We’ve been discussing Islam a lot on this blog in the past few days, and much to my amusement, I’ve seen two different commenters promoting diametrically opposite distortions of my position. One says that I’m a left-wing Israel-hater who has a soft spot for Muslim violence, the other that I’m a right-wing Islamophobe spouting reflexive anti-Muslim prejudice. Seriously, don’t you love this? I never fail to get a good laugh from the ignorant people who are ready to leap to conclusions about a person’s entire worldview without even bothering to double-check. (This seems to keep happening to us New Atheists, like when we’re simultaneously accused of being amoral, pessimistic nihilistsand also dangerously over-optimistic utopian zealots.)
Since the topic keeps coming up, I thought it would be good to address it by writing a post that can be used for future reference. So, are you ready to hear my real views on Islam and Muslims? Here goes: I believe Muslims should have exactly the same rights as other people.
This seems to me like an impossibly bland statement, but apparently it sets me apart for one reason or another from various parties in this debate. Perhaps if I go into more detail about what this means, we’ll be able to better see where the disagreement lies.
So, I don’t believe Muslims should have fewer rights than anyone else: I don’t believe they should be the targets of violence or prejudice, that they should be under police surveillance without reasonable suspicion, that they should be imprisoned without a fair trial, or that they should be denied the right to speak in public or participate in public life. I believe they should have the same right to freely practice, preach, and proselytize for their own religion as everyone else does.
I also don’t believe that they should have more rights than anyone else: I don’t believe they should have any special legal protection from being criticized or offended, or that they should be able to censor the speech of non-Muslims, or that it should be a crime to do things, like drawing Mohammed, that Islam considers impermissible for purely religious reasons. I don’t believe they should have special courts that issue binding rulings in civil cases based on Islamic law, or special communities where their law governs and not the civil law. I don’t believe Islam should receive any preferential treatment by the government.
If this makes sense, then I hope it explains why I’ve taken the positions I have. I sided with those decrying the right-wing protest campaign against All-American Muslim, on the grounds that the people behind it said that their goal was to prevent positive depictions of Islam from being shown in the media. I’m also in favor of a legal investigation into why the NYPD was showing an anti-Islam film called “The Third Jihad”: the government shouldn’t single out any religion for suspicion or disfavored treatment, much less give credence to a ridiculous allegation that all Muslims are engaged in a vast and secret conspiracy to overthrow American democracy.
But on the other side of the equation, I’m furious at the Indian government giving in to the demands of violent zealots and keeping Salman Rushdie away from the Jaipur Literary Festival. They threatened to prosecute authors for reading from his book in solidarity; the festival organizers even canceled a video link for Rushdie to speak over, thanks to Muslims who said they would riot if they even saw his face. (Take a moment to appreciate the irony: Salman Rushdie and Mohammed appear to be the only two people Muslims consider “undepictables”…) I’m equally angry at the thought police in University College London, who are trying to figure out how to punish an atheist group for showing a cartoon of Mohammed on their Facebook page, absurdly grouping this together with an incident of violent anti-Semitism.
It’s important to note that I don’t recognize a “right not to be offended”, neither for Muslims nor for anyone else. This is intolerable and unworkable in a pluralistic society, because legal protection from offense is inherently zero-sum. It’s impossible for everyone to have this protection: as long as there are different religions and cultures with different beliefs and practices, some people’s ideas are bound to offend others. And when two dueling sets of convictions clash with each other, the question of whose offense trumps the other’s is undecidable. (Note, however, that the situation is very different when one side is supported by the government. That’s why I support secularism and equal protection under the law, but not protection from being criticized or ridiculed by private parties.)
For instance, I find the disparagement of women and GLBT people under fundamentalism – not just Islam, but any fundamentalist religion – to be incredibly offensive. To shelter me from that offense, we’d have to forbid reading significant chunks of the Bible, the Qur’an, and other religious books. Obviously, no democratic society would ever take this step. And that’s fine! I’m not asking them to. I’m sure those fundamentalists find my atheism to be equally offensive, and I’m happy to meet them on the battleground of ideas so we can see whose arguments are more persuasive. But I’ll never tolerate people who try to decide the matter through intimidation, force or declaration of law. Whether they’re pro-Islam or anti-Islam, it’s equally unacceptable in a free society.