If you are aware of the existence this humble soapbox you know that I am not in the morality business. My usual focus is to try to explain something, not to pass judgement.
Today, I will make a rare exception and discuss both sides of an issue, namely the anti-Muhammad movie and the ensuing riots. First, let me focus on the debate and the morality argument behind it. In a separate post I will discuss who benefited from these incidents.
Sanctity of Freedom of Expression vs Sanctity of Religious Beliefs?
I have been following the debate around the 14-minute trailer of that silly movie with growing incredulity. More than anything else, I have been puzzled by the central argument that was proposed to frame the debate, namely the sanctity of the freedom of expression vs the sanctity of religious beliefs.
I am not a believer and I am a strong supporter of the freedom of expression. In fact, I am an extremist in that regard: I believe that all speech, no matter how odious, should be protected. And I have a profound dislike for any fundamentalist belief systems, religious or not.
So this line of argumentation should speak to me. But it didn't. Because I realized quickly that it was a disingenuous framework designed to predetermine the outcome of the debate and in the process, to solicit the support of people like me.
To begin with, it seemed to me that the people who emphasized freedom of expression in this context had a clear "clash of civilizations" subtext. The underlying message was less about the freedom of expression and more about "these bearded, barbaric bozos who are trying to silence us through violence and intimidation."
I paraphrase, of course. But notice the unmistakable "us." It involves no effort to understand "the other" other than emphasizing its otherness. Us vs them, civilized vs barbaric.
Secondly, I know that this stark choice between freedom of expression and religious beliefs is not something that is brought up when the shoe is on the other foot.
Let me explain what I mean with a religious example. The 8 April 1976 issue of Charlie Hebdo had the following cover: "Notre envoyé spécial à Rome nous cable: Dieu existe, j'ai enculé le Pape" [Our special envoy in Rome sends us a telegram: God exists, I sodomized the Pope]. Predictably and understandably, the issue was banned in most of Europe. I was around at the time and I used to own that issue. I remember clearly that, save for a few anarchists, no one was making a freedom of expression argument at the time.
As for the freedom of expression aspect of the proposed framework, the recent record is not very flattering for those who seem to be its staunch defenders. Especially, when it comes to views expressed by those bearded, barbaric bozos. In 2009, Jubair Ahmed, a Pakistani who was a legal resident in Virginia was arrested and indicted for posting a You Tube video praising Lashkar e Tayyiba (LeT), a terrorist organization widely assumed to be behind the 2008 Mumbai shootout. Sure, LeT is a vicious terrorist organization but the guy was just expressing his opinion. Nothing more. For that expression, he is now facing 23 years in a maximum security prison.
Greenwald compiled a long list of similar cases: "In 2009, a Pakistani man in New York was sentenced to almost six years in federal prison for the "crime" of including a Hezbollah news channel in the cable package he offered for sale to television viewers in Brooklyn." I dislike Hezbollah intensely but how do we justify six years in jail for packaging a cable news channel?
He also notes that: "just this month, a British Muslim teenager, Azhar Ahmed, was convicted of the "crime" of posting a Facebook message which said: "all soldiers should die and go to hell." Not bad for freedom of expression, right?
How Would I Approach This Debate?
I have two principles that I apply when I discuss belief systems of any kind. The first one is to differentiate the personal from the social. From a personal perspective, a belief system is an identity. From a societal perspective it is a social construct.
I never comment on a belief system as personal identity. Let me use an antiquated example to explain the idea behind this. Say that you had an uncle who was a committed communist during the Cold War. Every Thanksgiving he lectured you about the evils of capitalism, he was horrified when companies tried to break unions or when workers failed to act in solidarity.
Personally, I would never argue with this fictitious uncle on his ideas and beliefs. I would never ridicule them. He and anyone else has every right to hold on to their ideals just as Tom Cruise to L. Ron Hubbard's precepts.
On the other hand, I would debate him on Marx, the Soviet system, or communism in general as these are ideological and cultural constructs. But I would do so without questioning his personal belief system to imply how-stupid-do-you-have-to-be-to-believe-in this-rubbish?
The second thing I take into account in these situations is the power element around this specific belief system. Perceived power or lack there of, is crucial. That fictitious communist uncle would have my sympathy during the Cold War because wherever he would be at the time, including Western Europe, the US or Canada, he would be ostracized or even persecuted for his views. He would be a powerless, marginal figure pushed away from the mainstream. His outbursts would be a lot more acceptable to me than another (equally fictitious) rich uncle who would hate his workers and constantly complain about how lazy they were whenever we met at a family function. Not because I don't like his views but because they represent the hegemonic mainstream perspective.
To bring this back to religion, in the case of Charlie Hebdo cover with the Pope, I appreciated their anarchist bravado, but I also understood how the French Catholics received that message. Even though France is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, it is also staunchly secular. And at the time, despite their numbers, Catholics felt that they were a powerless minority, marginalized and persecuted by the state and secular intellectuals. Whether that is actually true or not is immaterial. That is how they see themselves. For them, the cover was a slap in the face both as a personal insult and as an act of humiliation perpetrated by a more powerful social group.
In the case of Muslims and this silly movie trailer, both of these elements were operational. The movie trailer was designed to be offensive to Muslims on a personal level, like the Charlie Hebdo cover was designed to be offensive to Catholics on a personal level.
And the personal insult was especially humiliating because just like the French Catholics in the seventies, Muslims, despite their numbers in the billions, perceive themselves as a marginalized and persecuted group.
I realize that their reaction has a lot to do with Salafist efforts. But focusing only on that or the freedom of expression debate does not help us understand anything: it simply leads us to declare them so utterly other that we cannot understand them.
And that I find unfortunate and unhelpful.
I think it goes without saying that I am not trying to justify those violent riots and the murder of innocent people. The reaction is appalling and the violence is horrific.
I am simply trying to show that the causality for their reaction is not to be found in their primitive otherness or bearded barbarism but in some basic human traits we all share. If I were a Muslim, I would shrug off that silly trailer, just as I would ignore the Charlie Hebdo cover if I were a Catholic.
But since I am neither, I can not claim to have their experiential perspective.
And without that, I would not feel comfortable insinuating that they are just primitive reactionaries.
And this is what this superficial debate is designed to conclude.