Something terribly important has been missing from discussions orbiting around the Mohammed cartoons. It’s a simple point, but one whose recognition is utterly crucial to the functioning of a healthy democratic society. The avoidance of it is, I’m afraid, even by those libertarians who defend the cartoons’ publication, a measure of extent to which theocracy has advanced both in the US and abroad.
What’s been missing has been an acknowledgment that blasphemy isn’t just something that must be tolerated. It’s something that possesses a special political value of its own. Blasphemy, in short, is a good thing. It’s something admirable, noble, and, yes, even respectable. Why have we forgotten this?
The dominant response to the cartoons in the corridors of respectable opinion in the West has been a predictable two-track affair organised around craven calculations of interest. One track has laboured to quell the rage, minimise the damage to the struggle against Islamic jihadis, and prevent more violence. The other track has worked to affirm the principles of free expression – in principle.
The result has been something like a defence of the “right” to publish the cartoons qualified by condemnation of this particular exercise of that right. While one has a right to break wind in a crowded elevator, actually doing so is obnoxious.
Sean McCormack, for example, of the US State Department, articulated the dichotomy du jour in this way: “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as antiChristian images or any other religious belief. But it is important that we also support the rights of individuals to express their freely held views.”
More than a few powerful figures, however, have gone even farther, condemning the cartoons outright, rejecting even the idea that people have a right to blaspheme.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw articulated a simple philosophical limit in a characteristically convoluted way: “The right of freedom of speech in all societies and all cultures has to be exercised responsibly and does not extend to an obligation to insult.”
Former Presidential nominee Senator John Kerry – well known for throwing away in protest what are for many quasi-sacred war medals – went so far as to compare the cartoons to acts of political violence: “These and other inflammatory images deserve our scorn just as the violence against embassies and military installations are an unacceptable and intolerable form of protest.”
Comments like these – qualified and unqualified – are both tragic and dangerous. They exhibit not only a shocking historical ignorance of the brutal repression blasphemers have suffered but also of the hard-fought democratic struggle against it. As formulations of political principle, they do little to protect blasphemy or sustain that struggle. In fact, they threaten both.
It must be stated and stated unequivocally that it’s no more improper in healthy democratic discourse to ridicule religious figures and ideas (even core ideas) than it is to criticise and mock (other) politically important figures and ideas. Here’s why.
Formally speaking, in democratic discourse there’s nothing special about religious doctrines. Like other ideologies, religion instructs and even commands people about what they should value and how they should conduct themselves. And it does so in a powerful and effective way. Ongoing controversies concerning gay marriage, abortion, war, hijab, pornography, and social services offer clear examples of this. Many clerics actually tell their congregations how to vote.
It’s simply not acceptable for a participant to enter public debate, have such a powerful effect upon it, and then claim immunity from the sort of treatment to which other participants are subject. As distasteful as it may be to those invested in religious belief, mocking Mohammed, or Moses, or Jesus, is therefore no more improper than mocking Karl Marx or Adam Smith or Rush Limbaugh or Hilary Clinton. The religious can’t have it both ways.
Indeed, critical silence entails a kind of improper deference and even subjugation of political opinion. Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that originally published the cartoons, put it succinctly when he wrote: “if a believer demands that I, as a non-believer, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.”
In fact – and here’s something many will find particularly hard to swallow – it’s important not only that people be free to criticise and mock religion. It’s important that they actually do so, from time to time.
Yes, formally, there’s nothing special about religion. But those engaged in democratic struggle have long and correctly understood that the content of its doctrine and custom singles religion out as something different. It’s for this reason that there’s a special amendment (not by accident the first amendment to the US Constitution) prohibiting the establishment of religion but not, for example, socialism.
You see, religion not only enters the public discourse. It does so on the basis of a special claim secular theories don’t make (or at least shouldn’t make). Religion, unlike secular doctrines, claims that its views are God’s views, that its claims are absolutely right, grounded in some transcendent authority. The rest of us are mere human beings, prone to error, conflicts of interest, and foolishness. God and God’s views are of course, in a word, superior. The religious never tire of reminding us of this.
Here in Kentucky, for example, when in 2004 theocrats decided to exclude gays, lesbians, and their children from the rights and protections of marriage by amending the state constitution, they nearly covered the commonwealth with signs claiming that theirs was “God’s Plan for Marriage”. The theocrats prevailed.
So what? So, why does the (purportedly) special basis of religious doctrine warrant giving special value to blasphemy and ridicule and even to an imperative to engage in them? The reason is, as most any Dane will tell you now, that religion plays in a distinctive and powerful way upon people’s passions.
Early modern philosophers called this phenomenon “enthusiasm”. Today many would call it “zealotry” or “fanaticism”. Enlightenment philosophers like David Hume, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, and James Madison recognised the danger enthusiasm presents to the body politic. They understood that it’s important to keep its characteristic passions in check in order to prevent theocracy from gaining control of the coercive and punitive powers of the state. Various devices are required to accomplish this prophylactic task.
Blasphemy is just such a device, and an important one. What better than transgressive cartoons, ridicule, humour, and even swearing to inhibit theocracy and its enthusiasms? Blasphemy deflates some of the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, I’m-absolutely-right attitudes of the religious. It makes religion safer.
It does so by knocking religious authorities off their pedestals, by reminding us that their views (protestations to the contrary) are just those of silly humans, that they’re just like the rest of us – that they and their views are equals with us and ours, that they are not our superiors. The US Supreme Court held just this when it affirmed the right of Larry Flint and Hustler magazine to mock Jerry Falwell, despite the reverend’s objections.
Later philosophers like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault complemented the Enlightenment critique of enthusiasm by calling our attention to the way various concepts serve the interests of power. Considered in these terms, it’s easy to see why ideas related to the “sacred” and the “blasphemous” are so attractive and so fiercely defended. With them one can tell people what to think and how to live with the greatest authority while simultaneously establishing immunity from criticism.
The dark side of all this, of course, is the legitimating of violent reprisals against those who don’t respond with submission to the demand that everyone honour and respect what the religious designate as “sacred”. (Submission is, of course, the very meaning of the word “Islam”.) Upon claims to absolute goodness follow the condemnation of ideas and practices at odds with them as absolutely evil. Just as you can’t have virgins without whores, you can’t have the saved without the damned. Enforcing respect for the sacred requires, almost as a logical necessity, identifying infidels and advancing a regime of punishment against them.
The religious concept of the “sacred”, then, is fraught with dangerous potential for being ployed as a political technology, as an instrument of power. Like the bomb one of the cartoons depicted nestled in Mohammed’s turban, the concept of the sacred functions as a weapon.
Ridiculing cartoons and blasphemy, by contrast, can serve as trenchant instruments for dissecting, dismantling and defusing that bomb. Forget Jesus. WWLBD – what would Lenny Bruce do?
The dangerous position advanced by critics of the Mohammed cartoons would make comedians’ critical rants about religion violations of “legitimate” free speech. And vicious reprisals against them would be, accordingly, legitimated. (Of course, rants mocking socialists and feminists and environmentalists would remain not only permissible but also funny). Atheistic publications could become subject to prosecution as “hate speech” or “slander”. It’s certainly does not take much imagination to see evolutionary theory being characterised as an offensive attack on religious belief.
Mine is, of course, a slippery slope argument. But in this case, I fear, the slope is real. One only need remember Galileo (prosecuted for holding that the Earth’s not the centre), Diderot (imprisoned for holding that there’s no purpose to the universe), Thomas Aikenhead (hanged for mocking the trinity) and the Chevlier de la Barre (tortured and burned for not paying the proper respect to a religious procession) to see what we in the West were capable of doing to blasphemers before Enlightenment values took hold.
Frighteningly, the claims about free speech made by those like John Kerry and Jack Straw are consistent with the prosecution of Galileo, Diderot, la Barre, and Aikenhead – not to mention Scopes. Do we really want to go there – again?
It’s hard for the religious to understand this, but there are those among us who think most religion not only generally false but also in many ways immoral and detrimental to our society. We critics may not be right in this, but as part of democratic discourse ours is a legitimate and important position.
In a democracy, no one should be compelled to respect what he or she believes to be false, immoral, and socially pernicious. And advocates for different, competing ideas about morality, the good, and the perhaps even the “sacred” ought to be heard.
For myself, I think the views of atheist Albert Camus morally superior to those of Jesus. I’ll go with John Muir over Mohammed any time. Godless Simone de Beauvoir is far more respectable to me than Moses. I’ll take Angela Y Davis over the Virgin Mary, hands down.
I consider the Grand Canyon more “sacred” than Mecca. I value Cumberland Island more than the Vatican, any day of the week. The Cuillin Mountains in Scotland are far more important to me than the Temple Mount. In fact, I’d see every holy book and image in the world covered in excrement before I’d see Nick Berg decapitated or Iraqi detainees tortured by American soldiers. And you know what? I think God (if there is a God) sees it that way, too.
Why have so many missed this? My error theory is that many regard defending the cartoons as somehow uncomfortably close to defending racism, anti-Islamic bigotry, and imperialism. But there’s real difference between racist slurs and the mockery of religion, between supporting the imperialist domination of Islamic peoples and opposing the theocratic Muslim assaults. It’s for this reason that, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has shown, blasphemous atheists in the Balkans have offered flesh-and-blood Muslims better protection than those who condemn the cartoons out of respect for religion.
Religions, at least the relevant religions here, are creeds, doctrines, belief systems, and institutions. Racial endowments are not (even given that conceptions of race are in part politically determined). Although frequently hate speech does pose as blasphemy, blasphemy and the mockery of religious figures are not themselves forms of hate speech. Mocking a doctrine and the promulgators of that doctrine is simply not the same as mocking people for their intrinsic qualities (real or imagined).
The case of Jews, of course, is a bit different, since Jewishness can be either an ethnicity or a set of religious doctrines and practices. But neither Islam nor Christianity makes claim to an ethnicity. Indeed, they both emphatically deny it and hold their doctrines to be universal.
Resistance to racism, religious intolerance, and imperialism is terribly important, especially today. But resisting them should not occlude the importance of resisting theocracy and authoritarianism, too. Those who support a democratic society must take care not only to honour its traditions of subverting bigotry, racism, and imperialism. We must also, as leftists, do what we’ve done countless times in the past, defend and stand in clear solidarity with those who are being attacked by theocrats.
As part of our defence and solidarity, it’s crucial that we publicly affirm the value of blasphemy, including the mockery of religious figures like Mohammed. Muslims who value free expression and democracy will understand this, just as those among the rest of us who value democracy and who submit our own beliefs to ridicule do – God damn it!
Blasphemy is more tolerated now than it has been previously. What I am more concerned with is the ever-growing regulation by government of all aspects of our lives. How I think and how I express myself, save in the case of violence, should not be subject to governmental control; but having secured victories in many areas in which they felt “morally” obliged to act, governments have become ever bolder in regulating what we can and cannot say, think or do.
The erosion in freedom of speech has been championed by special interest groups who have caused similar erosion in democracy. Stifling freedom of speech is the refuge of those who have no rational defence to criticisms. It should be acceptable to criticise any religion. We have, however, entered a period of history where being sensitive to favoured groups is mandatory. When special privileges are given to favoured groups it is hardly surprising that a religious group should claim special treatment. It is not acceptable, in many countries, to comment on racial groups, feminist groups, homosexual groups etc. if the comment is likely to degrade the group or to cause its members to be more vulnerable to prejudice, intimidation or violent action. One cannot logically suppress freedom of speech which has any of these effects towards one favoured group and deny it to another favoured group.
The publication of the cartoon in Denmark was objected to because it targeted the Muslims who satisfied the general requirements for a “protected group”. They were a minority, most were not Danes and, in view of the violence perpetrated by Muslims against the West, were considered a vulnerable group who could be subject to prejudice and violence as a result of the cartoon. Did the cartoon make a sensible comment? It suggested that Mohammad was murderously violent, which he was, and carried with it the suggestion that those who followed him were also people who supported murderers. Making a blanket statement about anything is always unwise but when it has its main impact on an ethnic group it can also be called racist.
Those who curtail freedom of speech say they are justified on moral grounds, but morality is not an attribute that I would say politicians are renowned for. A better argument is the avoidance of violence; not everybody is a Voltaire. Many will submit to have a quiet, if uninteresting life.
I share with you, Mr Lancaster, a concern about protecting civil liberties, but I think you focus a bit too narrowly on government restrictions. State interference in the freedom of expression is a terribly important issue, but in this case it’s eclipsed by something else – the failure of prominent citizens, political activists, and media commentators to articulate and defend that freedom in a competent way.
I agree that establishing “protected” or “favoured” groups that cannot be ridiculed (or whose taboos must be observed by the rest of us) turns on an undesirable political principle, but not for the reasons you state. I don’t think you’re right when you say that “one cannot logically suppress freedom of speech which has any of these effects towards one favoured group and deny it to another favoured group.”
Idiosyncratic historical, political, and social conditions might sometimes make it improper to ridicule one group – e.g., Jews or Tutsi – but not others. That’s because different groups may face different situations in different ways. So it’s not really a logical problem.
The reason legally limiting speech to protect certain groups is generally a bad idea is that the principle is too easily abused by the state. Antipornography laws in Canada, for example, have been used to attack lesbian literature.
Your own principle – that speech may be suppressed in order to avoid violence – suffers from the same potential for abuse. That principle would have made it possible, for example, for segregationists to outlaw African-American civil rights demonstrations. After all, civil rights demonstrators (intentionally) provoked violent reactions. Think about all the revolutionary political theory and outraged political dissent that could be suppressed on your grounds.
The state should only in the most extraordinary circumstances suppress speech as a preventive measure. If speech causes harm after it’s expressed, then steps can be taken to address the harm. That’s just how libel and harassment laws work. Legitimating the restriction of speech before it’s spoken makes our liberty hostage to the speculative capacities, political agendas, and whim of government officials.
Finally, it’s an easy mistake but one with profound consequences in this situation: Islam is not an ethnicity or a race. While mocking Islam might sometimes serve racist or xenophobic purposes, it’s not intrinsically racist or xenophobic. Islam is a religion, a dogma, a belief system, not a biological endowment. Mocking Islam is more like mocking Tory political ideology than it is like mocking Arabs.
I would contend that offending people is to be avoided wherever possible. People feel bad if they are offended and we don’t want to make people feel bad if we can avoid it. So if someone is likely to be offended by swearing I would try to avoid swearing in front of them. But if I believe that there is some worthwhile outcome likely from the giving of offence I would do it. So I would not offend (even) religious people for the sake of it or just to see how they will react, I would want to have something important to say to them which could not be said without giving offence. And here is another reason for not giving offence if it can be avoided: if you give offence people are likely to oppose what you say without considering its merits.
I have very little with which to argue in the remarks you present, Mr Wilson. What you don’t say, however, bears mention. Your remarks ignore the need to attenuate the destructive potential of religious enthusiasm. Because religion tends to nurture destructive passions and because skilful blasphemy moderates those passions, I think that where religion is a significant force in society it’s important to subject it to a measure of blasphemous mockery from time to time.
You also seem to take the propensity to be offended as something simply given. But what offends us is largely social artifice and often a matter of choice. We all know people who take offence too easily, or too violently, or who take offence when no offence should be taken at all. Sometimes the offence taken and the response to that offence are more wrong than the conduct that gave offence. This is just how it is, I think, with the cartoons depicting Mohammad (thoughtful, comic blasphemy be upon him).
The logic of “being offended” sometimes serves as a mechanism for oppression and social control: because they are “offended”, people are warranted in responding with anger, in seeking redress, in asking for apology, even retribution – in demanding that the offensive behaviour cease.
Look at your own principle: “if someone is likely to be offended by X, try to avoid X.” The problem with this principle is that to suppress X all one need claim is that someone will be offended by it – will “likely” be offended by it. Think how offended Roy Bryant was when he learned that Emmett Till had spoken in a certain way to his wife. Think of how offensive it’s likely to be for some to confront gay couples, to have women drive, to watch Orangemen parade through their neighbourhood, to have a Jew move in next door. Shall we tell Jews not to live where they wish or tell white women not to date black men – because it gives offence? Your motive of diminishing the pain of offence is a respectable one, but it needs to be balanced against an understanding of the uses and abuses of “offence” in manipulating power.
While I agree that the freedom to “blaspheme” is a basic tenet of a secular democracy, I think there is an issue of context. Communication demands at least two parties – the communicator and the receiver of the communication. It would be naïve to assume that this right is absolute. It is obvious that the communicator intends that his message would have some sort of impact on the receiver or else why would he bother to communicate? The impacts can range from passing on gossip, establishing social relationships, to exhortation to action. If the intent of the communication is to insult or enrage, I see no disingenuousness in someone disagreeing with the intent while supporting the communicator’s right to say what he did.
Using the analogy of breaking wind in an elevator, I think there is a difference if it is done in a crowded elevator as opposed to an empty one. Using another analogy, there is a difference between yelling “fi re” in a crowded theatre as opposed to yelling “ice cream”. Equally, there is a difference between yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre and yelling “fi re” in an empty one.
We all self-censor as a part of the social contract we have made to live in our societies. While most civil discourse does not offend, there are plenty of polemics which are intended to cause a reaction. At that point we must look at the motivation of the communicator and we can agree, disagree, fi nd fault, condemn, etc. based on that intent. In this particular instance, I don’t think the Danish editor intended to insult Muslims. Such a reaction would probably not have been expected in his society. However, (and to me this is the bothersome thing) some local Muslims did take offense at the cartoons and spread the word rather quickly throughout the Muslim world. What the intent of that person was will probably never be known, but there certainly were consequences which I do not think the Danish editor anticipated. In hindsight, perhaps the cartoons were too insulting to Muslims in this era of heightened religious tensions resulting from 7/7 and the invasion of Iraq.
Freedom of expression with respect to religion is a right in our society and most western societies. However, we must temper it with concern about context and intent.
As Jack Straw said it does not extend “to the obligation to insult”. It is one thing to spit on and burn the American fl ag in Kabul, but if done at a NRA conference in California, I would suspect the consequences would be different.
Al Zgolinski, New York
Mr Zgolinski, I think you’re right that context and intent are important to consider. As to context: note that the cartoons were published in Denmark by a Danish newspaper – not in Mecca or even Kabul. While Muslims may have been part of the audience, the principal readership would have been non-Muslim Danes. Indeed, Muslim or not, the readership would have been principally Danes, members of the Danish polity, and presumably people who adhere to its values. To follow your own analogy, publishing the cartoons was more like NRA members (some of them Democrats) making fun of Bill Clinton and his supporters at an NRA meeting than like anti-NRA fl ag-burners disrupting an NRA picnic.
About intent: the stated intent of those who initially published the cartoons was to resist the censorious climate they perceived growing in Denmark. I think this is a noble motive, and it helps show that the cartoons do far more than provoke or insult. They ask readers, Muslims included, to consider what’s been happening to Denmark and to Islam, how Islam has been used recently, not by all Muslims, but by a sufficient number to warrant concern. The cartoons stir readers to reflect upon Islam’s moral priorities, its regard for women, its relationship to violence, and the way it serves the instruments of censorship.
Jack Straw may be right that the principle of free speech does not itself entail an obligation to offend (as if the editors argued otherwise). Good sense and good manners do require self-censorship. But given the political pathologies that contingently afflict us, a dose of blasphemy would be salubrious and therefore ought, I think, to be administered
Speaking of pathologies, I’m glad you address Iraq and 7/7 – not to mention Afghanistan, 9/ 11, Gulf War I, Iran, and Palestine. Much of the fury animating the response to the cartoons I explain in terms of transference. People are upset about these other events and take it out on the cartoons. But of course, explanation isn’t justification.
I thoroughly enjoyed your passionate defence of anti-passion, or anti-“enthusiasm” as the early modern philosophers you mention might have put it. But is the passionate defending of antipassion (at least in public debate) not simply imperialism by another name? The editor of the newspaper that published the cartoons was exercising free speech; there can be no doubt about that. There can also be no doubt that such “blasphemy” as you call it has been instrumental in, so to speak, drawing the teeth of over-zealous and politically powerful Christians who oversaw the killing of many who disagreed with them (not least Muslims during the Crusades, and indeed each other once the Muslims had been ousted from Spain).
But what we have today is a quite different scenario. On the one hand we have The West – plural, secular and above all politicised. On the other hand we have The Rest who are actually nothing of the sort. Whereas The West recognises a clear distinction between impartial politics and partial interests, The Rest, particularly Muslims, refuse to accept that pluralisation and secularisation serve the common good, that passion and interests are not godlike characteristics. To Muslims, humans are not therefore imperfect subjects of a passionless, impartial and disinterested god (or state).
In fact, the imposition of the distinction that we in The West take for granted is anathema to Muslims who see such an imposition as tantamount to imperialism. The publishing of the cartoons which tacitly promulgated the western separation of “public good” from religion was, to Muslims, just such an imposition.
For example, you say that the religious want things both ways; that by entering public debate they reject and often mock Marx, Smith, Limbaugh or Hillary Clinton yet cannot handle mockery of Mohammed. But mockery of political subjects, subjects whose doctrines take for granted the distinction between dispassionate politics and personal or local interests, is quite different from the mocking of a religious icon who was never part of a tradition that effectively imprisons political figures in a panopticon where they are rendered transparent material for all and sundry to scrutinise and mock whenever necessary.
Hence, mocking Mohammed in JyllandsPosten was in effect mocking every Muslim by universal means. That is the same as singling out someone close to each one of us (such as our mother), publicly mocking them and then expecting us to accept it as fair in love and war.
Just as relativism cannot be universally recommended without being absolutely recommended, so it seems your belief that blasphemy has a part to play in public debate cannot be promulgated dispassionately as you so articulately demonstrated.
Mr McCleod, I believe your concerns about imperialism present a strong critique of my position. In interpreting the cartoons and the reaction to them we face two competing and terribly important moral-political imperatives:
(1) the imperative not to support imperialism and (2) the imperative not to support theocracy Because, however, (a) objections to the cartoons have been so repressive and (b) the discourse about them has been so forgetful, in my judgment opposing theocracy overrides fretting about imperialism in this case.
More pointedly, I think your objection oversimplifies matters. You say that on “the one hand we have The West – plural, secular and above all politicised. On the other hand we have The Rest who are actually nothing of the sort.” Lumping the non-Western world into a homogenous bundle in this way masks the world’s complexity. From the Baghdad caliphate to the Andalusian city states to the democracy movements of Afghanistan, Turkey, India, and Iran, Islamic civilisation has often exhibited sites of relatively free thought, sometimes more free than its Christian counterparts. Your view also turns its back on courageous Muslims who’ve published the cartoons, like Jordanian Jihad al-Momani (recently jailed) and Yemeni Muhammad al-Asadi (facing a possible death sentence).
Truth be told, your characterisation of The West as strictly secular oversimplifies things a bit, too. Here in the US we suffer under a President who claims that God instructs him in foreign policy. A visit to a few political rallies in Kentucky might, I think, alter your views on the extent of American theocracy.
About mothers: being a Muslim is not like being a mother, as mothers are not religions or political ideologies. To say that Islam is a silly superstition that contains some dangerous political elements is categorically different from, say, calling someone’s mother ugly. Even farther, suppose one’s mother were a prominent political figure like Margaret Thatcher. Would it be impermissible to publish cartoons ridiculing her? Would cartoons published in Ireland about the relationship of Christianity to sectarian violence be to mock every Christian by “universal means”?
About enthusiasm, the relevant distinction isn’t between what’s passionate and what’s dispassionate but rather between kinds of passion. The passions of theocratic enthusiasm are pernicious in ways that, say, those of a righteous indignation informed and tempered by the principles of liberal democracy are not. I do appreciate, however, your caution. If my remarks have been intemperate, I apologise for them.