We are Charlie's act of forgiveness

The latest cover of of Charlie Hedbo magazine had a serious headline – "All is forgiven' – which is the surviving staff's real intent toward the terrorists. This may be a useful lesson for other types of conflict in the world.

AP Photo
People wait at a Marseille newsstand Jan. 14 to buy a copy of the French satirical newspaper 'Charlie Hebdo.'

The cover of the first edition of Charlie Hebdo since the attack on the magazine’s offices is both satirical and, to many, offensive. Publications should not gratuitously offend Muslims with disrespectful images of the prophet Muhammad. Yet the cover’s headline did take a serious note, one that should not be overlooked.

“All is forgiven,” the cartoon character says (in French). A columnist at the magazine, Zineb El Rhazoui, said the meaning is sincere. She and her colleagues believe the five slain cartoonists would have sought to understand their attackers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, if they had survived, and even sat down with them to talk.

“We don’t feel any hate to them,” she told the BBC. “We know that the struggle is not with them as people, but the struggle is with an ideology.”

Forgiveness often requires making a distinction between the offense and the offender. Mercy, of course, is easier between individuals than, say, between a country and any group behind the attacks. Yet the magazine’s spirit of forgiveness should speak to many of today’s conflicts, not just terror.

One of history’s most strategic acts of forgiveness was that of France and Britain after World War II toward a Germany that had sought to learn from its war past. The rebonding of these nations helped provide the basis for decades of peace in Europe.

To improve ties with Iran, the United States offered an apology in 2000 for America’s role in a 1953 coup. Yet Iran has not accepted it or shown a magnanimous spirit. In their current talks on nuclear issues, however, each side may recognize a need to let go of past grievances in order to improve ties.

China shows no forgiveness toward Japan despite Tokyo’s official apologies for its imperialism and war record. Yet many Chinese recognize a need to forgive. One Chinese literary critic, Ge Hongbing, wrote in a blog that Japan is “deeply trapped by its grave crimes, and the Japanese need our forgiveness.” In 2002, Ma Licheng, then a journalist at the official People’s Daily, wrote that Japan had apologized enough and that China must be generous toward Japan.

Leaders in both Iran and China may be simply exploiting nationalist resentments in order to stay in power. Even if they are inclined to forgive, they want to retain the power to determine the sincerity of their rival’s apology. They can take a lesson from the Charlie Hebdo staff. Forgiving an offending act can be a valuable first step in the healing of ruptured ties. 

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