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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4 thoughts on “On offensiveness . . .

  1. Thank you. Each time I receive an email that you have posted something new, I take the time right then and there to read. I cannot say that about many–if any–others. Once again, I have learned something, as I see myself in that last paragraph. I admit to often being a judgmental atheist who tends to reflexively pontificate (or is rail?) when events such as these happen. I so respect your quiet tone, and I wonder if you have as calming an effect on those in your physical orbit as you seem to have on those (well, at least me) in the ether?

  2. Cogent, wise and merciful remarks. This is one of the few pieces I’ve read on this issue that has really stayed with me. Thanks, Sadakat.

  3. I really enjoyed reading your book and happy to hear your comments on the current crisis. The media just fuels the stereotype that Islam is a violent and therefore evil religion and unfortunately Muslims these days are more than willing to be the Bad guys. the west just doesn’t grasp (or chose not to) that all religions are the same ..they all are meant to teach ethical behavior but often their adherents fail to practice it.( Most Christians still don’t get that Muslims have to believe in Jesus!) I agree that at this time in history the ‘muslim’ world is in crisis but as you said, it is a political and economical one..even if Jesus came back and converted them en masse to christianity the crisis would remain. The mobs that burnt and looted in pakistan probably never read a book let alone a Quran.

  4. I agree with Shehla. I enjoyed your book and learned from it. But — forgive me, Sadakat– I strongly doubt it will ever be a bestseller. Not that it shouldn’t be: it should be required reading. But unfortunately, too many people read only things that they know will accord with their deeply held opinions.

    While the attacks in Benghazi and other American facilities were grabbing all the headlines, I asked you to explain (for a post on my blog) why Muslims react more violently to crude, offensive insults to their religious beliefs than other religious societies do. I wanted an answer from someone like you— someone whose scholarship and lived experience could unpack the assumptions implied by such a question. Your thoughtful response didn’t disappoint. You reminded me that sparking today’s violence are not merely the obvious: economic disparity, recent invasions, occupations, Israel, atrocities like Abu Ghraib and now drone attacks with their “collateral damage,” but also the anger kindled by and still smoldering from European colonization and now the exploitation of the Middle East’s most valuable resource.

    Most Americans fail to connect this history to today’s events. Moreover, few contest the assertions of prominent figures like Mitt Romney that the U.S. promotes democracy in the Middle East. They forget or don’t know that the U.S. has propped up despots like Mubarak, backed the overthrow of a democratically elected leader in Iran in order to install the autocratic shah and is hostile to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, parties that were duly elected by the people. How will we ever come together if most are unaware of their blinders, if the press remains blinded as well?

    Even you inferred something that I didn’t say or mean, that the repulsive video was a “slight… so glancing.” I had asked you to comment on the violent reactions to “hateful and offensive insults.” Be that as it may, I know that despite our earnest efforts, everyone of us still harbors some trace of prejudice. You’re human after all, and I was gratified by your answer.

    When I was asked to answer the flip side of the question I posed to you, i.e., “Why does the word shari’a strike fear into the hearts of so many Americans?” (so much so that by last year, 22 states had passed or proposed anti-shari’a legislation), my immediate response was succinct: ignorance—ignorance and the attendant fears of the unfamiliar and the unknown. I mentioned that 62 percent of Americans say they have never had any personal contact with a Muslim, that they don’t know what the shari’a law is and that — surprise, surprise! — polls reveal that people who know or have met Muslims are less likely to be anti-Muslim. All that was cut by the editor, leaving only proximate causes, like the fundamentalist revival of Qur’anic punishments and the reactions to offenses like the infamous video and Dutch cartoons. (Although the last two are admittedly difficult to understand by Americans used to the protections of the First Amendment.)

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