Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Some Brief Thoughts on the Current Cartoon Controversy

Those who have been reading this blog know that I am both a liberal as well as an ex-Muslim and I want to address this current controversy from both perspectives. Some will look at the "ex-" prefix and assume that I must be hostile towards Islam, so I think that I should first clarify my stance on the religion.

I do, in fact, have quite a few issues with the core scriptures of Islam, by which I mean the Qu'ran and the Hadiths (which are the sayings of Muhammad). There is a lot in there that should be offensive to any advocate of civilized society. However, there is a difference between the scriptures of a religion and the practice of that religion.

Objectively, Islamic scripture isn't any worse than Jewish scripture (and, thus, by extension, Christian Scripture). If you actually read through the Torah, it would be hard to find a document that is a better example of bloody-minded xenophobia, misogyny, and barbarism. One can, of course, take the detached stance that the books of the Torah were written by a primitive people who lived in a world where these traits were the norm -- and that is so -- but the fact remains that many people consider them to have modern relevance.

If I only looked at Jewish scripture, I would presume that Judaism is an abominable religion. This would be very short sighted, however. The vast majority of modern Jews don't adhere to a strict practice or interpretation of their scriptures. It would be hard to find many rabbis who would suggest, for instance, that a disobedient child should be stoned to death, or that woman should be considered taboo during their menses. In fact, over the millennia, Judaism has liberalized. To be sure, there are still conservative pockets of orthodoxy and ultra-orthodoxy, which I would say need to be judged independently, but the religion, as a whole, no longer reflects the literal mind-set of its scriptures.

My point is that the practice of a religion is far more important that the strict content of the religion. You can find examples of this in any religious tradition. It would be foolish to suppose that modern, post Vatican II, Catholicism is the same thing as the Catholicism of the 12th century. It's would be foolish to think that 21st century Mormons are cut from the same cloth at their 19th century counterparts. The Buddhism of a modern adherent of Zen is not the same thing as the Buddhism practiced by the Buddha, himself.

Religions change and evolve. Unfortunately, just as in biology, not all evolution is progressive. Islam has a marvelous history. This is one of the things that attracted me to the religion. During its golden era, Islam represented the pinnacle of scientific, mathematical, and philosophic inquiry in the world. It was contact with the Islamic world (as well as compulsive archiving by Catholic monks) that helped to lift us out of our own dark ages. It was this era of Islam that produced the remarkable scientist-philosopher-poet-theologian, Omar Khayyám who wrote one of the most amazing works of literature the world has ever seen, The Rubáiyát.

Even in Khayyám's own era, however, there was a politically influential orthodoxy. That orthodox movement, however, was largely kept in check. That is no longer the case. Modern Islam has become a radicalized religion. Before someone accuses me of generalizing, I will acknowledge that there are moderate and even liberal movements within Islam. Indeed, if you follow Islam far enough to the left you end up at Sufism which is, in many ways, comparable to modern Buddhism in terms of tolerance and overall progressiveness. These cases not withstanding, though, it is accurate to say that the modern Islamic zeitgeist is anything but progressive. In fact, what passes for moderation in Islam would be considered very reactionary by western standards.

Allow me to frame this in terms that are personally meaningful to me. I am an Islamic apostate. Islamic law (a.k.a., Sharia) has some sections that pertain to apostates. Many Islamic clerics would argue that I should be put to death for leaving the religion. This is the general conservative stance. A few conservatives would argue that the fact that I am living outside of Dar-al-Islam (meaning the Islamic world) provides an extenuating circumstance that may justify the sparing of my life so long as I live in exile from that world (which, I confess, isn't much of a burden to me). The moderate stance is that I deserve punishment, but that punishment should be reserved to Allah who will, justifiably, throw me in the worst sections of hellfire. Since I'm not particularly concerned about going to Hell, I'm more than willing to accept the moderate stance but it is critical to understand that this stance isn't driven by any sense of mercy or civilized restraint. They simply don't think that my punishment should be part of their jurisdiction. I would have to go very far to the left of mainstream Islam before I found a scholar who would dare to suggest that renouncing my religion was my right as well as my conscientious duty given that I could no longer sustain rational belief in it.

The bottom line is that I don't hate Islam. Islam, like any other religion, boils down to how it's practiced. What I do hate is how Islam is being practiced by the bulk of its modern adherents. Fundamentalism has become the norm in the Islamic world. Strict interpretations of Sharia are the official practice of too many countries. It is a system of law that is, literally, medieval. Under Sharia people can, and are, killed in barbaric ways for offenses that civilized countries wouldn't even consider crimes, anymore (such as adultery). It is a system that makes it easy for women to be raped (because it requires multiple witnesses to the actual event) but extremely difficult for them to establish a right to their property or the custody of their children. It is a system where a man can divorce his wife simply by saying "I divorce you" three times in a row. (There was a recent debate as to whether this could be done via instant messaging!)

Many liberals have embraced what I consider to be a naive multiculturalism. I want to emphasize that I think that a limited multicultural world-view can be a healthy thing. Many of the western excesses and atrocities of the 19th and earlt-20th century were driven by a strict euro-centrism that failed to accept that any other cultural model could have any validity what so ever. It is a good thing to, at least, try to understand why other cultures are the way that they are and to carry a default presumption of respect for divergent cultural standards. Where multiculturalism fails is when it takes that default presumption as a mandate to respect other culture's practices no matter what.

I have written an extensive essay on the subject of relativism vs. absolutism. To quickly summarize it, while I reject the stance that there is a single, absolute moral template that applies to all cultures at all times, I do believe that different moral standards can be assessed on the basis of objective criteria. To give an extreme example, a culture that allows its citizens to freely kill one another would quickly collapse into anarchy. As such, murder is objectively wrong for a civilization because it would quickly lead to anarchy. When I wrote the essay I deliberately didn't go into detail on what criteria I would use. I merely wanted to establish that the idea of objectively evaluating cultures didn't require one to embrace a theory of absolute morality and conduct.

I would like to now suggest that two such measures should be the happiness and prosperity of a culture. I submit that a culture whose citizens are happy is more stable than a culture whose citizens are miserable and that the more happiness enjoyed by the overall population, the more stable it is. In like measure, I would suggest that prosperity serves a similar function. It is necessary to note that happiness and prosperity are not the same thing and that a country can have an abundance of one while having a deficit of the other. I would, finally, suggest that the abstract goal of freedom is a meta-philosophy that tends to increase both happiness and prosperity and, thus, one that can be objectively supported.

There are many people on the left who are defending the outrage of the Islamic world over the cartoons of Muhammad published by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten. They argue that even though they support the notion of freedom, in the abstract, they feel that the paper acted inappropriately and irresponsibly because the cartoons are culturally offensive. One claim that I've seen made, again and again, is that freedom carries with it responsibilities and that someone who can't use their freedoms responsibly should not have them. I believe that this is a dangerous stance.

It is, essentially, a variation of the argument that one's freedom of speech does not permit one to shout fire in a crowded theater. The theory is that publishing these cartoons is a deliberate act of provocation that is intended to incite violence and, thus, morally equivalent to the aforementioned act of fire-shouting.

I do not accept this interpretation. When someone shouts fire in a crowded theater, the resulting panic is caused by a rational response to disinformation. It is a fabrication that denies other people the freedom to make a rational decision as to whether to stay seated or to rush to the exits. A more appropriate expression of the theory, I believe, is that you may not exercise your freedom in such a way as to fundamentally curtail the freedoms of others.

I believe that the current crisis is disanalogous. The rioters are not rioting because their freedoms are being hampered. They are rioting because their sensibilities are being hampered. Rather than shouting fire, it's more like shouting tuna with a resulting vegetarian rampage. I believe that this is where naive multiculturalism comes into play. Those multiculturalists who believe that all cultures are equally valid and equally good are compelled, by their own philosophy, to assert that the rioting Muslims are justified in their actions because their culture forbids depictions of the prophet. They believe that our own culture's love of free speech isn't any more important than their culture's religious teachings.

Of course, a consistent application of this view would imply that both parties are equally justified. Jyllands-Posten is right to publish offensive cartoons, and the Islamic world is justified to throw a world-scale hissy-fit over it. Curiously, naive multiculturalists are rarely consistent when evaluating their own culture. Since this version of multiculturalism is largely Western, they tend to hold the West to a higher standard than the rest of the world, insisting that we embrace a meta-philosophy of tolerance towards other cultures. I suspect that this inconsistent stance is ultimately rooted in guilt over the West's (objectively atrocious) history of imperialism and cultural suppression.

While I agree that tolerance is, in general, a good thing, I also think that it is easily misapplied. It is one thing (and a good thing) to tolerate a difference of religious belief. It is, however, not a good thing to allow that tolerance to extend to the point where one is compromising one's own freedoms in the name of said tolerance. More to the point, I will submit that freedom of expression is better than respecting the icons of various religions. The reason for this is that there are no end to the things that people consider iconic, but there are definite ends to our ability to say what we believe to be true.

Here is the real danger of imposing restrictions on religious expression in the name of cultural sensitivity and "responsibility". If we condemn Jyllands-Posten for these publications and if we pass rules and regulations to prevent this from happening again, we set a precedent. We would send a message to the world that says that, although we embrace freedom of speech, we'll limit it if you get sufficiently offended. This tells everyone who has a belief that they hold dear (and there are no end to them) that if they act belligerently enough to defend that belief we will, of our own free will, muzzle ourselves so as to prevent offense. In other words, we will be providing an incentive to all the fundamentalists of the world (religious and otherwise) to take up arms whenever we tread on doctrines that they consider dear. The end result will be that, for the sake of sensitivity and responsible expression, we will allow ourselves to be silenced by degrees until we reach a point where we can say nothing at all for fear of offending anyone at all. In the end, we will allow ourselves to be deprived of a commodity that I believe has much more objective value than any of the dogmas that we would be supposedly respecting.

I do not believe that we can let this happen no matter how outraged the Islamic (or any other segment of the) world becomes at our expressions. The question should not be whether Jyllands-Posten was deliberately offensive, nor should it be whether Jyllands-Posten was acting responsibly. The question should be whether or not we consider the right to offend to be something worth defending. Those who think it isn't should be aware that the right to offend is nothing less than a synonym for the right to speak out at all.

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