On offensiveness . . .

Almost two decades ago, I spent several months as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, working on free speech cases. It was one of those potentially endless summers that begin receding into memory even as they’re happening, and over the course of those months I fell for the city, gently but hard, to an extent that hasn’t dissipated and probably never will.  The tokens of my affection were many, and here’s a shortened version from a kind of love letter I wrote at the time: ‘treacherous rollerblades, Harlem voodoo sticks, frothing hydrants, stuffed hummingbirds, Loisaida love potions, undersky arias in Central Park, quacking sirens, mooing firehorns, first-edition hardbacks, brunch on Broadway, alien ball games, channel surfing, Roach-motel checking, OJ-Simpson-on-the-run, iron fire-escapes, and so on.’ Memories of that summer are inextricably bound up with the 43rd Street offices of the ACLU, which was surrounded by the hobos and peep shows of a Times Square that was only just starting to clean up its act. We spent several weeks challenging an effort down in Cincinnati to criminalise a bookstore owner for selling Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. It’s a weird film, and one so self-evidently offensive that it’s been intermittently banned by censors in both the UK and Australia, but it seemed obvious to me then that the vibrancy I was enjoying in New York rested in large part on the capacity of the US to accommodate offensiveness. A degree of friction is inevitable in any society that allows for diversity and values creativity. That’s still my view. As I wrote in my recent book about the shari‘a :

pluralism begins to wither whenever touchiness is allowed to become a measure of lawfulness. Social groups grow competitively sensitive, and cultures shrink into silence or explode into violence. The right not to be offended consumes the rights of people who are said to have caused offence. There are few incentives to take account of a defendant’s intentions, mental capacity and, ultimately, whether the events alleged took place at all.

The point has been well proved by the recent attempt to frame a young girl for blasphemy in Pakistan, and the current furore over the Youtube posting that obscenely libels the Prophet Muhammad. The latter film has so little redeeming social value that the real blasphemy seems to me to lie in taking it seriously, but there are thousands of people who disagree, and a couple of days ago, someone got in touch by email to ask why I thought some Muslims were so quick to get so enraged at slights so glancing. Rapid responses to ongoing events don’t come naturally to me – one reason why this blog is so slow to update – and the following was as good an immediate answer as I could provide:

There are at least two ways of answering your question – theological and practical – but both are interconnected. Insofar as anger against the film rests on religious underpinnings, it draws on an attitude to sanctity which, as you know, is common to all three monotheisms. But though the Qur’an warns blasphemers to expect a terrible judgment from God, it actually tells Muslims to ignore insults. Islamic states only imposed punishments very rarely, and it’s only since the Satanic Verses crisis of 1989 that blasphemy has become news. As that suggests, the violence today is a primarily political phenomenon – part of the same huge half-century process that has seen anti-colonialism, wars, occupations, urbanisation and economic grievances fuel the growth of politicised Islamic movements everywhere. That’s not to excuse the terrible murders in Benghazi, but to contextualise them. A mob armed with mortars and RPGs is a symptom of political chaos rather than religious certainty – and it’s important to keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of people who suffer violence in Islam’s name, even in Libya itself, are Muslims themselves.

Having had a few days to reflect, a couple of other thoughts have suggested themselves, and in the interests of said contextualisation, I’m going to tack them on here. The first, which will already be obvious to most intelligent readers, is that Muslims don’t have a monopoly on hateful violence. There are Christians in Uganda, Jews in Israel, and Buddhists in Myanmar who’ve pursued their communal interests through brutal means; and though suicide belts are nowadays associated all too closely with crazed Muslims, it was the ostensibly Hindu Tamil Tigers who invented them and used them in vastly greater numbers until the beginning of the twenty-first century.   And that leads to my second thought. Any attempt to acknowledge the full spectrum of bad religious arguments is liable to inspire hardline atheists to insist that they prove just how ignorant, or even wicked, it is to believe in God in the first place. At the risk of offending them (and to their credit, offence is at least one thing most know to take in their stride), it’s a dumb claim. Anyone who tries to reduce faiths to the sum of their most violent adherents is failing, at a very profound level, to understand the full extent of the religious experience. If one had to identify a single feature that lies at the essence of all world religions, the most plausible one wouldn’t be hatred, or fear, or even rivalry. It would be the way that every faith tries to instil a degree of humility in the face of the unknown: an awareness of human frailty, an acknowledgement of life’s shortness and the universe’s immensity, a concern to tame the ego before it’s too late. It’s certainly possible to shrink the awesomeness of faith into a belief that God is well served by despising a ridiculous Youtube film, or that He’s the root cause of all our problems. But either way, it’d be a mistake.

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