Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Muslim perspective on the "Innocence of Muslims"

Followed by my response.

While the goal of this video is commendable it ignores a few factors that complicate the situation beyond what it discusses.

As to part 1, Muslims being portrayed as violently reactionary. I agree it’s both unfair and unreasonable to characterize an entire group by the actions of a minority of its members. No one I’m aware of attempts to paint all Christians as hateful and bigoted based solely on the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church members or the Ku Klux Klan. Neither should we characterize all Muslims as violent based solely on the killings and protests committed by a minority within the Islamic community. And lest we overlook the broader implications of this attitude, we should also refrain from judging all non-believers just because a few atheists such as Pol Pot and Stalin were inhumane and committed atrocities the vast majority of atheists condemn. I agree with the video on this point.

As to part 2, the freedom of speech. This issue is more complex and nuanced than the video acknowledges. It’s true that the freedom of speech is not an entirely unrestricted freedom. Societies and governments have established contexts within which the right to speak freely is curtailed either by convention or law. The right to freely speak our minds does not acquit us of responsibility for what we say. On this point I again agree with the video.

What the video inaccurately addresses is the freedom of speech when it involves insult and blasphemy. “Hate speech” is socially unacceptable but is punished, when it is, reactively and not proactively. In other words, anyone is free to insult another but has to accept responsibility for their insult when it results in violence. While it’s socially and, for many of us, personally repugnant to call a Black person “nigger”, there is no legal prohibition against doing so. Nor is it always unacceptable to use the word in every possible context. Both the video and I have used the word and neither of us has done so in an effort to demean or insult Black people. To the broader point, insult is not a prohibited or even restricted form of speech. While most civil people refrain from insulting individuals pointlessly, we generally don’t object to insults directed at groups of people or institutions who have offended us in one way or another. Android users insult Apple users, Democrats insult Republicans, we accept the use of insults and satire to make a distinction between our opinions and those of others with whom we disagree. And while those insults still incur responsibility, we cannot possibly be responsible for every extreme and irrational reaction to them. If I call the God of the Old Testament a jerk and someone stabs me for saying that, can you honestly say that I’m fully responsible for that reaction?

More to the point, Western societies and governments are primarily concerned with insults based on what a person is; their race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, hair color or age, aspects of their person they are born with and cannot easily change. We are not so concerned over insults directed toward what a person has chosen to be. A person chooses to be a Republican, fully aware that there are non-Republicans who may insult them for that decision. When a person chooses to be affiliated with a certain religion they ought to be aware that those who disagree with this choice may express their disagreement through insult, satire or philosophical challenges. There is no freedom from offense. Those offended by the insults and disparagements voiced by those of other faiths or no faith are just as responsible for their reactions are are those who issued the insult or disparagement. There is a real difference between insults directed toward individual believers and the beliefs they hold. The majority of negative comments directed toward Islam, Christianity, Scientology, the Church of Latter Day Saints and other religious groups are directed toward the beliefs of these groups, not necessarily the individuals who hold those beliefs. Religious belief is not exempt from criticism or insult any more than is political belief under the concept of freedom of speech.

What I find disingenuous is Eastern countries attempting to make blasphemy, the vocal opposition to a religious belief, a criminal act under international law while giving lip service to freedom of speech. Blasphemy is not an abuse of the freedom of speech, it’s perhaps the most important aspect of that freedom alongside the freedom to speak out against our own government. It’s a test of that freedom, and the efforts to curtail blasphemy are a failure of that test. 

When you choose to join a religion, political party or other social group, it’s both unreasonable and unrealistic to expect everyone else to automatically respect that choice. It’s a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the freedom of speech to establish legal barriers to disagreements of any passive, nonviolent disagreement with those choices. That’s tyranny, and those of us who champion the freedom of speech will not allow any religion, political party or other social group to become a tyrant. 

(A related commentary from AC Grayling...