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Islam Is Not the Liberal Cause You’re Looking For

On Sunday, there was a contest held in Garland, TX featuring cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.  It was attacked by a pair of Muslim terrorists who drove there from Arizona.  Unlike previous attacks over harmless cartoons, however, only the terrorists were killed after they shot at the event’s armed guards.  And unlike previous incidents, this time the West did not unite in solidarity with the cartoonists, like the Je suis Charlie slogan.  Instead, the conversation seems to have revolved more around criticism of the event’s organizer, incendiary blogger and professional protester Pamela Geller.  Perhaps this was partly because the conservative Geller is known for being offensive and provocative, and partly because, thankfully, there were no innocent victims to mourn this time.  But another factor seems to be an inexplicable rush to defend the Muslim faith when Muslims have threatened innocent people.

Conservatives and liberals usually take divergent, knee-jerk positions in the wake of Muslim terrorism, positions which often seem more concerned with contradistinction to their political opponents than with an honest discussion about modern Islam.  Conservatives will tally another notch as proof that Islam is a violent and dangerous religion; they may genuinely believe this, but it may also be motivated by tribal one-upmanship to make their own religion or ideology appear better.  Liberals will often argue that this it is not all Muslims committing terrorism, that either all religions or all religious extremists are equally bad, or that Islam is a peaceful religion.  Unfortunately, these defenses do more to derail the discussion than resolve it.  True, the nearest terrorists had to drive across two states to reach their target, but that kind of determination renders their small numbers almost insignificant; just one terrorist willing to go through such great lengths is more dangerous than all the other religious extremists in the country.  The leftwing condemnation of all religion may equally just be one-upmanship by the nonreligious.  And the question of whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is debatable.  Like every religion, it’s really only as good as the individuals who practice it, so asserting this statement as the starting point of the conversation rather than the conclusion is being simplistically doctrinaire. 

Arguing that Islam is supposed to be peaceful is a pointless distraction to very real violence committed by devout Muslims in the name of Islam.  LIke it or not, Pamela Geller’s point has been proven true: if you mock or criticize Islam, Muslims may try to kill you.  She may be an agitator, but she is not the instigator.  This conflict started years before when some Muslims killed innocent people over cartoons that were not even intended to provoke a violent reaction.  When Muslims behave like other religions and no longer try to silence criticism and mockery, there will be less to ridicule and criticize.  Or at least it will be less appealing to provocateurs.  Until then, both sides are in a perpetual cycle of antagonism, but we should not be misled by fashionable pundits who argue both sides are equally to blame.  They are not.  One side has drawn offensive but harmless pictures, the other side has killed innocent people.  There is no moral equivalency between the two, as the point was made on the Daily Show: “It is not okay to shoot other people because you’re offended by what they draw, even if they drew it to offend you.”

I completely understand the disgust with Geller and her inflammatory methods, I am not going to argue that anybody has to like her.  But I support free speech even when I don’t like the person or the message, because that’s really the only time it matters.  What bothers me, though, is the eagerness with which some liberals are willing to abandon the principles of free expression under the guise of politeness.  You may have heard, “I support free speech, but…” then blaming the organizers for being hateful, offensive, or in some way causing the violence.  After Sunday’s attack, Salon argued that “free speech is not a license to be stupid.”  This couldn’t be more wrong or more illiberal: nobody’s right to speak is subject to anyone else’s evaluation of their intelligence.  The mere insinuation that free speech is licensed in any way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept.  “Hate speech” is not a crime in the United States, if it were anybody could restrict any criticism they dislike with the mere accusation that they found it hateful.  Direct incitement to violence or lawless action has been established as the only speech punishable under U.S. law, and even then it must meet rigorous criteria.  Comparisons of Geller’s provocative views to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” are refuted because the attack demonstrated her warning was not false.

Criticism misdirected at the target rather than the attacker is a disconcerting trend.  A few days after the Texas incident, Salon published an op-ed by Rula Jebreal calling ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali “dangerous.”  Now the article doesn’t mention that the apostate Hirsi Ali has to travel with bodyguards because of her criticism of Islam, including a film she made with Theo van Gogh which resulted in the filmmaker’s death at the hands of an angry Muslim.  To call a peaceful author, activist, and victim of Muslim extremism “dangerous” is not only unreasonable but inexcusable.  Instead of devoting so much attention to attacking harmless critics of their religion, moderate Muslims would do far better outreach if they attacked the extremists who would try to murder them.  If you only attack the critics of your religion while ignoring the extremists of your religion, then you’re not really a moderate, you’re an enabler.  Jebreal’s irresponsible hyperbole is far more dangerous because it has more potential likelihood to incite real violence against Hirsi Ali and her loved ones than Hirsi Ali’s words do to actually harm any Muslims. 

The Left’s overreaction to defend Islam from Rightwing criticism may actually be making liberals less liberal.  There are obvious double standards when liberals freely bash other religions while withholding criticism of Islam for the same or even worse offenses.  Some liberals have retaliated for the offensive Muhammad cartoons by encouraging offensive cartoons of other religious figures.  This should not be confused as a brave stand for free speech, because it’s only attacking religions that they already know will not respond violently.  Pamela Geller may be passive aggressive, but this is just cowardly.  Similar observations on the liberal hypocrisy when it comes to Islam were summarized by Allen Clifton last year:

“It’s a point Bill Maher actually made a few weeks ago.  He said when it comes to religion, liberals often have no problems bashing Christianity.  Yet he often finds many of these same liberals defending Islam and outraged if someone might dare call out radicalism within the Muslim community.”

It’s admirable to stand up for the rights of Muslims to live and practice their faith without discrimination or oppression, as we should for people of any or no religion.  But many liberals seem to have mistaken Islam for a progressive cause, which it is not.  The main battles which have characterized liberalism for the last century–women’s rights, gay rights, and individuality–are all at odds with Islam.  It is not intolerant to acknowledge this fact.

I would be a hypocrite for writing an article critical of the Christian Right’s opposition to same-sex marriage while giving Islam a pass on gay rights.  It would actually be progressive if Muslim countries were merely resisting the right for gays to legally marry, but sadly the majority of Muslim countries still criminalize homosexuality, and in at least 10 countries it is punishable by death.  In any city in the U.S. you can find a gay-affirming mainline church, but finding a gay-affirming mosque anywhere in the world is a challenge, and virtually impossible in the Muslim world.  The gay community justifiably has a lot to criticize Islam for, and these deplorable human rights violations should not be swept away by the honor brigade.

Like anybody, Muslims individually may be more progressive than their professed creed.  Congressman Keith Ellison’s support of gay rights is acknowledged and appreciated, in the same way as the support of Republicans even though their Party’s platform still opposes same-sex marriage.  There certainly are progressive Muslim voices like Irshad Manji, but unfortunately her books are banned even in supposedly moderate Muslim countries like Malaysia.  Liberals should not lose focus in the gap between how we think the world ought to be and how it actually is; the sobering reality is that Islam is presently  far behind liberal ideals.  So much so that it is also behind modern conservatism in its progress.  It doesn’t always have to be this way, other religions have undergone dramatic reforms in their doctrines on slavery, caste, women, and sexuality.  But as outsiders (aka infidels) we don’t get to tell Muslims what their religion is supposed to be, that’s something they have to decide for themselves.  In the meantime, let’s stop pretending it is something that it isn’t.  And let’s rightly condemn violent attackers and not their intended victims.  

Bosch Fawstin's award winning cartoon

Bosch Fawstin’s award winning cartoon

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Free Speech and Islam

Recently, some ads critical of Islam went up on buses in San Francisco, courtesy of controversial blogger Pamela Geller.  Not long after that, it appeared several of these ads had been defaced.  The graffiti artist covered up the message with one of their own, as well as the image of Muslim superhero Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel introduced a year ago by Marvel Comics.  The book’s muslim writer, G. Willow Wilson, approved of the graffiti on twitter.

I first heard about all this through Gawker’s io9 blog, which wasn’t very helpful because it didn’t even give any description of the content that it dismissed as “Islamophobic.”  Since their editors lacked either the journalistic integrity or the courage to print that, I’ll have to do it myself.  Next to a photo of Adolf Hitler with Muslim leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, it reads: “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran. Two-thirds of all US aid goes to Islamic countries. Stop the hate. End all aid to Islamic countries.”

msmarvel

The messages being sent by the vandals were confusing to say the least.  One says, “Stamp out racism”, the honor brigade‘s usual method of shutting out critics of Islam by calling them racists, even though Islam is not a race.  Another reads, “Free speech isn’t a license to spread hate”, the typical Muslim concession to a vague idea of free speech as long it doesn’t protect anything they object to.  Of course, Muslim leaders never seem to be as concerned with stopping their own from saying or doing things that other religions might find offensive.

It’s a threat to free speech whenever a group or individual believes they alone have the authority to determine what criticisms about their ideology can be seen by the public, let alone to enforce that interpretation through criminal acts.  In this case the vandals could have bought their own rival ads, or swayed public opinion through a protest or a boycott.  They could have easily taken a free picture, defaced the ads in photoshop, and then posted it on the internet and that wouldn’t have been illegal.  But regrettably, this exemplifies the disturbing trend of Muslims breaking the law whenever they don’t like something somebody says about their religion.  A few weeks ago, Muslim terrorists killed a dozen innocent people in Paris over a silly cartoon.  The government of Saudi Arabia condemned those terrorists, but then proceeded to flog blogger Raif Badawi the very next week.  And now, a manufactured representative of moderate Islam is being used to shut out another critical message with her creator’s blessing.  While they don’t all resort to physical violence (aside from property damage, of course), all of these from moderate to extremists are nevertheless examples of opposition to free speech by force.  The only discernible difference is not their level of tolerance for opposing speech, just the level of force they’re willing to exert to silence it.  It’s par for the course that a Muslim superhero is the champion of suppressing free speech.

Of course, Kamala Khan doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even all moderate Muslims, but where are the voices of moderate Islam standing up for all free speech, not just sharia approved speech?  After the Charlie Hebdo attacks Alternet was quick to compile a list of 45 Islamic organizations denouncing the terrorism, yet this list seems less reassuring when put under scrutiny.  For starters, one of the examples (#18) is the brutal Saudi dictatorship which actively suppresses dissent with violence.  Another three are Ahmadi organizations (#’s 2, 7, and 15).  Although Ahmadiyya is the only sect of Islam that totally rejects violence as a matter of doctrine, they are at most only 1% of the worldwide Muslim population and generally considered heretics and persecuted by the greater Muslim majority, to the extent that it’s practically illegal to be an Ahmadi Muslim in several countries.  While their denunciation of violence is greatly appreciated, it not really statistically relevant because we could always count on this 1% to denounce violence, the other 99% of Muslims are the more important question.  It’s rather dishonest of Alternet to have such a small minority disproportionately representative of 6% of their sampling.  Even including Saudi Arabia, if the percentage of extremists truly were as tiny as Muslim apologists claim, then we could optimistically expect more than 90 responses for every Ahmadiyya organization that Alternet can find.  For 1 Ahmadi statement, there should theoretically be 99 statements representing the Ummah, but what we see instead is a huge blind spot of more than half the Muslim population.  This is why it’s important for Muslims everywhere to denounce violence and extremism as loudly and often as possible, because the world really has no clue where the majority stands.

G. Willow Wilson mistakenly believes the graffiti is also free speech, saying on twitter:  “To me, the graffiti is part of the back-and-forth of the free speech conversation. Call and response. Argument, counterargument.”  Some of her supporters have argued the mantra that the response to free speech is more speech, but anybody who can do basic math can see that the ads started with one message and ended with still only a single message.

Unfortunately, many misguided Western liberals have been swayed by the apologist’s “hate speech” argument.  Even if the media didn’t publish the content of the original message, they took their word that it must have been “Islamophobic”.  But while it should have mattered to those defending the censorship, the content really doesn’t matter to those who believe in the principle of freedom of speech.  One doesn’t have to approve of the message, but if you approve of it being suppressed, then you don’t really believe in free speech.  Like it or not, so-called hate speech is still free speech, and the idea of free speech exists for no reason other than to protect speech that somebody doesn’t like.  You’re not really a liberal if you support an oppressive religion silencing free speech.

Faster than you can cry “no true Scotsman!” I will argue that free speech is inseparable from liberty and liberalism–it’s a defining characteristic.  A compromising liberal accepting an ideology’s own limits of what critics can say about it is self-defeating, like a pro-lifer having an abortion or a vegan eating a cheeseburger.  Doing certain things that go completely against a professed ideology can exclude oneself from that identity.  And make no mistake, giving authoritarian religions control back over their own narratives is in effect neutering the progress of the Enlightenment and taking civilization back to the Dark Ages.  While you may freely agree with the Muslims that the criticism in question is incorrect or inappropriate, everybody should be ashamed of these lawless bullying tactics to take away another person’s right to speech.  Muslims will eventually have to start catching up to the 21st century, and Islam will have to stop being both the most easily offended religion in the world and also the most offensive.

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