"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

“I disapprove of what you say, but..."

The breakout of riots, violence and murder throughout the Middle East in response to the anti Islamic film “innocence of Muslims” has shone a spotlight once again on the rights and responsibilities of free speech in democratic countries and the extent to which the reactionary nature of Islam should be allowed to impose its own boundaries upon those who do not share its beliefs and taboos.
I would say from the outset that I have not seen the film at the heart of the current controversy and on the basis of reports feel no inclination to do so. There seems to be a general consensus that as well as being amateurish, made with actors co-opted under false pretences and subsequently overdubbed it is also inaccurate and deliberately designed to enflame and enrage members of the Islamic faith. However it is also clear that however egregious and lacking in merit the film may be, the engendered response is far in excess of anything that should or will be tolerated by western democracies.
It is an unfortunate fact of history that religions, when allowed to impose their orthodoxy on a population will resort to the most violent of punishments for any criticism of its gods, prophets or articles of faith. This was true of Christianity during the middle ages and it is certainly true of a large part of the Islamic world today. It is easy in the west to forget that Islam is in effect still stuck in the mindset of its own cultural middle ages where it has festered in a bubble of theocratic protection and isolation from the reforms of the enlightenment and progress in human thought and human rights.
For many Muslims the idea that a country like the U.S.A could have unfettered freedom of expression built into its constitution, allowing almost anything including racist hate speech to be expressed in the public sphere is a massive culture shock. It is, to them, insufficient reason for the legal protection of a person who would be at best prosecuted and at worst executed for defaming Mohammed and their religion in such a way in an Islamic society. U.K law has caveats and restrictions on the extent of free speech that would probably have allowed the film’s producer to be prosecuted here. But the fact that this film is so insulting and that freedom of speech is so protected in America is not the whole story. For one thing Islam (that is some Muslims) has shown an ability to become outraged over criticisms that in the west we would not even have to tax our brains to defend. Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ for example, which presents a fictional alternative history of Mohammed’s “revelation” in the context of magical realism, or the Dutch cartoons, or Theo Van Gogh’s film ‘Submission’ about women in Islam. Even a recent Channel 4 documentary questioning the accuracy of the accepted history of Islam attracted sufficient criticism to alert Ofcom.
We must not let ourselves get distracted by the idea that a particularly mean minded bit of film on the Internet seems to be the present cause of events. Partly because there are other political and historical tensions at play here, but mainly because Islamists want the west to feel the need to treat their religion with kid gloves, they want us to be afraid to make the slightest criticism however valid or pertinent. They want, in short, to be able to protect their faith from rational enquiry lest it be found wanting and the hegemony broken.

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