The Hedgehog, The Fox and The Prophet Mohammed
Jesus wept at the gravesite of Lazarus, the Gospel of John reports. Theologians debate the meaning of those tears. Some take it as source of sorrow over the tyranny of death, a master over us all. Others see it as his frustration over the blindness of those who failed to recognize his divine mission and power as son of God.
Whatever the source of these tears, the gospel reports Lazarus walked out of the tomb. Jesus had worked a miracle, bringing the dead back to life.
A depiction of Mohammed’s tears appears to promise nothing but more death. This week’s cover of the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, depicts a cartoon of the prophet in tears. “All is forgiven,” a banner reads. Mohammed, like Jesus, wept.
A dozen employees of the magazine, including cartoonists and its editor, Stephane Charbonnier, were slaughtered last week by men with automatic weapons hollering “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.” The victims were marked for death because they had previously published cartoons satirizing Mohammed, an act many Moslems regard as sacrilegious.
The executions were the bloody redemption of a promise made to kill journalists who depicted Mohammed in cartoons in 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Those threats were thought by some to be warning shots in a clash of civilizations, a latter day iteration of the medieval crusades pitting Islam against Christendom.
That misses the mark. What is really at stake is a far older conflict between the hedgehog and the fox.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” notes a fragment from a poem of the Greek poet Archilocus. Some see the world as an expression of one unifying truth, the hedgehogs; others are drawn to the seemingly infinite variety of things, the foxes.
Isaiah Berlin wrote famously of the hedgehog and the fox in an essay published in 1978. Hedgehogs were what he called monists, people who saw one grand truth in the world and were willing to bend the data of experience into a unifying vision illuminated by that truth.
Pluralists, by contrast, are foxes. They see a world of many different, and discordant, things. Foxes celebrate diversity; hedgehogs worship uniformity.
Put another way, a hedgehog will kill you because he disagrees with your vision of the good. A hedgehog might even kill you if you disrespect his vision. Hedgehogs killed staff at Charlie Hebdo last week, and they’re rooting around now, threatening to kill again.
There are hedgehogs among both Christians and Moslems, God-intoxicated men and women who are so certain they know the meaning of it all that they’re prepared to die, and sometimes to kill for their faith. It is terrifying to know that we are all but mortal props to some miscreant’s vision of martyrdom.
Berlin’s famous essay was a study of Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist and author of “War and Peace.” Much though Tolstoy wanted to be a hedgehog, he was really a fox, Berlin noted: try as he might to focus on one larger truth, his vision was always drawn to the infinitely complex, and fascinating, details of the world around him. Hence, “War and Peace,” a novel of some thousand-plus pages.
The grand hope of liberal democracies is that pluralism will yield better lives. We celebrate our differences, and hope to make place for competing visions of the good under an umbrella of tolerance. The killing of the Hebdo journalists shocks in part because it was a direct assault on pluralism: Cartoonists killed for engaging in satire? That’s sacrilege among secularists.
Journalists weren’t the only folks killed in France last week. Shoppers at a kosher shop in Paris were also taken hostage and killed. A fellow monist allied with the Hedbo killers murdered them. These murders have rattled the Jewish community. Indeed, those killed were buried in Jerusalem this week, and not in France; there were fears their graves would be desecrated in France.
There’s talk of French Jews migrating to Israel. “We don’t feel safe here,” one person said. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in France; so is a backlash of anti-Islamism.
Moving to Israel to feel safe initially struck me as counterintuitive: The land of the perpetual Intifada, a place where suicide bombings are local news? Why would someone move to such a place to feel safe?
And then it struck me: We foxes are really hedgehogs after all. The tolerant urge to respect all despite differences, the hope to be let alone to live as we choose, the pluralist creed, involves commitment to broader values perhaps as robust and all-encompassing as the monist’s commitment to one big truth. Moving to Israel at least permits one to take the gloves off and defend one’s way of life.
In France, the pluralists cower. New threats of death have been issued over a cartoon image of Mohammed. There are claims France’s laws against hate speech should be employed against this piece of satire. Pluralists are left to tiptoe in fear lest they awaken the drunken monist and send him into another murderous rage.
My heavens are silent. I see starry nights, but I do not hear the voice of God. I’ve heard the chant “Allahu Akbar” a little too often lately to associate it with the sublime; too often it’s become a blind terrorist’s boast.
I don’t want war with Islam, and I credit the claims of those who say terrorists don’t reflect the true spirit of Mohammed’s vision. But …
But what, really?
But I don’t want to become a hostage to the rage of others. And I won’t become one. Perhaps every pluralist is a monist, and every monist is a pluralist — we’re all hybrids of hedgehogs and foxes. Fine. I accept that.
It’s small wonder Jesus wept at the sight of Lazarus. We’re weak and fickle reeds, each capable of bending a breaking. I’ll take Charlie Hebdo’s side in this fight, however, and I won’t apologize to anyone for doing so. Mohammed, too, learns to weep.