Assassins who claim to have God on their side: Terrorist Violence Symposium at UVU

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Tiffany Frandsen | Deputy Managing Editor | @tiffany_mf


The Peace & Justice Studies and the Integrated Studies departments at Utah Valley University joined forces to host a symposium entitled, “Terrorist Violence and Free Expression: France and Charlie Hebdo.”  The symposium held on Jan. 26 in the Sorenson Student Center, included presentations about terrorist violence, provocation and ideology. Pat Bagley, the Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist, had originally been scheduled to attend to tackle the issue of cartooning and terrorism, but was unable to attend because of his workload at the Tribune.

The symposium came together two and a half weeks after (and because of) a shooting at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in France. The two terrorists had justified the murder of 12 people as revenge for the magazine’s cartoonists’ provoking depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.  The massacre sparked a free speech debate, with defenders deploying the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and cartoonists around the world drawing their own support for the magazine in the form of pens and pencils triumphing over violence.

In order to show that the terrorists would not win, Charlie Hebdo continued to publish cartoons that make a mockery of Islam. People across France and across the world rallied in support of the media’s right to publish satire, even if it is derogatory.

Terrorism Symposium sign

Dr. Michael Minch, professor of philosophy and humanities, acknowledged the right, but said that there is a disconnect between what people (and media outlets) have a right to do and what they have a responsibility not to do.

Minch doesn’t see a justification in a lot of the cartoons that Charlie Hebdo publishes, said there is plenty of room for satire without provocation, and asked that – for the most part – religious communities be left alone.

“It seems morally perverse to think it is acceptable to humiliate people if only they are a minority of community members,” said Minch. He suggested that going forward, Charlie Hebdo and other satirical outlets refrain from mocking religion, unless specific individuals bring ridicule upon themselves in “the same reprehensible ways that some political or capitalist actors do.” Even then, he said the satire should be appropriate and not humiliating.

Scott Abbott, a professor in the Integrated Studies department, asked if Minch agreed that acts of coercion demand a response.

“Someone doing something horrible doesn’t beckon me to do something horrible. It may tempt me, but it doesn’t beckon,” said Minch. Those defending Charlie Hebdo had said that now, more than ever, Charlie Hebdo must continue to draw the offensive cartoons, to show that violence would not be effective in silencing them.

The negative and unnecessary ramifications of including the modifier, “Islamic” in conjunction with terrorists were also discussed.

“Let’s drop the modifier. Just call them terrorists,” said Minch.

If more than one billion Muslims say that violence is not of Islam, Minch believes it’s not. He said those who practice the religion hold more credibility on the explanation of what their religious doctrine, than those outside it.

“All religions have been used by people – in that religion and out – to justify anything they think needs justification,” said Minch.

Michael Minch, professor of philosophy and humanities
Michael Minch

In an effort to most accurately describe the two terrorists in the Charlie Hebdo shooting, as well as any other individual terrorist, without unfairly correlating them to demographic groups, Abbott flippantly suggested calling them “assassins who claim to have God on their side.”

In place of Bagley’s presentation, Minch and the two others who had lectured earlier in the afternoon, Gregory R. Jackson (lecturer of integrated studies and history) and John P. Macfarlane (academic advisor of history and political science) answered questions from the audience.

The panel discussed groups that have been given a pass on being mocked by history – for example, Jews with the Holocaust.

“There is a sense within any society of taboos that are acceptable and aren’t acceptable and frankly, the laws on the books simply don’t matter. Since the Holocaust, it’s been more taboo to harass the Jewish community, especially in Europe,” said Jackson.

Gregory Jackson and John Macfarlane


The panel discussed the frustration the unemployed in France feel, a demographic made wider by the economic downturn. During times of uncertainty, people are more susceptible to someone offering a solution to the fear of “the other,” as with people accepting Hitler during the Great Depression, Jackson pointed out.

“People are scared, people are unemployed, more radical ideas sound good. We can talk about being Islam, with God, but the real issue has nothing to do with Islam, it has nothing to do with God. It has to do with, ‘my child is hungry,’ or ‘I am hungry and I need a sense of purpose, and I need to eat tomorrow,’” said Jackson. He said that when someone needs to find someone to blame, they will justify their animosity towards them.

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