Sunday, February 05, 2006

Tolerating the intolerant

"A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is a freedom sorely lacking in the Islamic world, and without it Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth." - Ibn Warraq, Democracy in a Cartoon

Western Europe now faces a serious dilemma: how do you tolerate the intolerant? My answer is short: you don't because, as A.C. Grayling put it, "the result is too often the death of toleration itself, because those who live by hard principles and uncompromising views in political, moral, and religious respects always, if given half a chance, silence liberals because liberalism, by its nature, threatens the hegemony they wish to impose."

The Danish cartoons depicting the Islamic faith in what enraged Muslims deem a blasphemous light has led to violent reactions around the globe, including the burning of Danish embassies in Syria. There is no excuse for such actions, as there is no right to not be offended which supercedes the right to expression. Tolerance means being allowed the freedom to practice your faith without interferance so long as you do not violate the rights of others, it does not mean being allowed the freedom to impose your religion on others by silencing their freedom of expression. Otherwise, 'toleration' becomes, as expressed by Thomas Paine, "not the opposite of intolerance but the counterfeit of it. Both are despotisms: the one assumes to itself the right of withholding liberty of conscience, the other of granting it."

Now, I'm not calling for militant actions against Muslims. But what I am suggesting is that Western Democracies should not budge nor compromise on this matter. There should be no laws protecting religious sensibilites from offense, no laws giving legitimacy to the violent fanatacism which calls for the death of infidels who insult a religion. In essence, this sort of barbaric response will not be tolerated nor condoned, in any shape or form.

At the Secular Outpost, Taner Edis writes

Sigh. On one hand, this whole fracas reinforces my general contempt for the human species. On the other hand, I can't even get my usual fool's compensation of a bitter sense of superiority. I'd like to come out and say I know the right and proper way to respond to incidents that (possibly deliberately) provoke religious offense, but I don't see any way to do it without appearing a morally outraged twit myself. Again, sigh...
I can sympathize to an extent. But we (humanists) are not cultural relativists, and the response seems clear enough to me: denounce the violent reactions and defend the freedom of expression, while holding any individuals who participate in militant reprisals legally accountable for their actions.

Why should Islam, or any religion, be granted legal or social protections from criticism? Faith must stand or fall on the intellectual defense of its claims, not on legal prohibitions against critique, or upon violent intimidation of those who would question it.

And how any human being ever has had the impudence to speak against the right to speak, is beyond the power of my imagination. Here is a man who speaks -- who exercises a right that he, by his speech, denies. Can liberty go further than that? Is there any toleration possible beyond the liberty to speak against liberty -- the real believer in free speech allowing others to speak against the right to speak? Is there any limitation beyond that?

So, whoever has spoken against the right to speak has admitted that he violated his own doctrine. No man can open his mouth against the freedom of speech without denying every argument he may put forward. Why? He is exercising the right that he denies. How did he get it? Suppose there is one man on an island. You will all admit now that he would have the right to do his own thinking. You will all admit that he has the right to express his thought. Now, will somebody tell me how many men would have to emigrate to that island before the original settler would lose his right to think and his right to express himself? - Robert Green Ingersoll, "The Limitations of Toleration"


Alan said...


Good post. I followed your link from you comment on Rationally Speaking.

I like the Paine reference. I had not read that one before.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I think that in order for this perception to work, you necessarily have to ignore the following:

~Many Muslim leaders and Muslim communities have condemned the riots, including clerics in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iran. These condemnations rarely, if ever, make it to the mainstream press.
~The rioters represent roughly 1.1% of the 1 billion Muslims who live in the world today. They do not even really represent Muslims who live in Denmark, as most of the riots are taking place in fundamentalist-run nations.
~Danish Muslims have run legal protests, including peaceful protests and petitions, since the cartoons were originally printed in September. The recent riots have only started in earnest after of the cartoons' reprinting across Europe, and the refusal of the Danish Prime Minister to offer anything resembling an apology. Actions like Iran's trade sanctions against Denmark were in response to the PM's refusal to speak to anyone representing a Muslim-dominated nation.
~The newspaper which originally printed the cartoons is well known to be a shill for the conservative Prime Minister, and is comparable in its message to the Moonie Times of the United States. The paper has printed anti-Muslim sentiments for a long, long time. The Norwegian newspapers that reprinted the cartoons were both fronts for right-wing Christian organizations, and presented the cartoons as serious political commentary.
~Muslims in Europe are a traditionally oppressed group. They have little recourse to the law, because it is acceptable to simply ignore them. When any group is marginalized, ignored, and ousted, violence is inevitable.

The violence which has happened is, of course, contemptible, and the rioters need to be arrested and prosecuted. But anyone who simply writes this off as "freedom of speech" and nothing else is ignoring the various complexities of the situation. There's a lot more to it than "innocent newspaper prints cartoons, and Muslims freak out and blow things up".

Hume's Ghost said...

I don't think the idea that free speech should not be compromised to appease religious sensibility has anything to do with those things. My post was specifically responding to the violent protestors who intend to silence criticism of Islam through intimidation ... them being a minority of the Muslim population does not change the fact that their behavior in intolerable, as you noted when you said they should be arrested and prosecuted.

I don't think that European oprression of Muslims is an adequate explanation for this sort of behavior. First, the riots have broken out in Muslim countries - Denmark isn't oppressing anyone in Syria. Secondly,the Netherlands is one of the most tolerant and accomodating nations in the world, yet Hirsi Ali has to live under 24 hour police protection to avoid the fate of Theo Van Gogh who was killed for making a film critical of Islam based on a script written by Ali. Having had her skull cracked as a child for failing to properly memorize verses of the Koran, surely she has earned the right to speak critically of the faith she was raised with.

What is at the root of the violence is religious intolerance, intolerance which is not inspired by marginalization or oppression. One need only look through history to see example of religion, when in power, using force to enforce orthodoxy on others.