Is it ok to criticise Islam?

At what point does mocking someone’s beliefs become an attack on those who hold them? 

William Eichler
23 August 2015

Credit: All rights reserved.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which twelve members of the satirical magazine’s staff were murdered by Islamist gunmen, the mantra “Je suis Charlie” rapidly circulated around the globe. As is often the case in these situations, it wasn’t long before this mantra had congealed into a symbol of self-righteousness—an opportunity for “virtue signalling” by image conscious social media users. But the initial spark behind this message—the original meaning that seemed to evaporate through its endless reproduction—was important: solidarity should be shown with those who are murdered for mocking a religion.

However, not everyone was Charlie. Before the smoke had settled the publication had been branded a modern day Der Sturmer, an insensitive and racist publication whose raison d’etre was to mock marginalised communities. This dispute was a replay of one that often occurs after an attack of this kind. Essentially, it hinges on the following question: when does legitimate criticism of Islam become Islamophobia? Or to put it another way: at what point does criticising or even mocking someone’s beliefs become an attack on those who hold them?

The contours of this debate began to form a quarter of a century ago. In the closing years of the 1980s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his satirical novel, The Satanic Verses. The author’s ‘crime’ had been to write about the birth of Islam in a way that was seen as impious by some Muslims, and the Ayatollah decided it would be politically convenient to take offence. During the aftermath of what became known as the “Rushdie Affair,” a division opened up within the ranks of the left that remains to this day: some people defend the author in the name of free speech, while others criticise him for being insensitive—or what in today’s lexicon might be called “Islamophobic.”

In Joseph Anton, his memoir of the period, Rushdie provides a decidedly Manichaean characterisation of this rift. “He thought often,” he writes, using the third person, “that the crisis was like an intense light shining down on everyone’s choices and deeds, creating a world without shadows, a stark unequivocal place of right and wrong action...In that harsh glare some publishers looked heroic while others looked spineless.” Those who support him, he claims, are defending free speech, and those who criticise him for being “offensive” are turning their backs on this most fundamental of democratic rights. 

This is the argument made by many free speech advocates in other, similar situations. From this perspective the choice is clear cut: you are either for free speech or against it. There is no grey area in Rushdie’s “world without shadows.” Therefore, it is imperative to line up behind publications such as Charlie Hebdo or the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten when they caricature and mock the Prophet Muhammad. Controversialists like these are the lifeblood of an open society, and if Islam is ring-fenced from criticism then the very fabric of democracy will unravel, beginning with everyone’s right to say exactly what they want.

Underlying this line of thought is a straightforward assumption: Islam is a religion, a set of beliefs and ideas that can be freely adopted or rejected at will (unlike, say, membership of a racial group). It is, therefore, a legitimate target for criticism. Invoking the Enlightenment, the left-leaning absolutists of free speech condemn those who are reluctant to take Islam to task as ‘postmodernists’ in hock to a vapid cultural relativism. Like any other religion, Islam should be subjected to scrutiny. To hold back through fear of offending others is self-censorship. In Rushdie’s words, it’s “spineless.”

Behind this rhetoric is a reasonable argument. Free expression should always be defended, particularly when the pen is silenced by the Kalashnikov. Moreover, to refrain from criticising or even lampooning Islam would be to select one group of people and raise them above the fray of open debate. This would be patronizing to Muslims, and it would do them, as well as the wider society, a disservice. Nobody benefits from silence. 

It’s also important to note another sturdy plank in the free speech argument: vulnerable minorities have their own vulnerable minorities. No religious, ethnic or national group is homogenous, and hierarchical relations of power exist within communities as well as between them.  By refusing to challenge the dominant ideas of a particular group, there’s a risk that the group will be essentialized. In the process, internal minorities or individual members of the group will be isolated. 

But for all its strengths, the free speech argument is a misleading way of framing this debate. By conceptualising the issue solely in terms of ‘free speech’ and then presenting it as an either/or choice, this approach actually obscures the real issues at stake. Most of those who criticise Charlie Hebdo and other such publications do not dispute their right to speak freely: they are more concerned with the meaning of their words and the context in which they are spoken.

Speech always takes place within a context. Articles, cartoons and films are all embedded within a particular time and place. Behind each and every cultural product is a world of meaning constituted by the historical and socio-political context within which it is produced. And the manner in which it is received is shaped by this same context. Pre-fatwa Rushdie made this very point: “Works of art, even works of entertainment do not come into being in a social and political vacuum…the way they operate in a society cannot be separated from politics, from history. For every text, a context.”

What is the context of much of the criticism and satire that is levelled at Islam and Muslims today? Islamophobia from the far (and not so far) right; a “War on Terror” discourse that frames all Muslims as potential killers; the catastrophic invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; and violent, political upheaval throughout the Middle East. Against this  backdrop it’s little wonder that many Muslims don’t feel like laughing at caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad or engaging in discussions about the flaws in their faith.

Many free speech advocates characterise this stance pejoratively as a “Yes, but…” argument—a pusillanimous defence of basic democratic values that cedes too much ground to terrorists. But this is nonsense buoyed up by macho rhetoric. The dispute is not about free speech, and to hunker down behind abstract principles while refusing to deal with the world as it actually exists is to opt for cheap moralising at the expense of rigorous analysis. This is what Rousseau meant when he wrote that, “Those who desire to separate politics from morals will understand neither.”

Free speech is a principle worth defending, and it should certainly be protected from theocratic thugs with guns as well as from anyone else who wants to curtail it. I’m happy to declare “Je suis Charlie” myself, no matter how tired a slogan it might sound. Nobody should be killed for drawing cartoons. But in order to show commitment to slain satirists and the inviolability of free expression, we don’t have to ignore the concerns of those at whom the satire is aimed.

There is nothing wrong with complexity. The world is full of ‘shadows’ and shades of grey that cannot be ignored. It is not morally weak to say ‘Yes, but I am also concerned about how free speech is used.’ In fact, this position is both intellectually and ethically stronger and more rigorous than a simple declaration of ‘Yes, I believe in free speech’ that’s followed by a hollow silence. Caveats don’t weaken a moral stance—they make the arguments that underpin it even stronger.

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