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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

About those Danish cartoons ...

As is well known, the publication in September 2005 of the notorious Danish cartoons - a set of satirical cartoons depicting Muhammad, printed in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten - led to widespread violence, political debate, high-profile litigation, and numerous attempts to explain the depth of anger among (at least some) Muslims.

One such attempt is that of Talal Asad, who offers an explanation of distinctively Muslim attitudes to free speech, blasphemy, and anti-religious satire. His analysis stresses the sanctity of private thought in the Islamic tradition - religious and government authorities will not inquire into individual's hidden motives and beliefs, scrutinizing them for heresy - as opposed to freedom to express thoughts in public. According to Asad, Islam differs from Christianity in its commitment to the privacy of thought. However, it does not protect attempts to seduce the thoughts of others away from their bond with God, their responsibility to coreligionists, and what it sees as metaphysical and moral truth. In Islam, so Asad assures us, such "seduction" is regarded as a kind of violence; it is dangerous to individuals and the social order, threatening discord and violence. For Muslims who take this seriously, "it is impossible to remain silent when confronted with blasphemy … blasphemy is neither 'freedom of speech' nor the challenge of a new truth but something that seeks to disrupt a living relationship."

Saba Mahmood takes a different, though perhaps complementary, approach. She describes a special form of pain felt by (some) pious Muslims, which amounts to a sense of personal loss and sorrow when confronted by ridicule of the Prophet. On this account, the loss and sorrow relate to Muhammad's role as a moral exemplar, someone to be imitated in many of the quotidian aspects of life - such as how he walked, slept, spoke, ate, and dressed. Thus, these Muslims respond to ridicule of the prophet not with anger that a moral interdiction has been violated, but with a sense of having been violated and wounded. Like many other commentators, Mahmood also insists that such phenomena as the Danish cartoons involve an element of "racism" - extending this idea beyond biological notions of race to groups marked by religious and cultural characteristics. This characterization tends to undermine the value of satire directed at Islam, or at radical forms or manifestations of Islam, associating it with mere racial slurs, a form of speech that many of us see as essentially worthless.

How should a secular state respond to these analyses, which appear in Talal Asad, et. al., Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, Townsend Center/University of California Press, 2009?


skepticlawyer said...

I think that secular Western states are within their rights to say (and argue) why Muslims are just wrong on these things, no matter how poorly criticism of their prophet makes them feel. We have been willing to make similar bold statements about Christianity; just because Muslims tend to come from poor countries or have brown skin does not mean they should get a free pass.

And on that last point, making all of them write lines that say 'Muslims are not a race' until it penetrates their thick skulls may well be necessary. Trying to excuse intolerance and religious bigotry by accusing one's interlocutor of racism represents a new argumentative low.

Not to mention that it fails LOGIC101.

Unknown said...

I don't believe in a god and, if asked, will say so. That act, in certain places, will be regarded as blasphemy and could get me into some trouble. Because I don't believe in a god I also do not believe that Jesus was divine or Mohammed a prophet and therefore any recorded sayings or acts of these people have only the force of sayings or acts of any other human. This view, too, could get me into trouble.

If I did believe in a god then that belief would exclude my belief in other peoples' gods and the mythologies surrounding them. If I were a Jew, then I could not believe in the divinity of Christ and so, surely, would be a blasphemer to a christian.

So what, then, is blasphemy? If I say "I do not believe your god Allah exists and therefore Mohammed cannot be his prophet" I am simply stating my sincerely held view. Any blasphemy 'law' that allowed for my prosecution and conviction for saying this would be preferring the views of the religious over the non-religious. And so I have answered my own question. 'Blasphemy', as a concept, exists to defend views which cannot stand on their own merits, views for which there is no real evidence and which can only be maintained by suppressing dissent.

Secular societies should offer no protection in law to religious or any other dogmatic views. People have rights and deserve protection, so people's right to believe what they wish, so long as those beliefs do not harm others, should be defended. But dogmas have no rights and so dogmas must not be given the status of 'moral persons' by drawing up laws that assume they do have such rights.

Tony Lloyd said...

It's an explanation, not a justification. It's akin to explaining the actions of a kleptomaniac, or the opinions of a creationist.

Or, my favourite example, is when a friend of mine who was unwell with depression explained the thought processes she had making a journey when unwell. So long as you accepted "where she was coming from" it all sounded reasonable. Of course what you had to do was accept that pixies were changing road signs, but once you did that everything clicked into place.

Now I'm not averse to postulating that someone believes that there are pixies changing road signs.# That's a great explanatory theory and one really ought to take it into account when dealing with someone who is unwell. But it is quite clear that she is just wrong about pixies and road signs and we should not act, at all, as if it were true.

In a way the Asad/Mahmood thesis above is a little disturbing. It would appear that large numbers of people are incapable of comprehending freedom, confuse "being silent" with "burning embassies and killing people" and confuse violence and criticism. Normally we come across similar confusions as a debating tactic, a deliberate fallacy of equivocation to win an argument. But here the allegation is that some people really believe it.

I don't think Mahmood is correct in linking this, in any way, with racism. The racism criticism seems to stem from relativism, the idea that if a large and definable people believe that the pixies are changing road signs then we should allow that the pixies change road signs.

Firstly the "element of racism" accusation appears racist in itself. I do not believe that sufficient numbers of Muslims feel "violated" by a cartoon such that the reaction can be said to be characteristic of the group. (I bet you a pint* Mahmood's defence would involve a "no true Scotsman" argument that those not "violated" were not "real"/were "westernised")

Secondly, as skepticlawyer said, it's just not true. It's no more true than pixies changing road signs and our reaction should be similar. Try and minimise manifestations of the pathology, avoid the issue when unwell, keep them out of harms way etc. etc.

If there are a lot of people out there who cannot make sense of the idea of certain beliefs being criticised then that is not a problem with us: they just are not equipped with the thought processes necessary to relate to others in this world.

*Of proper beer, not that Aussie stuff.
#In my experience they tend to concentrate on messing with wifi reception

Kirth Gersen said...

Regarding the analysis presented: however much we respect an attempt to maintain a stable society (and the social rules that lead to that end), there is one thing being left out: the fact that Denmark is not an Islamic society. Many of us in the West actually feel that we already have a stable society here, based on Enlightenment values, and that we therefore neither want nor need to replace it with an Islamic one. Ergo, rules for maintaining an Islamic society, while right and proper in places that want them and benefit from them, become null and void outside of the borders of those places; and different rules apply for Denmark and the rest of the West.

Free speech is one of the rules for maintaining a stable, secular, Enlightenment-based society, and therefore it should trump anti-blasphemy in the Western countries, even as it gives way to anti-blasphemy laws in Islamic states.

Piero said...

I fully agree with Marsie and Skepticlawyer. I would only add that the defense proffered by those "Islamic scholars" (pardon the oxymoron) is, to say the least, childish. And children, as we all know, can be incredibly mean, cruel and merciless. Do we really want to engage such people in rational discourse? To what end?

Alex said...

The second one is just an argument from offence; we get offended/hurt/emotionally wounded by A, so you cannot do A. Assuming that they are relatively conservative Muslims, then their belief requires them to offend/hurt/emotionally wound me, so therefore they are unable to act on their beliefs.
So either we all be quite to avoid offending anyone (boring); they demonstrate why their beliefs are exempt from their requirement to not offend people (unlikely); or we accept that we are going to get offended when we interact with others.

Ophelia Benson said...

I find Talal Asad's attempt depressingly scary, because it has a superficial persuasiveness, and it's absolutely death to free everything except silent secret thoughts. The Vatican too, in its infinite wisdom, allowed Galileo to believe what he liked; he just couldn't teach it to anyone else.

Svlad Cjelli said...

And if I can provide very compelling evidence that I really, really, really feel hurt inside every time you smile?
And there are 100 000 copies of me?

Brian said...

"...not with anger that a moral interdiction has been violated, but with a sense of having been violated and wounded."

Funny, that's how I feel whenever I see an attractive women in unrevealing clothes. I know many guys who feel the same sense of anguish...and our group is much more analogous to a race than any religion is!

I wonder what the Muslims-from traditional to liberal feminist-would have to say if I claimed the right to avoid feeling violated and wounded?