QUICK TAKES – Should We in the West Make An Effort Not to Insult Other People’s Religions?

Current Events, Quick Takes

In this week’s edition of QUICK TAKES on current and newsworthy issues involving religion and theology by POLITICAL THEOLOGY TODAY, we ask the following question:  1) To what degree, if any, should we as academics, pundits, commentators, or ordinary citizens in the West make efforts not to “insult” other religions, even if it involves only self-censorship?   2) When should be the limits of freedom of expression when it comes to religion?  

Jeffrey Taylor, an editor with the Atlantic, has written this past week that not only should we NOT make an effort, but we in the West should be “offended” by the suggestion that we should go out of our way not to offend.  Two PTT contributors have their own quick takes in response to the question.

QUICK TAKES is a feature managed by PTT Current Affairs Editor Carl Raschke.  If you would like to be part of the “rapid response teams” that responds in this section to news of the week, please send the editor an email along with a brief description of the general topics on which you would like to comment.

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Democracy Does Not Mean Refraining from Insult, But It DOES Mean Reaching Out With Respect

Should we make an effort not to insult Islam? In a word, yes, although I don’t agree that calls for greater tolerance are reducible to pleas “not to insult.” Social custom—but not legislative measures—should lead us to present balanced images of Islam and emphasize the positive presence of Muslims in Western societies for the sake of democracy.

Democracy requires that diverse people form political unity in the face of difference. This is the task designated by the phrase e pluribus unum. Religious difference is perhaps the most difficult form of diversity we must negotiate to meet this challenge.

As Michaele L. Ferguson argues in Sharing Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2013), our ability to form a “coherent subject of political action” depends largely on the assumptions we make about people who practice religions that are different from our own. Assuming that certain people are inherently incapable of participating well in democratic life prevents the coalescence of a people that can rule itself, and therefore allows us to be ruled by other powers.

Western history is replete with examples of anti-democratic assumptions made on the basis of religious difference.  John Locke thought atheists could not be trusted because they had no reason to honor civic contracts. Americans have often assumed that Catholics cannot participate well in democracy, largely because of the perceived conflict between democratic reasoning and papal authority.

Many critics of Islam foster anti-democratic assumptions about Muslims.  Bill Maher declared that Muslim women have been “brainwashed.”  Sam Harris called Islam “the mother lode of bad ideas.”

Such comments encourage listeners to assume that Muslims are unfit for democracy. They therefore frustrate collective self-governance. With such sweeping claims about religious inferiority behind a veneer of free speech, Maher and Harris are, for democratic purposes, no different from the protestors of Westboro Baptist Church.

These dynamics do not require legislation abridging free speech. However, social custom built on democratic tolerance (which denotes acceptance of difference toward collective self-governance) would minimize such statements. Democratic virtue and social custom are not a matter of avoiding insult. They are a matter of charitable assumptions for the sake of rule by the people.

Westboro Baptist Church recently targeted a mosque in Moline, Illinois, where I live.  Saad Baig, the local imam, spoke only of respecting protestors’ rights to free speech and responding with silence.

In a statement thanking supporters, he wrote, “I pray we continue to support one another for this will bring us one step closer to a more peaceful nation, and hopefully a more peaceful world. The Islamic Center of the Quad-Cities, along with other faith centers, have unanimously agreed to peacefully ignore any such protestors…Instead we allow them to practice their first amendment rights. We will not allow this out of state group to demoralize our unity and question our resolve.”

May unreflective critics of Islam note this example, revisit their assumptions about Muslims, and internalize Baig’s spirit for democracy’s sake.

Daniel A. Morris is a lecturer in the Religion Department at Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois). His research in Christian ethics and American religious history has appeared in The Journal of Religion, Soundings, and Journal of Religious Ethics. His book, entitled Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr, is forthcoming with Lexington Books.

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 When It Comes To Muslim Populations and Free Speech, We Need To Ask: What Exactly Is the “West”?

Who is the “we”? Where is the West? What’s the goal of an insult?  Do we in the West have the right under the First Amendment to insult other people’s religions

Like many American universities, the University of Denver where I teach has hosted several events in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, focused on freedom of expression, Islam, and liberalism or freedom of expression as freedom to insult.

And like many scholars of Islam, I have much to say about the history of pictorial depictions of Muhammad within Shii and even Sunni Islam – a history that most Muslims do not seem to know. There is a long and rich Sunni tradition of piously depicting Muhammad in art – first in fully human form, then with a veil covering his face, and finally in a calligraphic “verbal portrait” that emphasized his character and deeds as more important for Muslims to emulate than the length of his beard or the cut of his robe.

So to say, as Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims alike do, that “Islam forbids images of Muhammad”, is only half the story. Let me come back to this at the end.

The real question for me, is: Why does this issue particularly involve scholars of religion? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to focus on scholars of cultural studies and law?

There is no “West”

Here’s why I say that: When it comes to three issues – Muslim populations, the separation of church and state, and the parameters of free speech, not to mention notions of humor – there is no “West”.

The Muslim population of the United States is vastly different from that of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, or Italy – in ethnic composition and national origin, in education levels, in average annual income, and in overall diversity. Its ‘origin story’ is also quite different, reaching back to the 1600s or even earlier, when enslaved Muslim Africans continued practicing their religion despite being stripped of their freedom.

Even the Muslim immigrant populations who came to the United States after the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act ended national immigration quotas came without the colonial connection, with all its inequities, that North Africans moving to France or Pakistanis and Indians moving to Britain had. Further, as a country with a self-proclaimed immigrant identity, the United States defines “American” far differently than non-immigrant countries like those of western Europe.

Similarly, what in the United States we term the “separation of church and state” looks quite different in Britain – where the head of state is also “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. In Germany, officially recognized religions collect tithes or religious taxes via the federal government. And in the Netherlands, as in other European countries, political parties have developed in alignment with religious sects – as have education, welfare, recreation, and other elements of Dutch society.

So to suggest that there is one “Western” notion of the appropriate relationship between church and state, let alone church and society, is not only inaccurate but unhelpful.

Further, and I hope that this is an obvious point: there is no “First Amendment” in the Netherlands, or in Italy, or in France. I can’t think of a western European country that today does not embrace, legally and culturally, the notion of freedom of speech and/or freedom of expression.

But what this means in practice has differed from country to country – as those who have followed the effort to reform the United Kingdom’s libel laws, for example, or France’s prohibition on the ‘apology [justification] of war crimes’, well know. And the United States’ linking of the right to freedom of religion, free speech, free press, peaceable assembly, and petition is unique.

Muhammad is dead – so who do insults hurt?

From a strict Islamic theological perspective, there is nothing that any one of us on earth can do to hurt Muhammad. He’s dead, and his death was a crucial moment for Islam as a religion that focuses purely on one God, with no partners, no children, and no associates.

As the sira or “life of Muhammad” tells it, Abu Bakr in his first speech to the early Muslim community said: “”O my people, regarding those who worshipped Muhammad, Muhammad has died. Regarding those who worshipped God, God is alive and shall not die!”

The point, of course, was that God and God’s message were what was important – not God’s messenger. And when it comes to the 2006 Danish cartoons and the 2014 Charlie Hebdo ones, the point is also that none of these drawings hurt Muhammad. So who were they intended to hurt – and what were they intended to do?

After all, the short answer to the question above is: yes. In the United States, every person has the First Amendment right to freely exercise her or his religion, or lack thereof, without support or prejudice from the government. And every person in the United States has the First Amendment right to free speech, including that of insulting the beliefs, practices, prophets, and hopes for salvation – or lack thereof – of others.

What we might ask of the person doing the insulting, is what her or his goal is – and whether insults are the most effective approach. For those who believe that Islam is a false religion and Muhammad a false prophet – or for those who believe that all religion is false – insulting Muhammad may indeed seem the most effective means to their end: converting Muslims away from Islam or from religion at all.

For those who seek a different goal, let me suggest the work of another humorist: Andy Marlette, the editorial cartoonist for the Pensacola News Journal, in Pensacola, Florida. It’s not as intellectual a publication as Charlie Hebdo, but I bet its circulation is higher – and less liberal. Marlette also drew considerable (local) attention for his December 2014 cartoon of Muhammad – but not from Muslims.

His cartoon showed a bearded man in a white robe and turban, sobbing at the headline “Children Slaughtered”, a reference to the school children killed by a Taliban attack in Peshawar, Pakistan. The caption read: “Muhammad wept”.  Muhammad here is a sympathetic character; it’s the extremists who abuse Islam and brutalize innocents who Marlette insults.

So yes, if someone in the United States is hostile toward a particular religion or religion in general, he or she is welcome to insult it under the protection of the First Amendment. But if what he or she is really hostile toward is the abuse of a religion by some of its adherents, he or she might look to humorists like Marlette as models for achieving what satire has often been praised for doing: “punching up”, rather than “punching down”.

Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites.  Stanton’s recent work on the Middle East includes an examination of the role of the Olympic Games in fostering national and regional identities in Lebanon and Syria, and an analysis of themes found in US-based Syrian aid appeals and in Syrian political cartoons.

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