Jan. 9th, 2015

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Or, Satirical depictions of religious leaders should be illegal, says Ottawa imam.

This is a fascinating study in the art of getting things completely backwards. It should be mentioned up front that this guy (wrong-headed though he otherwise is) does denounce the terrorist attacks and refer to the terrorists as disturbed individuals—he’s disingenuous but not an apologist for monsters. (Nor did he claim that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists bore the responsibility for their own deaths, unlike some old, white, male Christians¹.) That said:

"Imtiaz Ahmed...said it should be against the law to publish cartoons that depict religious figures in a derogatory way.

“Of course we defend freedom of speech, but it has to be balanced. There has to be a limit. There has to be a code of conduct,” Ahmed said."

“We believe that any kind of vulgar expression about any sacred person of any religion does not constitute the freedom of speech in any way at all.”

Ahmed said there should be limits placed on freedom of speech to prevent the publication of offensive material. He says that seems to be the case for events such as the Holocaust. Members of the public denounce those who say the Holocaust never happened.

It’s worth noting that his position is in fact against free speech. He’s for free speech…unless it’s just too offensive. However, the legal right to free speech is entirely about offensive speech; after all, it’s only once speech has been deemed offensive that anyone wants to silence it, and therefore only offensive speech ever needs, and uses, legal protection. In practice, “free speech except for really offensive speech’ is exactly equivalent to no free speech at all. (Incidentally, his words are incredibly offensive to free speech advocates; but of course he wants special protection only for religious speech, on the basis of…who knows?)

His remark about public denouncement of Holocaust denial is an even more stunning miss, because public denouncement of offensive remarks is precisely what free speech advocates strive for. Legal protection of free expression necessarily includes the protection of responses to said speech. That’s the whole idea of the principle: Let everyone speak their mind, and let those who are in the wrong be defeated by having their ideas exposed, rebutted, and rejected, not by shutting them up and forcing them to nurse their grievances and resentment in private.


¹ Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. Bill Donohue, everybody.

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It is curious how the debate after every Islamist deed of terror, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings, always results in a flood of Most Muslims aren’t like that!—in a knee-jerk response that reminds me of nothing so much as #NotAllMen. This may strike you as (needlessly) offensive, but before I bring up my caveats, please consider the parallels. (But before you respond angrily, at least do read through to the end.)

  1. It is true that most men aren’t rapists. By analogy, and in fact, it is true that the vast majority of Muslims aren’t terrorists.

  2. It’s true that lots of men are vehemently against sexual assault and harrassment, just as it is true that lots of Muslims are vehemently fighting terrorism.

  3. The truth of the Not All Men reply, however, is secondary to its unhelpful deflectionism—yes it’s true, but the point is that although not all men—indeed, not even a majority of men—are like that, still a minority large enough to matter are, and the fact that it’s a minority does not mean that it isn’t an issue with men—much like, say, breast cancer is an issue for women (even though most women don’t get it and some few men do).

    Or maybe…much as how, although lots of terrorism is committed by non-Muslims, and the majority of Muslims are not involved in or sympathetic to terrorism, still it looks as though the issue is disproportionate, and mere deflection won’t do.

  4. Finally, many people writing today are complaining how unfair it is that Muslims are expected to stand up and proclaim that they’re opposed to extremism and terrorism. But then, strictly speaking it’s hardly fair that I have to speak up against rapists. Yet, I’m told, my silence may be mistaken for tacit approval (and worse yet, daring to treat it with levity—by telling or laughing at rape jokes, for instance—might make the true villains mistake me for a sympathiser). —I said I’m told—but, too, I agree, and extrapolate.

How dare I (you might ask) make this so general, as though Islam worldwide bore responsibility for what a bunch of lunatics in Paris did? You might have a point, were that and similar local incidents all there were to it, or if the appearance of sympathy were a rarity. But we know that’s not really true. The best example I can think of are the riots after the satiric cartoons in the Danish magazine, Jyllands-Posten. In outrage at some Danes’ audacity in portraying their religion (or their pedophile prophet) in an insulting manner, riots were nigh worldwide. It seems that people died in consequence in Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, Libya, Nigeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Let’s not pretend that there is no connection.

And there is always a predictable outcry that, although some Islamists may act like this, that has no bearing on Islam, or Muslims. #NotAllMuslims! To this I can only say, poppycock! As Jason Rosenhouse said,

I heard someone on television today lament the fact that when a Muslim does something bad, somehow all Muslims are expected to condemn it. This misses the point. The issue isn’t what anyone is expected to do. It’s what moderate Muslims had better do, loudly and unambiguously and with no “buts” at the end, because right now the crazies are the public face of Islam. No one is concluding that something is wrong with modern Islam because two Muslims did a bad thing. The conclusion is based on the chaos and despotism and illiberal attitudes that seem especially rife in the Muslim world.

More broadly, there is this constant insistence that when somebody does something, and says it is because of their religious faith and beliefs, much of the world credits it only conditionally: If what they did was good, then we’ll believe them. But if they did something bad, they must be mistaken or lying: It must be extremism, maybe a cult, or maybe it’s a response to imperialism, colonialism, racism… All of those are real, important, awful factors, but let’s avoid the No True Theist Fallacy.


But…

With that all said, there are some extra factors to keep in mind. I loathe the term “Islamophobia”, as though a hatred of that vile religion were a bad thing. (Do you think it is pristine and blameless? Go forth and read up. The scripture itself is bad enough, quite apart from all the other stuff.) There is a strong implication, which I reject and resent, that being vehemently critical of Islam implies a hatred of Muslims, and further, that it results in—or perhaps based on—racism, in particular against Arabs (presumably, then, combined with ignorance of the fact that there are many white Muslims, although they’re a minority, and that most Muslims aren’t Arabs, and that the single largest Muslim population is found not in the Middle East, but in Indonesia).

On the other hand, there are factors of racism and irrational hatreds far beyond rational loathing of Islam. I’m not very familiar with Charlie Hebdo, but they certainly held a lofty moral high ground compared to their Islamic murderers—but now, a few French compatriots of the victims are working hard to give up that moral high ground by shooting and throwing grenades at mosques (and blowing up some poor restaurateur’s kebab shop). In the US, after the 9/11 terror attacks, I gather the FBI reported a 1,700% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. (And, to be sure, people whom racists mistook for Muslims. I may dislike the conflation of Islamophobia with racism, but if you assault people on the basis that they have brown skin and wear turbans, you’re a racist.)

There, then, is a very important difference between #NotAllMen and #NotAllMuslims: Men deflect in order to avoid self-examination, feelings of recrimination, or criticism. Muslims and their defenders deflect because, well, I agree with most of Rosenhouse’s article cited above, but there is one point where I’m afraid he is too optimistic:

Now, this is the point where the self-righteous types will accuse you of Islamophobia. They will lecture you about blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few.

But no one is doing that, and they know it. Almost no one thinks that all, or most, or even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for yesterday’s attacks. The problem, though, is that the attitudes underlying the attack are not those of a small, fringe minority. It is willful blindness to pretend otherwise.

I agree with the assertion that it is not a small, fringe minority, but unfortunately, I fear it is not true that Almost no one thinks that…even a majority of Muslims have any sympathy for terrorist attacks. Deplorably—indeed, almost as deplorably as the murderous attacks themselves—it seems there are always people ready to take their vicarious vengeance on the nearest Muslim (or Muslim look-alike).

Here, #NotAllMen would only be comparable if the nighttime streets of our cities were haunted by roving gangs of actually-militant feminists, waylaying and beating men, and occasionally firebombing places that men like to frequent.

And, more, that attitude is probably very pernicious in subtler ways in its milder forms. I think that many Muslim-majority countries are—I’ll say it openly—barbaric. If the law sentences someone to being flogged for blogging critically of Islam, then the legal system and society that permits it are both horrid. But that doesn’t mean I’m ipso facto sympathetic to indiscriminate bombing, or drone strikes killing civilians at numbers I don’t care to guess at. But unfortunately, a sufficiently uncritical acceptance of the vilification of precisely the places and societies I am trying to vilify in a more nuanced manner, lays the groundwork for popular acceptance of—or at the very least, lack of resistance to—military campaigns that do just that. I reject the concept of Islamophobia, but I accept the sad truth that people in the Middle East (who may or may not be Muslims—I suppose most of them are; I don’t suppose it morally matters) die, every day, because people are uniquely unbothered by the idea of bombing Muslim-majority areas.

Under Bush, it was getting awfully tempting to think of this as Christian (or should that be Christianist?) terrorism on a large (and well-funded) scale.


#NotAllMuslims support terrorism. Most of them don’t. Yet it is disproportionately an Islamic problem, and toxic Islam should be excused no more than toxic masculinity. Let’s acknowledge this; let’s avoid euphemism and cowardly deflection and circumvention. At the same time, though, we should not loose sight of, nor fail to emphasise, that the goal here is to speak up—loudly, freely, offensively—and deplore violence, not return it.

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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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