joey in garden
Joey in our garden
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