Sunday 22 July 2007

Religion cannot demand 'respect'

Karen Armstrong is concerned about the west's apparent inability to 'tolerate Islam'. Although she begins her article in yesterday's Guardian with some light criticism of Muslims who fail to support freedom of expression, she only gets into her stride when she turns to the 'double standards' of western liberals, starting with those responsible for the Danish cartoons:

But equally the cartoonists and their publishers, who seemed impervious to Muslim sensibilities, failed to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others. Islamophobia should be as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice.

One wonders in what sense the cartoonists failed to live up to 'liberal values', of which free speech is surely the most important. (On the other hand those who opposed, often violently, the publication of the cartoons were certainly deficient in their understanding of those values.) The second half of Armstrong's sentence enlightens us, since she appears to understand free speech as implying 'respect' for other people's opinions. As Norm says:

No, it doesn't. Otherwise I should have to respect the opinion that suicide bombing directed against civilian bus and train passengers is sometimes justified, and the opinion that torture is an acceptable practice in a civilized country. I don't.

Armstrong is perhaps referring to the way in which free speech laws are often hedged around with prohibitions on speech that encourages hatred or violence: in which case, once again, it was the protestors against the cartoons who were guilty of this infringement. Notice too, how in Armstrong's formulation 'respect' is by implication a one-way street: society has to respect the opinions of religious groups, however outlandish, but there is no mention of a reciprocal duty on the part of religious groups to respect liberal values, such as freedom of expression.

Armstrong's next move is to declare those responsible for the cartoons guilty of 'Islamophobia', without any supporting evidence. Assuming for the moment that the term has some intellectual coherence, and can be taken to mean a general hostility to a particular religion: does a humorous portrayal of Mohammed justify this drastic labelling? Only if Ray Allen, the makers of Father Ted, and the team behind The Life of Brian are to be accused of 'Christianophobia' - rather than the satire that is part-and-parcel of an open, liberal culture.

But is hostility to a set of ideas really on a par with 'any other form of prejudice', such as racism or sexism? Of course not. Otherwise we could label Armstrong, along with Madeleine Bunting and others of their ilk, 'secularophobes', and call for their regular Guardian columns, with their talk of 'Enlightenment fundamentalists' and 'aggressive secularists', to be banned so as not to offend (say) members of the National Secular Society.

Armstrong's next step is to create the impression that 'Islamophobia' is widespread and increasing, by generalising from a single recent incident:

When 255,000 members of the so-called "Christian community" signed a petition to prevent the building of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, east London, they sent a grim message to the Muslim world: western freedom of worship did not, apparently, apply to Islam.

Despite their apparent numbers, a petition by a bunch of bigoted Christians doesn't equate to a national climate of intolerance. I certainly have no time for this campaign, but isn't there at least a possibility that it wasn't hostile to Islam as such, but perhaps to the size of this particular mosque, or its proposed location, or even the sect behind the proposal (see my last post for more on this)? Does this single, local protest really send such a 'grim message', cancelling out the unrivalled freedom of belief and worship that Muslims and other religious groups enjoy in Britain (compared with, say, the daily threats to Christians in majority-Muslim countries such as Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia)?

Thus Armstrong creates a straw man of pervasive intolerance towards Islam out of a few cartoons and localised inter-religious tensions, and in so doing attempts to fuel a spurious sense of victimhood. In her final paragraph, she couples this with an implied threat:

Gallup found there was as yet no blind hatred of the west in Muslim countries; only 8% of respondents condoned the 9/11 atrocities. But this could change if the extremists persuade the young that the west is bent on the destruction of their religion. When Gallup asked what the west could do to improve relations, most Muslims replied unhesitatingly that western countries must show greater respect for Islam, placing this ahead of economic aid and non-interference in their domestic affairs. Our inability to tolerate Islam not only contradicts our western values; it could also become a major security risk.

Even Armstrong has to concede that the opinion polls undermine her argument, but it doesn't prevent her from doing her bit to fan the flames of fundamentalist rage against the west. Notice the menace in the demand that 'western countries must show greater respect for Islam'. The mention of a 'major security risk' in the last sentence makes it clear what she's talking about here.

As others have pointed out, the problem with trying to appease outraged fundamentalists is that they never run out of things to be angry about. Withdraw from Iraq, create a Palestinian homeland, introduce laws that give believers the right not to be 'offended', and they will find something else about which to feel aggrieved - our gay rights legislation, perhaps, or women's equality, or (as the recent failed bombings in London demonstrated) the way we allow people to enjoy themselves on a Friday night.

Of course religious beliefs should be tolerated (and the best guarantor of that tolerance is the secular constitutions of western liberal democracies), but demands for 'respect' from those who themselves show little tolerance for liberal values should be met not with submission but with vigorous argument.

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