a missing piece in the free speech/Islam discussion

Travis Kavulla, writer for the fledgling conservative Red Ivy blog, is right about one thing. Liberals ought to be outraged about the violent responses among many Muslims to 12 Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad, one showing him with a bomb in his turban. Such reactions choke free speech and trample the ideals of intellectual freedom that liberals claim to cherish. Conservatives are right to condemn these hateful acts. But by viewing condemnation as the only important response to this situation, we succumb to a myopia that hinders us from defending liberal ideals. (more in expanded post)
Denouncing dogmatic overreactions only gets us so far in stopping and preventing them. Blaming Islam as a religion for the violence, as Travis does, get us nowhere. Many liberals rightly recognize the hypocrisy in passing judgment on Islam itself for the violence committed in its name, given how much destruction and injustice has been spread worldwide, historically, in the name of Christianity–through murders, prosyletizing enslavement, and missionary-led colonialism. Unfortunately, this insightful recognition makes us hesitant to comment negatively whatsoever on the recent upheaval. Instead we silently shake our heads or immediately begin searching for nuanced causes of fundamentalism-fueled riots and terrorist threats, without first acknowledging that such violence both saddens and frustrates us.

Liberals need to force-feed political dialogue a dose of nuance by realizing that condemning these reactions, while appropriate, is only part of the struggle. Booing a speaker doesn’t accomplish as much as finding your own soapbox to stand on; this is a major principle of democratic dialogue. So in addition to calling for an end to suppression of free speech, we also have to call for a resurgence of energies dedicated to expanding freedoms of expression, not only in Europe but in predominantly Muslim nations. The fact is, the majority of Muslims are not violently fundamentalist; yet, repressive governments stamp out moderate and progressive Muslim voices by keeping a stranglehold on civil liberties. Plus, Western media sometimes fixates on extremist elements to the exclusion of progressive forces. If we are committed to supporting people’s struggles for civil rights worldwide, times like this are critical moments to demonstrate our solidarity with Muslims around the globe who want peace as much as we do.

Actively lending support to moderate and progressive Muslims–not by speaking on their behalf, but by offering to publish and translate their works; by lending vocal and financial support to certain organizations and leaders; and by strengthening our own Islamic and Middle Eastern studies programs–this positive democratic action is a crucial component conspicuously absent from Travis’s argument.

It’s time we used liberal ideals of democracy to make real efforts at breaking the cycle of violent Islamic fundamentalism. We need to demonstrate a sincere commitment to collaborating with Muslim supporters of democracy. We need to educate ourselves as individuals and as a community about Islam and the positive elements of the histories and ongoing struggles of Muslim societies. We need to issue vehement outcries against anti-Muslim violence in the U.S. and around the world. And we need to show appreciation for the Muslim members of our own progressive community.

Since one reader actually asked that we start a thread on this topic, many of you probably have lots of thoughts and opinions to contribute, and hopefully some information from which we can all benefit. So let’s get it started–as always, please share some wisdom.


3 responses to “a missing piece in the free speech/Islam discussion

  1. hi katie, rob again =). thanks for your interesting choice of topics. my question is what do you mean by “moderate and progressive muslims”? hamas who were _democratically_ elected in palestine aren’t what i’d consider moderate and progressive. and democratically elected president ahmadinejad of iran, who is very popular, calls for the destruction of israel.

    another link: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/HA10Ak01.html

    in islam, the koran is the “word of God”, while in christianity jesus is the “word of God”. hence judaism and christianity have been able to reevaluate their respective texts, but can islam do the same with the koran?

  2. I think your post ignores the fact that there are Muslim citizens in European countries that are offended by the portrayal of the prophet Mohammad as well. The reason I say this, is because perhaps freedom of speech has to be curtailed in favor of other values in a society like political equality, racial, ethnic, or religious justice, and public safety. You might more easily dismiss the reaction of Muslims in Indonesia, because perhaps the government of Denmark has no responsibility to them, but that says nothing of the Muslim citizens of Denmark, or France, or Spain. The blasphemous portrayal of Mohammad does implicitly entail a significant display of disrespect, that the government could be said to endorse by not intervening by chastising the papers on behalf of its Muslim citizens. Operating implicitly is the claim that the sacred in a religion– in this case Mohammad– is not important enough to take into meaningful consideration when people in Denmark engage in political satire– which by definition is mockery. Since the sacred is, in many ways, at the very center of a religious tradition, it could also be said to implicitly devalue the worth of the religion itself, as well as its practictioners, who define themselves primarily through this tradition of worship. It seems to me that it is not wildly implausible to claim that government has a responsibility to protect minority populations in its citizenry from being subjected to this type of disrespect because it only furthers a social discourse that seeks to move Muslims in European nations (and in the world at large) further toward the margins of equal consideration and membership as human beings with meaningful conceptions of the good. Power relations do not exist separate from discourses, and such brazen disrespect of the sacred in Islamic religions in popular media can only contribute to the consistent violation of Muslims’ claims to justice and fairness because it implicitly endorses that they are not worthy of such consideration. In The Crimson today, there is an essay by a profoundly naiive freshman on the recent Asian stereotype t-shirt controversy. In order to make his point, if it can indeed be called that, he wonders how on earth an offensive image on a t-shirt could possibly be connected to something as terrible as lynching or slavery, or even racism– which he mistakenly identifies as the outright hatred of a racial group. What he fails to understand (and what I think you do not quite grasp in this piece, although ironically, you have in others…) is that racism (or religious bigotry, sexism, etc.) works as an ideology or discourse that devalues people based on a set of characteristics deemed socially significant and which offers a host of explanations to justify this devaluation and disregard. It is not the case that racism is perpetrated primarily by people who acknowledge the full humanity of an Asian person, but they just don’t like them– it is that people have accepted a set of narratives or propositions that collectively compel them to lack equal consideration or regard for Asian people qua Asian people. Given that, something like the popular dissemination of offensive stereotypes or portrayals– be they t-shirts or political cartoons– only reinforces the idea that equal consideration is not important, thus facilitating discrimination, violation, and oppression. It is not simply a coincidence that Jim Crow draws its name from a popular minstrel show actor…these things go hand in hand.

    You might still, however, be willing to proclaim the values of unfettered free speech– but I do not think it is as cut and dry as you seem to suggest.

  3. Rob, the articles and books I link to are examples of what I think are moderate Muslim voices–perspectives that do not see Islam as inherently incompatible with democracy and/or civil liberties, and even perspectives that do not see Islam as incompatible with feminism (in the sense of advocating for women’s autonomy and equal rights). These are just a few of the examples I have come across; I’m sure there are many more, and there are probably a number of people who have spoken at Harvard on the subject recently.

    Guess who, I definitely appreciate your concern, and I too was intitally more upset about the cartoons when I learned that according to Muslim faith, the prophet Mohammad is not supposed to be depicted at all. It seemed like a blatant instance of insensitivity and outright provocation–an almost juvenile kind of jeering. I also agree that negative portrayals of Islam ought to be handled with a great degree of caution since the current world climate is very hostile to Muslims, and as you say, the reiteration of negative stereotypes does have very real impacts, possibly even facilitating violence. But in my research of the situation I’ve come aross a few details that made me rethink my initial disgust with the cartoons.

    First, apparently the artist drew the cartoons as a kind of protest–he had learned of a children’s book author who tried in vain to find someone who would illustrate his book on the life of the prophet Mohammad. The author couldn’t find anyone willing to do it because so many Danish artists feared for their own safety, predicting that drawing the prophet, even in a favorable light, would evoke a violent reaction from Muslim factions. According to this article, “Clausen [the artist] said the paper did not intend to provoke Muslims by running the political cartoons. ‘Instead we wanted to show how deeply entrenched self-censorship has already become,’ he said. While I completely support the right of Muslim people, or any religious group, to make known their strong objection to what they feel is a violation of their beliefs, I don’t think we should welcome a kind of environment in which the threat of violence prevents artists from expressing themselves. Now, I have no idea whether the cartoonist is being truthful about his motives, but this new information gave me pause.

    Secondly, when we talk about the government’s duty to protect Muslims from discrimination, violence, and oppression, I think we need to recognize a couple of things. One, while European governments and societies may not be doing all they can to promote respect and appreciation for immigrants, Muslim or otherwise, only briefly before the cartoon controversey the Danish government shut down a Copenhagen radio station that was calling for violence against Muslims. Government restrictions on incitement to violence are of the utmost importance, and I think the government, while it may not be perfect, demonstrated its commitment to censoring voices that pose an imminent threat. Despite their inflammatory nature, one could argue, the cartoons did not qualify as an incitement to violence, and should therefore be protected.

    Which brings me to my last point. While it’s important to recognize institutionalized racism and power imbalances between government structures and citizens, we shouldn’t be too quick to separate ‘Muslims’ from ‘the Danish government.’ Apparently, a group of Muslim citizens is filing a lawsuit against the newspaper, adopting what I think is a very appropriate way of responding to the situation. Every nation should continue to struggle with its own problems of racism and racist oppression; while the judicial system itself is sometimes a big contributor it the problem, it shouldn’t be overlooked as an option for redress. Lawsuits, educational campaigns, accurately-directed boycotts, and nonviolent protest, or a combination thereof, are preferable kinds of responses to social problems. They don’t always work, and it probably takes more than all of them put together to really address racial and religious intolerance, but hopefully they will remain the first go-to options.

    You’re absolutely right that the issue is not cut-and-dry, but these are just some of the elements I was thinking about; you and others may or may not find them compelling. What are your thoughts?

    If anyone else comes across more details that might shed some light on the situation, please share!

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