Quick, Call Voltaire

As is known by now, three Muslim fanatics burst into the newsroom of a satirical weekly in Paris, murdered 12 people and wounded as many others, some of them gravely. A real butchery.

As they fired, they shouted that they were avenging Muhammad and said that Allah is great. The magazine, Charlie Hebdo, had published drawings that the assassins described as blasphemous and offensive. From their point of view, these criminals considered themselves instruments of religious virtue in their struggle with the infidels.

In reality, Charlie Hebdo was not particularly anti-Islam. As befits the genre, it was anti-everything. Satirical humor is always against someone. It mocked Muhammad, the Pope, the President, and any other authority figure.

It was enough for the target to be a highly placed creature (more so if he projected a pompous image) for the magazine to fling at him its poisoned darts. A lot more irreverent than the cartoon showing Muhammad worried because he was surrounded by idiots was the drawing of Pope Benedict XVI wooing a Swiss guard with a gesture that was languidly homosexual.

The worst fanaticism is religious fanaticism. It is based on absolute certainty. When someone is sure that he has God on his side, his hand doesn't waver. That's what we've just witnessed in Paris. And the danger grows when there are sacred books that assure the faithful that they were written under divine inspiration. The same sacred book -- the Bible -- is the starting point for three distinct religions begotten by Abraham: Judaism, Christianity and Islamism.

The three Abrahamic religions are monotheistic, which may make them more risky. When there are several gods, as in present-day Hinduism or in the classic Greek Olympus, and when there are no sacred books but hazy oral traditions, human beings have more space for diversity and there are fewer motives for religious persecutions. They kill each other for other reasons, not for this one.

Religious fanatics can be very cruel when it comes to repressing the blasphemers. In the Christian Europe, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it was common to drive an auger through a blasphemer's tongue when his offense was general, but an execution was likely, almost always on a pyre, when it was a heretical blasphemy and the trespasser had questioned or denied the dogma of the Holy Spirit.

Cayetano Ripoll, the last victim of the Christian authorities who persecuted blasphemers, was killed in Valencia, Spain, in 1826, on charges of being a "Deist," half a century after the start of the American Revolution and the invention of the steam engine by James Watts. Modernity had not yet entered Spain.

Ripoll was a good and serious teacher who ended his classes by saying "Praise be to God," instead of "Hail Mary, the purest." To his severe judges, it was evident that he had to die for saying things like that. Because burning him at the stake seemed excessive, they had him hanged, but they painted flames on the barrel in which they buried him. Blasphemers should be consumed by the flames of hell.

But that barbarity, after all, occurred a couple of centuries ago. The penal code of today's Pakistan sentences to death anyone who offends the memory of Muhammad.

A poor Christian farmer in Pakistan, Bibi Asia, has been sentenced to hang for drinking water from the same bowl used by her Muslim co-workers and for having defended Christ during a scuffle where her beliefs were assailed.

"Christ died on the cross to save us," she cried. "What sacrifice did Muhammad perform for humanity?" A minister and a governor who came forward to defend her and ask for clemency were murdered. Over there, religious enforcers don't pull their punches.

One of the most exact measures of the quality of a society is tolerance in the face of irreverence. Tyrants are not capable of accepting mockery. Hitler, Stalin, and Franco did not allow caricatures that ridiculed them. In Cuba, the first publication banned by Fidel Castro was a satirical weekly called Zig-Zag. From that day on, cartoons of the Comandante were forbidden and all vestiges of freedom of the press disappeared.

The worst symptom of Islamic extremism is intolerance. It has been said many times, but it's true: Until the spirit of enlightenment -- loose in the world since the 17th Century -- penetrates and triumphs in religious societies, nothing can be done. They urgently need a Voltaire who'll shake their conscience.

Carlos Alberto Montaner is a journalist and writer. His latest book is the novel A Time for Scoundrels.