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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).

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sam Harris on the Innocence of Muslims Affair

(Reposted from Talking Philosophy (2012).)

I see that Sam Harris has published a post on the violent responses to what he calls “an unwatchable Internet video titled ‘Innocence of Muslims.'”
There is much in the post to agree with. For a start, I agree that Innocence of Muslims, or the trailer for it, or selection from it, or whatever the hell that was, is (pretty much) unwatchable. I did actually force myself to watch the damn thing (you can find it easily if you really must), but it is atrocious in every possible respect – bigoted, scurrilous, disjointed, and suffering from the most abyssmal production values since Plan 9 from Outer Space (I know I’m not the first to make the comparison, so apologies to whoever was).
Harris dismisses as “obscene” such questions as, “What exactly was in the film? Who made it? What were their motives? Was Muhammad really depicted? Was that a Qur’an burning, or some other book?” I think that’s going too far. It does appear that the film was deliberately created to express hatred for Muslims and to provoke a violent backlash. In the circumstances, we can ask these questions about it, especially when we add in further issues such as (apparently credible) claims of actors being conned into thinking they were involved in a very different project. There is much to discuss about the film itself and the circumstances of its production, even if, at the end of the day we agree with Harris that:
Here is where the line must be drawn and defended without apology: We are free to burn the Qur’an or any other book, and to criticize Muhammad or any other human being. Let no one forget it.
Yes, that’s right. We do get to express our repudiation of belief systems, including Islam, without being constrained by the power of the state, or so I want to argue (and have done in the past). We can go on to criticise prophets or anyone else. Harris is pretty much correct when he says:
The freedom to think out loud on certain topics, without fear of being hounded into hiding or killed, has already been lost. And the only forces on earth that can recover it are strong, secular governments that will face down charges of blasphemy with scorn. No apologies necessary. Muslims must learn that if they make belligerent and fanatical claims upon the tolerance of free societies, they will meet the limits of that tolerance.
Yes, pretty much right. Only “pretty much” because there’s an element of exaggeration to quibble about, the way it’s been worded. The problem is not so much that we can’t “think aloud” on certain topics as that we cannot publish those thoughts widely, once we’ve sorted them out, should we take certain strong stances. But even when the point is expressed in a less rhetorical way, it’s true that an important freedom has been lost, not through the actions of the state but through the willingness of some Muslims to resort to murder in response to what they see as insults to Islam or their prophet.
How should the state and its officials respond – and how should we request that they do so? They may be tempted to suppress some kinds of anti-religious speech and to demonise the speakers as racists and criminals … and in some cases they may even be correct that they are dealing with racists or something very similar. Even leaving aside basic concerns about freedom of speech, however, this response can be counterproductive. If an impression is created that political power is being used to silence opposition to Islam, this will merely add to the resentments against Islam that are already present in Western societies, and which have now been fueled by the violent, in some cases murderous, responses to Innocence of Muslims. More generally, when religious leaders and organisations try to prevent certain speech from being heard or certain images from being seen, this adds to the layers of distrust and resentment. The effect is exacerbated if governments get in on the act, actually assisting to suppress speech and images.
We would all do well to scrutinise ourselves as individuals, and to be alert to possible racism, even unconscious, somewhere within our motivations. It is best, however, if the state adopts a strong stance of insisting on freedom of speech. As I say in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, a liberal attitude might permit some ugly speech, and Innocence of Muslims is a very good example, but the long-term effect will be salutary:
…the long-term effect would be to reinforce a valuable lesson: ideologically opposed groups of whatever kind — religious, political, or philosophical — must make their own way, enduring criticism, and even satire, from their opponents, without asking the state to interfere.
But will that just make extremist more likely to resort to self-help in the form of violence? I doubt it. As Kenan Malik has argued, a political culture that defends freedom of expression removes some of the resources that extremists draw upon. If we seriously maintain a highly liberal political culture, we make it more difficult for extremists to take, much less justify, violent offence and react with violent action. We deny the extremists the false moral legitimacy that they claim.
Yes, Innocence of Muslims is pretty much as bad as you can imagine it to be, and that is worth discussing – along with whatever fraud may have been involved in the production of the film. We should feel free to say all that, but then move on. It in no way justifies violence, and nor does it justify any withdrawal by the state from a strong emphasis on freedom of speech.

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