One of the core values of liberalism is the notion of free speech, a notion which has a deep historical association with the freedom of conscience and worship. Indeed, secularism – and by secularism here, I mean the notion that each person should be free to follow the dictates of conscience – can and I believe should be seen as core to the development in the West of individual liberties. There are, of course, other secularisms, and even other strands in Western secularism that complicate application and adjudication of free speech and free worship.
A key facet in our notion of free speech, is that the free exchange of ideas is a form of a market. Rather than ban speech that is dangerous or offensive, we permit it, believing that it will have little currency in the larger market and, failing to gain purchase, will fade. Banning it, we believe, may allow it to fester – feeding it as the oppressed with the legitimacy it would drain from those who ban it.
So much of Enlightenment liberalism, of course, depends on a vision of us as rational actors capable of embracing a common good, and passion and sectarianism – what secularism meant to banish from the public sphere – frequently reveal our limitations and the blind spots in our confidence. Demagoguery has become a real danger in contemporary political discourse, and over the past few years, anti-Muslim demagoguery has become among the most visible expressions of it.
When Terry Jones threatened to burn the Koran on September 11 of last year as a public rebuke of Islam, it became an international media event, despite the fact that Jones is on the fringe of the fringe of hard-right Christianism and the leader of an almost laughably small church. The announcement inflamed many in Muslim communities and provoked widespread condemnation in the Western world. Jones eventually back down in the face of all this pressure.
At the time, many people, myself included, felt that Jones was well within his First Amendment rights to burn the Koran as a form of expression, vile that it may be. I still feel that way. But at the time, I felt that the media was giving him undue attention – that by hyperventilating over his threat, the impression given to the non-Western world is that Koran burning is a large concern and issue in Western public discourse. I don’t believe it is ever wise to determine a course of action largely on the basis of how extremist elements will interpret it, and that needn’t have been the thinking here. Instead, we seemed to be blowing the actions of one minor weirdo all out of proportion because of our concerns that it would allow Muslim extremists to do the same, libeling Western secular culture as irredeemably anti-Muslim.
I appears those of us who wanted the media to ignore Jones and his threats as insignificant and not having any real currency in the free market of ideas were wrong, or at least naïve. When Jones threatened to do it again this March, there was unbeknownst to the general public, a deliberate and active media blackout that refused to cover the event. So it came as a complete surprise to that public when Afghans rioted for several days in early April, resulting in dozens of death, most of them U.N. aid workers. Although only a few Americans were even aware of what had happened, it was not through a lack of effort on Jones’s part, and the story metastasized across the internet, appearing on the websites of Islamic extremists and the like until it became hyped by the perpetually embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, sparking the riots.
We can’t ban actions like Jones’s. We can’t, it would appear, simply ignore them and pretend that they won’t have an effect, because in our media and information saturated globe, they persist until they find their intended audience. Not unlike the Danish cartoon controversy: the satirical cartoon depictions of Mohammed in Jyllands-Posten inspired some local European reaction after their publication, but it took some time for them to come to the attention of the Muslim world, at which point they became a useful vehicle for inflammatory rhetoric. For Jones and his supporters, the riots prove the point they were setting out to make: their story reached its audience in the end, which were not so much the Muslims in the grip of extremist and violent rhetoric that set them upon the U.N. compounds, but us back in the U.S. Jones and Karzai alike point at the other and say to those whose support and attention they crave, “See. This is what we’re up against.”
I think that the only appropriate response, after the of course condemning Jones’s actions and the even more horrific actions of the Afghan mob, and the hope that there may be some justice for the violence, is a degree of resignation. Our lives will continue to affected by what Hasnain Kazim is calling the “clash of extremes,” militant demagogues on the Christian and the Islamic worlds attempting to gain power and influence by attacking the other side under the banner of an absolute truth. But neither are we completely powerless. These extremes threaten not only our safety but also the liberties of conscience secularism would guarantee, and in both cases it is that secularism that both extremes are at pains to eradicate, and secularism’s fragility, and the fragility of democracy, the expression of secularism in the political realm, in much of the non-Western world is a legitimate source of concern. If we can’t ignore the extremes, then we’ll have to face them, and talk about them. Confidence in the secular project may be the only best response.
Oddly enough, in reading the claims that Jones makes about the Koran in the rather silly mock trial his congregation put on to condemn it, what stands out are the great pains that the church goes through to damn the Koran and Islam on the basis of insufficient secularism. They write, “Islamic Law is totalitarian in nature. There is no separation of church and state. It is irrational. It is supposedly immutable and cannot be changed. It must be accepted without criticism. It has many similarities to Nazism, Communism and Fascism. It is not compatible with Western Civilization.” And then, “Islam is not compatible with democracy and human rights. The notion of a moral individual capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for them does not exist in Islam.” Is Islam incompatible with Western secularism? I’ll look at a few arguments of the arguments, from silly to serious, in part 2.