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The Age of Mockery

Although the initial riots and flare-ups of violence over the “Innocence of Muslims” video were over a month ago, the global battle over blasphemy laws is still raging. In London this week, thousands of Muslim marchers assembled outside Google’s U.K. headquarters to demand the banning of ideas that offend them:

Organiser Masoud Alam said: “Our next protest will be at the offices of Google and YouTube across the world. We are looking to ban this film.

“This is not freedom of expression, there is a limit for that. This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed.”

…Barricades were erected in front of Google’s headquarters and a crowd bearing placards with the words “We love our prophet more than our lives” and “Prophet Muhammad is the founder of freedom of speech” had amassed by lunchtime.

One would think that, if Muhammad was the founder of freedom of speech, Muslims would be in favor of it, since they believe that their prophet’s life is an example to be emulated. But I suspect the speaker meant this in a very different way. He probably meant to imply that Muhammad invented freedom of speech and therefore Islam holds the copyright on it, so to speak, and can decide by fiat what speech acts it does or doesn’t permit.

Notwithstanding the ridiculous, laughably arrogant demand that some Muslims be allowed to dictate what other people can say about Islam, even more hilarious was this:

One of the speakers, Sheikh Faiz Al-Aqtab Siddiqui, told The Daily Telegraph: “Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.

Unless he’s claiming that the filmmakers personally came to the houses of 1.6 billion Muslims, harassed them, threatened them, and forced them to watch the video (which, for the record, I would oppose), what this sheikh must be saying is that mere knowledge of this video’s existence is terrifying and upsetting to Muslims – all Muslims, since he claims to speak on behalf of every single one of them. Is this the mark of a great religion or a proud civilization, that it’s terrorized by the abstract concept of disagreement?

The marchers lamented that we live in an “age of mockery”, and I agree that this is true, in the sense that the leveling power of the Web allows any person on Earth to bypass the gatekeepers and create a message that will be seen by millions. For better or for worse, no viewpoint can truly be silenced anymore.

And even if crude, provocative, or prejudiced messages are the price we pay, this is a very good thing overall: it means that the dispossessed, the disempowered, the marginalized can speak and be heard as never before, making it that much easier to call everyone’s attention to entrenched prejudice or overlooked truth. And yes, this includes the power to mock, satirize, and ridicule. This is as it should be, since ridicule is a potent weapon in the battle for social change.

What surprises me is that Islam’s would-be censors don’t seem to recognize that they’re fighting an unwinnable battle. Even if they persuaded Google to take down the video – which Google, to its credit, has refused to do – what then? Would that stop anyone from seeing it? Of course not: it would just spread to other video-sharing sites, and the inevitable backlash against censorship would just make it even more popular and more widely distributed. And even if they somehow got the video taken down everywhere, what then? What would stop the next would-be blasphemer? Will the world’s imams organize marches of tens of thousands every time anyone anywhere in the world creates a new video, podcast or blog post that they consider offensive? It’s sheerly impossible.

As I’ve said before, the energy and the vigor of protests like these could be a powerful tool for good if it was turned to the right ends. But as long as they squander their time and their reputation with the futile demand to be appointed the speech police of the world, all they’re doing is wasting their time and damaging their reputation. If Islam ever wants to join the modern world, its adherents have to accept that they won’t be exempted from criticism. Mockery and debate is the inescapable cost of having a democracy like the ones so many Muslim people in the Middle East are fighting for.

Image credit: Basil D. Soufi, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

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