Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"The answer is not more violence and censorship"

Speaking of the Danish Mohammed Cartoons, here's a fascinating essay from February 2006 by Harvard Law School fellow Emran Qureshi. Originally published in the New York Times, Qureshi's piece challenges the assumptions of both aggrieved Muslims and Western anti-Islamists. In particular, he effectively exposes the double standards behind much of the Muslim outrage over the cartoons:

Within the Muslim world, the cartoon imbroglio has given ammunition to the two entrenched forces for censorship — namely, authoritarian regimes and their Islamic fundamentalist opposition. Both would prefer to silence their critics. By evincing outrage over the Danish cartoons, authoritarian regimes seek to divert attention from their own manifold failures and to bolster their religious credentials against the Islamists who seek to unseat them.

Ironies abound. Saudi Arabia leads the protests, yet is systematically destroying its Islamic heritage. The Wahhabis who dominate Saudi Arabia do not believe in honoring Islam's holy men and women or the Prophet Muhammad (they've proscribed the celebration of his birthday). Driven by sectarian zeal, the Saudi authorities have razed and dug up virtually every site in Mecca and Medina linked to Muhammad, members of his family and his companions.

But these acts of disrespect and desecration have failed to arouse any protest from those who now take to the streets to condemn the Danish cartoons.

Elsewhere, Sunni Muslim fundamentalist leaders express anger over the Danish cartoons, but no comparable indignation over suicide bombers who attacked Shiite Muslim mosques during Ramadan in Iraq. In Pakistan, blasphemy laws have been used by fundamentalists to attack Christians and Hindus.

All this is a far cry from the Islamic humanism of Ibn al-Arabi, the Andalusian philosopher and mystic, or of Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet.

Qureshi then points out both the absurdity of censorship and of offending for its own sake:

In some Western Muslim quarters, the proposed solution is more censorship — that these cartoons and similar expressions should be banned as hate speech. By that logic, shouldn't Salafist diatribes against Shiites also be banned? Shouldn't the writings of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi and his Jamaat-e-Islami, which were instrumental in persecuting the Ahmadis, a Muslim minority in Pakistan, be banned as well? Maududi's religious writings, best sellers among Muslims in the West, are suffused with an intolerant and anti-Western hue.

No, the answer is not more censorship. But it would be nice if Western champions of freedom of speech didn't trivialize it by deriving pleasure from their ability to gratuitously offend Muslims. They view freedom of speech much as Islamic fundamentalists do — simply as the ability to offend — rather than as the cornerstone of a liberal democratic polity that uses such freedoms wisely and responsibly. Worse, these advocates insist on handing Muslim radicals a platform from which to pose as defenders of the faith against an alleged Western assault on Islam.

This is a very important point, even if I don't totally agree with it. I do think the Danish Mohammed Cartoons were a legitimate attempt to stand up for free expression. However, it can be a fine line between defending free speech and gratuitously offending Muslims just because you can. Yes, you have the right to do it, and the right not to be murdered or threatened for it, but it's idiotic and counterproductive. Islam is not the enemy, Islamism is. There is a difference. Going out of your way to alienate non-Islamist Muslims is wrong and absurd.

Where I take issue with Mr. Qureshi is that, in my view, free speech means little without the right to offend. When I refer to the right to offend, I don't mean juvenile or bigoted remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. What I mean is the kind of rigorous debate that is necessary regarding the state of the Islamic world. Honest discussion of this, or any important topic, will almost inevitably cause offense to someone sooner or later. Theo Van Gogh wasn't murdered merely because he called Muslims "pigf***ers"; he was killed because he directed a film on the shameful treatment of women in much of the Muslim world. Yes, such a topic will offend many Muslims, but that does not mean that it should not be brought up.

Mr. Qureshi ends his essay with an appeal to his fellow Muslims that is absolutely dead on:

The loudest and most murderous forces have chosen to forget the spirit of the Koran, which opens with an invocation of God's mercy and compassion and which repeatedly urges believers to practice patience and kindness. There is something very ugly about the power of the radicals, their recourse to violence, their anti-intellectualism and their ability to trample and blaspheme a more humanistic Islamic tradition.

It is right and proper for Muslims to be offended, to be hurt, to protest. But we should be wary of the authoritarian voices that claim to speak and act in the name of Islam. The answer is not more violence and censorship, but rather peace, mercy and compassion.


Blogger Sir James E. Watkins said...

Compassion is key.

Free poetry contest and much more:

1:14 AM  

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