Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Correct Form of Fanaticism

I've commented at other people's blogs on the Danish cartoon controversy, without ever feeling satisfied with what I said. It's an issue that's easy to get wrong, and perhaps impossible to get right. For a lot of us, too many values conflict here: free speech, pluralism, nonviolence, antiracism...it's very hard to find a comfortable compromise between those ideals. But I'l take a stab at it all the same.

First off, a trivial observation. Representations of the Prophet aren't scripturally indefensible, as far as I know, nor are they objected to by all Muslims. But the logic behind the ban is simple enough: an image of the Prophet does not and cannot represent the Prophet. Thus, in at least some of the Danish cartoons, we have an odd situation in which something that does not and cannot represent the Prophet blasphemes the Prophet by failing to represent Him. At this point, it seems that the central issue is one of appellation. This is creation of a sort, after all; one can imagine bringing some Duchampian readymade Prophet into being simply by naming it. Presumably, if I hand a piece of paper to someone while saying "This blank sheet represents the Prophet Mohammed," I've blasphemed. Presumably, if I draw a man in a turban without naming him, I haven't (though who can tell, without reading my mind?).

Give a drawing of Mohammed to an aniconic Muslim and you offend him, whatever your intent; that's the power of representation. Give the same man a drawing of food, and he'll go hungry; that's the impotence of representation. Unfortunately, we tend to focus more on representation's power than on its impotence, even though its power is a matter of the beholder's assent and is therefore not intrinsic to it. Many commenters note that Muslims who don't want Islam to be represented as violent should stop giving their assent to violence, and thus bring representation into harmony with reality. That's a perfectly valid point, but it's a point that applies to humanity in general. When it comes to violence and intolerance, most societies are much quicker to offer criticism than to accept it.

I think that Muslim outrage over these cartoons is understandable. But I can't defend rioting and bloodshed, nor the attempt to extort respect through violence or the threat of violence. Killing, disturbing the peace, arson, death threats...these are all serious crimes, and people who commit them shouldn't be allowed to claim that their "faith-based" thuggery deserves some sort of legal immunity or respect, especially when the faith they're "defending" explicitly extols suppression of anger and pardoning of offenses. (I hope my subtext here is quite clear.)

My suspicion is that the criminalization of "hate speech" is logically and morally untenable, much as I'd prefer it not to be. Tariq Ramadan, in a generally wise and humane article recommended by Echidne, makes a fundamental error when he says that we

...must assert the inalienable right to freedom of expression and, at the same time, demand measured exercise of it.
It's a sentiment one can't really disagree with, until one thinks about the implication of the word "demand." How can an "inalienable" right to self-expression coexist with a "demand" for measured exercise of free speech? Such a demand must be backed up by force...either by individuals, or by the state. That gives us a choice between submitting to mob violence, or submitting to a state that defines what sort of speech is beyond the pale. I'd argue that Muslim rioters in Denmark, and the Bush administration in America, are currently demonstrating some of the flaws with these respective forms of speech control.

Some conservative commentators are saying that these riots affirm our culture's moral superiority to Islamic culture. If violent displays of religious hysteria are inherently more immoral than calculated political attempts to restrict freedom, force compliance with religious dogma, deny human rights, or launch unnecessary wars, then there's nothing more to discuss; their fanatics are demonstrably worse than ours. But I'm not quite convinced that's true. And even if it were, it seems to me it'd be dangerous if a fixation on exotic fanaticism encouraged us to cast an indulgent eye on our homegrown varieties.

Here in the United States, at least one religious group has argued for a less lurid, but more chilling form of "ethical violence": they're hoping to discourage the use of a vaccine against human papilloma virus, which is associated with cervical cancer. I'd argue that this violence is comparable in its ruthlessness, callousness, and superstition to anything seen in Islam. The fact that it's been proposed by "respectable" white people - and that it would strike down its victims privately and one by one, rather than in public and en masse - certainly doesn't ennoble it. A religion that colludes with and gloats over disease is as ugly an example of barbarism as one could hope to find (Katha Pollitt eloquently calls it "honor killing on the installment plan").

That's an extreme example, of course. But then, we're talking about extremism, and its desire to impose its narrow, idiosyncratic ideas of virtue on the larger society. The fact that American fundamentalism doesn't (usually) murder people, and doesn't (usually) blow up or burn down buildings is all to the good, God knows. But it engenders other forms of violence and intolerance that are just as dangerous, and can be harder to identify and combat.

Sadly, our liberty isn't threatened only by religious barbarism. Thanks to these riots, the Right has momentarily rediscovered the glories of free speech, despite having labored to create a climate in which those who question the president can be attacked as traitors. The invocation of treason, a crime punishable by death or imprisonment, is a "polite" form of violence, the goal of which is - like the threats of Muslim rioters - to silence heterodoxy. This is a point that seems to be lost on those who want to ridicule Muslim "hypocrisy." If trying to cow one's critics into self-censorship is evil, it's evil regardless of one's modus operandi. Indeed, you could argue that our current hostility to dissent is ultimately more evil than theirs, given that we claim to be a model society from which "backwards" countries must learn the arts of civilization.

Our homegrown fanatics and political opportunists favor these forms of violence not because they're moral or defensible - they're anything but - but because they generally get a respectful hearing within our culture: they're the politically correct form of fanaticism. But they're still threats, still disheartening and oppressive, still inimical to a civilized society. Like Muslim rioting, they're something we're supposed to take into account, and be frightened of, before making the decision not to say something "blasphemous." And thus, they're a form of brutality that we'll have to reject before we can truly call ourselves civilized and free.


Abie said...

It is not that often that I stumble across a opinion post I *completely* agree with.
I just discovered your blog through your Leuckart post (via Pharyngula), and boy am I glad I did...

All the best

Phila said...

Thanks, Abie! I appreciate it.