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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, November 22, 2010

More on Islamophobia and stuff

Further to last night's post, I should add that Asad and Mahmood do not seem to be suggesting that the considerations they raise provide a basis for censorship of blasphemous speech, including images such as the Danish cartoons. They seem more concerned to foster understanding of the Muslim point of view, and perhaps to create a more sympathetic response from non-Muslims in Western societies. Nonetheless, it is worth considering whether the issues they discuss should affect the policies of the secular state. In that respect, there's is a clear danger if the state acts on the basis of Asad's description of Muslim attitudes. What I call the Lockean model for relations between religion and state power does not propose that the various religions cease teaching their ideas, and arguing for them, merely that they cease jockeying for state power to impose doctrines and practices by fire and sword. This is completely inconsistent with a model that forbids one religion from "seducing" the adherents of another, or forbids opponents of religion from "seducing" the minds of religious believers generally.

Locke, of course, adduced secular reasons for prohibiting certain viewpoints, including those of Roman Catholicism, Islam, and atheism, but his reasons now appear weak. It is possible for conflicting viewpoints to co-exist in the one society, and pressing social problems don't usually arise from the presence of individuals with supposed extraterritorial loyalties, such as Catholics' loyalty to the Vatican or the Holy See (I say "usually" because there may be problems in some cases, as when crimes in one jurisdiction ar abetted in another). Nor, contrary to Locke's fears, does the presence of atheists destroy social bonds, or the efficacy of contracts and the judicial system. The tendency has been to allow a wide range of viewpoints and not to silence them - they may compete in a marketplace of ideas.

While some Muslims may find this alien to their tradition, much the same could have been said of Christians not that long ago. It seems reasonable to hope that Islam can adapt to a social environment in which it is open to criticism, and in which it is relatively routine for individual citizens to change religious faiths or lose religious faith altogether.

What about Mahmood's suggestion that Muslims experience attacks on the Prophet in a uniquely painful and personal way? Again, note the dangers if this is pressed too far. I have no way of assessing the accuracy of Mahmood's claim, though it seems plausible that pious religious adherents would feel something of the pain she describes when attacks are made on iconic figures. Perhaps this is especially so where the religious adherent is Muslim and the figure concerned is Muhammad, but it is easy enough to imagine the pain that might be suffered by pious Jews or Christians in analogous circumstances (ridicule of Moses, perhaps, or of Jesus or the Virgin Mary).

An explanation such as Mahmood's may help non-Muslims to understand what is at stake, emotionally, when satirical attacks are made on Islam, and especially on the person Prophet. Perhaps something similar explains the passionate responses of others, such as devout Catholics, to what they see as sacrileges (e.g. Andres Serrano's photograph, Piss Christ, which portrays a small crucifix submerged in the photographer's urine). All this is consistent with the militancy and litigiousness of some Catholic organizations.

Perhaps, then, we need to absorb the lesson that certain images, and perhaps mere words in come cases, can have a very high emotional impact not only for Muslims but also for adherents of other religions. That hardly excuses violent retaliation, such as occurred in following publication of the Danish cartoons, but high-impact offence can play a limited role in public policy. If it's correct that high-impact offence shades into harm, then the state has a legitimate role in protecting citizens from exposure to images and smells (for example) that produce, say, physical nausea. However, there's a catch here. There would be very few situations where exposure of others to nauseating smells has any communicative value. The situation is rather different with movies, artistic photographs, satirical cartoons, and philosophical novels! These can be avoided (even a newspaper can be closed) and they are protected by well-known free speech values.

The Danish cartoons, for example, caused offence to many people, but the immediate impact could be shut off by turning the page. A ban on such images would effectively mean that Islam was placed beyond satirical comment, as the images were not extreme as satirical cartoons go - no more so than run-of-the-mill cartoons that are published every day making fun of political proposals and events. What seems to have been most offensive about the cartoons was their ideas, for example of a linkage between Muhammad and modern-day Islamist terrorism. This, I submit, cannot be a ground for censoring newspapers.


Jonathan Meddings said...

I have never cared much for the word 'Islamophobia'. A phobia is an irrational fear. As a gay atheist living in a democracy I think Islam has given me plenty of cause for concern.

Tony Lloyd said...

I'm all for understanding and awareness. More, I'm for understanding and awareness of what it is that we are looking at: a pathology of certain behaviours. Understanding the pathology of behaviours may enable us to reduce the harm that they cause.

I think most people, myself included, will be wary of the Asad/Mahmood thesis being used to argue that the behaviour is not pathological. But “toute comprendre, c’est toute pardoner” is not appropriate. Our efforts to “understand” should be similar to the efforts Churchill made to understand Hitler rather than the efforts we make to understand the ways of a country that we visit.

Our actions should not be to accommodate the viewpoint (even if that does not involves censorship of newspapers) but to alleviate the harm caused by a number of people who are (if Asad and Mahmood are correct) opposed to a fundamental part of our civilisation.

Mike said...

Given that the Dane's cartoons were widely circulated ( and supplemented ) by fellow Muslims, it seems that they were keen on maximising the amount of pain experienced by Muslims.

I am concerned that some writers and politicians in the "Islamosphere" make the case that criticism of Muslims by non-Muslims trumps the state- and imam-sanctioned murder and abuse of their own citizens.

Tyro said...

The Danish cartoons, for example, caused offence to many people, but the immediate impact could be shut off by turning the page.

I'm not sure that it was as simple as this. The cartoons were published in Sept 2005 and there was a small, peaceful demonstration a couple weeks later. These people could have just turned the page but they chose to make a bigger protest as well. That's all fair and good.

However the controversy lasted for months and spread to Chile and Beirut (amongst others). This wasn't because publishers kept publishing them making it harder for people to avoid them, but probably because Muslim leaders would keep thumping on about it. For most Muslims, they would be confronted with these images (and people telling them how insulting they are) on a frequent basis.

In many ways, the insults felt by the Islamic community was perpetuated and perhaps even caused by some Islamic leaders. In this sort of dysfunctional environment where some leaders seek out and nurture insults it may be very difficult for the regular people to pass over and ignore.

Jeff Sherry said...

I think the problem is deeper than a moral hurt. The problem lies in the Holy basis of: Islam, the Qur'an, Muhammad and the Arabian language. Islam accepts Christianity, Judaism and Zoroatrianism as being second class Holy; criticism is not allowed which is deemed as blasphemy.

I wonder what the reaction of Muslims would have been if Denmark had been a theistic Christian state that had it's press publish the cartoons? I doubt the reaction would have been different.

A bigger question may be: is secular democracy and Islam compatable in a national state?

Gordon Campbell said...

Mahmood talks of a unique kind of pain that Moslems feel . Well yes, everyone is special.

It seems to me that this special pain, sorrow, violation is a pretty common human condition. We all get our feelings hurt, and when our big truths are laughed at we may get very hurt. The hurt is special because people feel their beliefs are special. The problem is that ‘special’ hurt is then used to justify special anger and violence and oppression of others.

It doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to understand the hurt (and anger) caused when people seduce others way from religious truth—even when that seduction merely consists of expressing a different belief. As someone or other said (maybe Sam Harris?) think of the panic that’s caused when a child molester lives in a community. A nonbeliever is a much greater threat – he can send your child to hell forever.

Anger against those with different beliefs is the norm of human society. The ‘Lockean model’ and intellectual liberalism are revolutionary ideas. I agree we should try to understand the emotions and thoughts of those who hold illiberal views. But a more important (and more difficult)task is to help them to understand ours.

Ophelia Benson said...

They seem more concerned to foster understanding of the Muslim point of view, and perhaps to create a more sympathetic response from non-Muslims in Western societies.

The trouble is...I don't want to respond more sympathetically. I don't think I ought to. What they're suggesting seems to be the idea that: "I want to act like a big baby, and I want everybody to sympathize with my big baby fit."

The people in question have more or less trained themselves, or been trained by their culture, to have this hyper-vigilant view of Mohammed. They could train themselves out of it. It's not some immutable fact that they and we have to defer to; it's just a rather infantile and pathetic habit. They could get over it. They should get over it.

That sounds harsh and anti-sympathetic, but I think it's more about treating people as equals. What Asad and Mahmood talk about sounds more like treating people as fragile broken babies.

Arizona said...

Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff is the latest Geert Wilders.

Pat Condell Freedom of speech Dutch Subtitles
Live blog of her trial in Vienna

Then the quote about ”Islam is shit” is debated. Elisabeth points out that she was debating, using visual quotes, if it is legal or punishable to say ”Islam is shit”. Thus, what we are discussing here is the meta-question:

Is it illegal, or punishable, to debate the legality of saying: ”Islam is shit”?