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 — and streaked his hair blue and pink — on live TV. I write because I think we should say “thank you” and encourage good things when we see them.
On the night cartoonists and other staff of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered, Anderson Cooper, as CNN news host on live cable television, let a conversation happen. It was an honest, difficult, even dangerous conversation. And it was desperately needed.
And, truth be told, for all our public talking about “conversations” on myriad hard and contentious issues, we rarely have them; instead, too often, we talk past one another and stick with our own talking points. Most especially on TV.
First of all, Cooper had as a guest human-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s on a “hit list,” as another guest put it, and invitations for her to speak at American universities have been matters of debate (Yale) or even of relenting to threats (Brandeis). Just issuing an invitation to Hirsi Ali can be an act of courage, especially on a day when the top news story was about a media outlet under attack for what it had published, and people dead for exercising free speech.
About the attack on Charlie Hebdo, 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 imbedded in Islam, the religion she was brought up in.
As National Review Online put it in an editorial that day, “A religion that commands murder as the punishment for blasphemy offends the God it professes to worship. In reality, it worships the Devil. And by such deeds as the half-random murders of innocent people ye shall know that truth.”
Also on CNN, Maajid Nawaz — a British former Islamist who had a change of heart and founded a counter-extremism think tank — applauded Muslim reformers and others who “open up this can of worms.” He apologized to Hirsi Ali, saying that Muslims and others had failed her, since she has to live with constant death threats. “Aayan has every right to follow her conscience. I personally wish there were more Muslims on the front lines defending your right to follow your conscience.”
He went on to say: “The problem here [is] not provocative statements or mere cartoons, but the men . . . who decide it’s their prerogative to pick up weapons and slaughter people in the name of God, as if God can’t look after himself.”
Michael Nazir-Ali is a Pakistani-born British Anglican bishop who has spoken and written extensively on religious freedom. He tells me: “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. 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.” He adds: “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.”
In writing about the persecution of Christians under Islamic regimes in his book Hatred, journalist Michael Coren worries that “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. So prominent a leader as Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has called upon imams in his country to lead a “religious revolution” against extremism. “It’s inconceivable,” el-Sisi said, according to a CNN translation, “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. Impossible that this thinking — and I am not saying the religion — I am saying this thinking.”
He went on: “This is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world! Does this mean that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants — that is 7 billion — so that they themselves may live? Impossible!”
But there’s no sugarcoating the obstacles Muslim leaders like el-Sisi face. Coren writes, echoing others: “Beyond words . . . are actions.” He points to “the chronic persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, the implementation of sharia law, and the use of blasphemy legislation,” highlighting as their source the leading Islamic view of the relationship between religion and state. “There is . . . simply no concept of the separation between mosque and state within orthodox Islam, so that at best the minority religion, 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 will play no small role in hosting, covering, and encouraging real conversations. By watching, reading, and subscribing to clear and courageous voices, we 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 in Paris and pray for the families, friends, and colleagues of those murdered, consider thanking an editor or a guest on a TV show like Hirsi Ali and Nawaz — and don’t forget to thank Anderson Cooper.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.