Insulting Islam

I came to know of Uthman Badar recently via the news that his talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, titled “Honour Killings are Justified”, had been called off. It’s certainly a provocative title. My instinct was not to take it at face value, and Badar himself said it would be “ludicrous”, but it’s difficult to make an assessment of a talk that never happened.

Since information is scant on that topic, I’d like to address something else Badar has raised in this article (in a publication called 5Pillarz, which describes itself as “an opinion and analysis-based website which concentrates on British Muslim news but also looks to the wider Islamic world”).

I’ll start at the end, where Badar finally says:

Hence all beliefs and sanctities should be protected from insult, including that which is most sacred to billions around the world: God and His Prophets, peace be upon them all. This should be done, in our present context, by the elevation of values, not imposition of law. You can’t regulate civility. You can’t force people to be respectful. This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

(My emphasis.)

Badar would have done well to say this up-front. Up until those final sentences, you get the distinct impression that he is talking about the imposition of a blaspheme law, or something like it.

After all, he spends a fair bit of time tearing down the notion of free speech; indeed, the piece is titled “Free speech is a liberal tool of power”. Badar does make a some reasonable points when he argues against the notion of an absolute right to free speech. Many of us are quite open to being persuaded, in particular situations, that free speech is absolute. It clearly isn’t, though, and there are many times where, for good reason, we simply cannot (or should not) say whatever we please. All of us know this, at some level, but we do not always remember it.

I agree with much of what he says, but his free speech argument doesn’t really support his broader point about the protection of belief from insult. It looks like it does, on the surface, but it’s a subtle non-sequitur. By “protection” Badar means something other than by means of the law. But free speech is fundamentally a legal notion. It implies that we have (at least some) legal protection, not necessarily moral virtue, when we choose to say something controversial. Libertarian defenders of free speech are often happy to concede the moral argument entirely (focusing instead on what they conceive to be a higher principle — individual rights).

The upshot is that free speech is the apples to Badar’s oranges. Badar’s argument that we should encourage (not enforce) civility by the “elevation of values” does not require a step back from free speech. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the legal protection of free speech at all, either in theory or practice. (Some people, particularly committed ideologues, do often mistake criticism of their ideas for an attempt to silence them, but we need not give their complaints credibility.)

Putting the free speech issue aside, Badar also runs into trouble when he tries to distinguish between “insult” and “critique”:

When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam. Critique of any ideas or beliefs is kosher. It’s halal. Insulting any beliefs or people is not. Critique Islam all you want. Write in measured, considered tones about why Islam is not the truth, or why the Prophet was not a prophet. Such books fill bookstores across the West as it is. Never have any of these books resulted in a riot. But to mock, to denigrate, to provoke, to agitate – that is something else, and is unacceptable.

A very fine line indeed, you might think. Badar tries to make it concrete by praising “critique” and damning “insult” in the strongest terms he can, but that’s emotional reasoning, and doesn’t actually serve to distinguish the two very well.

The real problem here is that the magnitude of the disagreement between religious groups, or the religious and non-religious, is so large that speaking honestly, openly and concisely about what you think of someone else’s beliefs is almost inherently mocking, denigrating and provocative. A debate? What “debate” would you have with someone who sincerely believes that the sky is green, or that we’re inhabited by ghosts who came from a volcano blown up by an ancient extraterrestrial? Your inner voice is not weighing up the evidence and formulating critiques. It’s saying “WTF?! Okay, just smile and nod. Smile and nod”.

Sure, we can, in theory, sit down for a few months (or even years) to meticulously explain in a weighty treatise where some belief system went wrong. “Never have any of these books resulted in a riot”, Badar claims, for those books that address Islam. I don’t actually know if this is true, but there is a logic to it — the longer and more detailed the explanation, the more opportunity the writer has to demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) that they operate from a position of intellectual rigour and not malice. But writing books is a pretty high bar to set. A little forethought is always a good thing, but I don’t think one should be asked to refrain from commenting on a contentious issue unless or until one has devoted months of one’s life to researching and expounding the topic. This would just create a kind of intellectual aristocracy that shuts out most people.

Of course, we can be diplomatic and simply not point out how absurd we find the claims of (other) religions. For the purposes of maintaining harmonious relationships across belief systems, such discretion is necessary much of the time. But we must also be seekers of truth. Falsehoods have real consequences (see Iraqi WMDs, doomsday cults, vaccine denial, climate change denial, etc.), and we cannot always sit idly by while people are lured into believing something we know to be false. We know people are hurt by having their beliefs questioned, especially if those beliefs are held as dearly as religion often demands. But the same people, or others, or the wider community, can often be hurt even more if those beliefs are left unchallenged.

And so we must at least occasionally speak up, not because “it’s a free country” (as if there was any logic to that), but because we’re sincerely trying to do the right thing. I don’t excuse the trolls whose motivation actually is to upset people by mocking their beliefs. If Badar is only talking about genuine trolls, then so much the better. But removing the trolls will not stop people taking offence at the comments of others; the problem is more complicated than that.

I’ll address other aspect of Badar’s article: his take on “secular liberalism”, which comes off as a little defensive:

But, let’s be honest, the reason this debate over the freedom to insult others is still a live one is because secular liberalism has dominated both East and West, not by the strength of its values, but by the strength of its militaries.

I won’t deny that the military might of the West (and others) has won it great power over the rest of the world. But are we really blaming liberalism for that? Liberalism is just one part of the political spectrum, not a banner under which Western armies march. Consider the internal politics of a country going to war — the nationalistic fervour, the secrecy, the paranoia over enemy propaganda and enemy infiltration. This is not liberalism, nor is it secularism. It was not liberalism nor secularism that advocated for the US invasion of Iraq, nor the Russian war in Chechnya. Liberals in the west are constantly being criticised by conservatives for being too weak to confront Islam, a charge to which they respond (broadly speaking) by calling for peace.

If there is peace to be made between the Western and Muslim worlds, secular liberalism will be a vital ingredient. The whole point of secularism is the peaceful coexistence of different belief systems. Where the word is co-opted to mean something else, this (I think) usually means the speaker feels threatened by such a heterogeneous society. For instance:

This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

There is also a certain level of hypocrisy in railing against insult while simultaneously levelling accusations of “hideous” erosion of “the sacred and the most basic value of human decency” at one’s opponents. Surely, if beliefs are sacred, then secular liberalism is entitled to the same basic level of respect as Islam.

Besides, the above statement is simply wrong, and demonstrably so. Consider the changes in Western society over the last fifty or so years. Erosion of human decency? What about the advancement of women’s rights, gay rights and the rights of (at least some) racial and religious minorities? What about the advancement of medicine and health care and the de-stigmatisation and management of mental illness and disability? None of these are fixed problems, of course, but you can’t easily deny that there’s been progress. Are these things not elevating the human condition?

Badar is thinking of Western militarism, and (though he doesn’t say it) he could also be thinking of the widening wealth gap between rich and poor, both of which are arguably erosions of human decency. I’m not sure that Western militarism has any particular philosophical basis, other than the basic tribal instinct to be as big and powerful as you can. You might legitimately blame the wealth gap on economic liberalism — the philosophy of small government. Economic liberalism has tended to ally itself politically to religious hardliners, who are opposed to liberalism in the secular/social sense.

While Badar is right about the limitations of free speech, and right about the importance of civility, he seems bent on hitting the wrong target. But then, the same thing happens when the ABC’s Scott Stephens writes about the perils of the faltering influence of Christianity. The ills of the world are arrayed before us and, whatever they are, we can be sure that it’s the damned secularists wot dun it. The varied religions of the world are getting quite good at this, and it serves their purposes (at least temporarily) to have an adversary who won’t get righteously outraged at being insulted.

It’s not even really secularism that they spurn (because, as mentioned above, secularism is merely peaceful coexistence among religions). Their true adversary is the absence of religion, including atheism and agnosticism, but also apatheism — a category for those who essentially don’t care. Defenders of religion devote so much of their human compassion, morality and civility to their cause that they conflate these qualities with their religion, and they forget, I think, that the same qualities exist outside of religion too.