Islam, Liberal Fundamentalism and limits of free speech.

We have not sent thee (Muhammad) except as a mercy to all nations. (Quran, 21: 107)

I have studied him the wonderful man, and in my opinion far from being an anti-christ, he must be called the saviour of humanity. I believe that if a man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in solving the problems in a way that would bring it the much needed peace and happiness. Europe is beginning to be enamoured of the creed of Muhammad. In the next century it may go still further in recognizing the utility of that creed in solving its problems and it is in this sense that you must understand my prediction
(George Bernard Shaw)

The furore and anger that has predictably erupted since the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad in a violently distorted and derogatory manner have a striking parallel with the crisis created by the publication of the Satanic Verses over 15 years ago. Yet this time a mere rehearsal of arguments about the limits of free speech will not suffice; the context has drastically changed. The brutality of the illegal and immoral war in Iraq that has left at least 30,000 innocent civilians dead and countless more homeless and orphaned, taken together with the backdrop of military persecution meted out by the Israeli regime and the arbitrary incarceration of Muslims in Britain and America, has all left many Muslims with the feeling that they are the victims of an imperialistic policy hell bent on waging a war against Islam. The so called ‘moderates’ have been busy, until now, in trying to convince Muslims to be wary of conspiracy theories that do nothing but engender a condition of self-induced victimhood. Even they now would find it difficult to dismiss the mainstream perception as conspiratorial scaremongering.

Among the secular elite in the West there will those who will immediately interpret the reaction of Muslims world wide as evidence of the clash of civilisations thesis. Underpinning this view is the ethnocentric belief that because the Muslim world has yet to travel through the intellectual heights of Enlightenment rationalism, it is unable to deal with the cultural and political dynamics of the modern world that demand a form of secularity that has little place for a principled commitment to sacred and transcendental values. In fact identifying with any beliefs that are not rooted in a strictly materialistic view of the world are derided as anachronisms that reflect an intellectually deficient and altogether antediluvian mindset that is in desperate need of education. The unspoken assumption of all those that are champions of secular modernity, who see themselves as self-appointed guardians of the Enlightenment project, is that the Modern West embodies a civilisation that is culturally and politically superior to Islam.

Without having to undertake an intellectual tour de force to show how Islam is more than capable of defending itself against the charge of embodying an antiquated and defunct belief, an indirect way of exposing the fallacy of secular ideologues is by simply pointing to the abject failure of the Enlightenment project. The ruthlessly oppressive totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, whose utopian visions are indebted to the Enlightenment belief in the possibility of human reason to set humanity on a path of progress and perfection, have perpetrated human suffering on such a scale that the consequences are still being felt today. Fascism, Nazism and Communism are all secular modern ideologies. So much for the idea that abandoning religion per se will make the world a better place.

The irony of the idealistic Enlightenment faith in rationality is that it is beset by an essential irrationality: faith in the omnipotence of human reason in the face of its obvious limitations. The contemporary postmodernist backlash in literature, art and philosophy is a vociferous rejection of the fanciful idea that modern Western societies embody universal principles of civilisation and progress. Yet postmodernism has bequeathed its own set of intractable problems. Moral relativism, fractured identities, a loss of an overall framework of meaning and values have all contributed, in some form or another, to the disaffection, angst and sense of alienation that so many experience living in Western societies. The radical disintegration of the family unit has only compounded these problems further. One might be forgiven for wondering how this all ties in with the conflicts surrounding the publications of the cartoons. Its relevance cannot be overstated.

Whilst the Western media has been busy in selectively portraying the most sensationalist elements of the Muslim reaction, what has gone unnoticed is the brazen rhetoric of Liberal Fundamentalism. Secular liberal fundamentalists have all been lining up in a chorus of condemnation of the supposed disregard Muslims have for free speech, and have used the crisis to loudly extol all the virtues of secular liberal societies, and by implication, the decadence of all those that choose not to embrace the dogmatisms of secular liberal beliefs. Their confidence betrays a deeper psychological insecurity. The secular intelligentsia are only too aware of the disorientating effects of being caught in the middle of modernist beliefs in universal liberal values and the blatant obviousness of post-modern social realities – and not knowing where to turn. To assure themselves of the ‘essential truth’ of secular liberal values they have retreated into the comfortable orthodoxies of liberalism, because it is in the bosom of this political tradition that they gain certainty, meaning and identity, and regard a dissent from those values to be heretical, or even, to add an interesting ironic twist, sacrilegious. Thus Skidelsky makes the following astute observations:

“Liberalism is facing a crisis. This judgement may seem extreme; given the current confidence of liberal rhetoric….Yet the recent upsurge of confidence hides a deeper anxiety. We proclaim to the world the values of equality, liberty and toleration, but we have no idea on what authority we proclaim them. The older liberalism has no anxieties on this account. It derived its principles either from Christian tradition or else from the supposed attributes of human nature. Both these sources of justification have fallen into disrepute….Thus rights are no longer deduced, either theologically or philosophically. They are proclaimed. Fiat has replace d argument. Our faith in our own civilisation is without rational foundation. This accounts for the shrill, dogmatic tone of modern liberalism”

If this analysis is true, then ‘liberal fundamentalism’ is an entirely apposite term because it captures the condition of a civilisation that is increasingly unsure about what it actually stands for, hence the need to continually reiterate ad nauseum the supposed superiority of a Western way of life as a means of resolving this uncertainty. Alas, how illiberal liberals become when their liberal values are challenged. The more significant implication is that it is utterly inaccurate to characterise the conflict as being a battle between open-minded liberals and narrow-minded fundamentalists. What we really have is a case of competing fundamentalisms. The former characterisation inhibits us from asking more searching, serious and perennial questions about the validity of the different epistemic sources from which these different ways of life spring. It also, quiet unjustly, places the burden of proof on Muslims to justify their reaction by suggesting that the presumpt ion must always lie in favour of secular liberal beliefs. Liberals want to apparently engage in open and rational dialogue but one that is conducted exclusively on their own terms: a rather illiberal position by any account!

Instead of assuming that the most rational question to ask is how we should maximise free _expression, perhaps it is worth considering whether a question about protecting the sanctity of religious identity is equally, if not more, rationally valid. Muslims and secular liberals will begin by asking different questions because they are rooted in different cultural and moral contexts that demand and initiate divergent trajectories of moral consideration. The real issue at stake is how to construct an environment that will facilitate a respectful, albeit critical exchange between different ways of thinking that allows for the articulation of difficult and vexing questions, without leading to a situation where one culture feels the need to deliberately denigrate the other. The challenge is how to break down the barriers of mutual incomprehensibility. Aside from gross insensitivity to the religious sensibilities of one billion people, this is on e of the reasons why the publication of cartoons that deliberately vilify and mock the character of the Prophet Mohammad are an unforgivable crime: they have exacerbated mutual mistrust and even hatred between two great civilisations. The vituperative scorn and prejudicial propaganda that is pouring out from both sides of the cultural divide, that may lead to yet more mutual resentment is too high a price to pay for the infantile irrationalities of a cartoonist. This naturally brings us to the question of the raison d’etre for free _expression.

J S Mill’s seminal work On Liberty is cited by many secular liberals in support of the indispensability of free speech to a liberal democratic society. Although the inadequacies of Mill’s arguments are well known to anyone familiar with modern political theory, it is important to briefly reconsider them in the context of the current crisis. Mill has essentially two strands of argument for the contention that free speech/_expression should be unrestricted. The first line of justification is an epistemological account of the provisional and tentative nature of human knowledge. The form of the second line of justification is a utilitarian evaluation of the benefits unrestricted free speech brings to individuals and society as a whole. Both strands are inextricably intertwined in the actual text but the delineation into two separate forms of justification helps to bring clarity and focus to a complex matter.

Mill asserts that no single individual can claim a monopoly of truth since this would require an unjustifiable presumption of infallibility. Since such a presumption is rationally untenable we have no right to restrict the public _expression of views that run contrary to our own- no matter how extreme they might appear to be. In essence, there is no absolute finality in human knowledge and understanding of reality: to suppress any points of view therefore is to implicitly claim an omniscient grasp of reality. Mill’s argument appears to make a lot sense, at least superficially. The problem is that it falls prey to the very premise that is used to establish it. If all knowledge is indeed limited and inconclusive then (the statement that asserts this) must recognise that its view of human knowledge is also partial and limited, in which case it cannot take its own view as some kind of incontrovertible truth. The incoherence of Mill’s relativistic theory of knowledge evidently does not provide a credible basis for unrestricted freedom of speech. After all, if there is no final truth, then how can Mill be so certain and know that there is no absolute truth that is embodied by the doctrines of a particular religion, ideology or philosophy?

The utilitarian argument for free speech again has a superficial appeal but suffers from a naïve romanticism about human nature as well as being empirically false on a number of crucial points. Free speech is suppose to engender enlightened understanding by transforming a mass of conflicting views into a qualitatively enhanced perception of reality- although the ultimate truth will forever remain elusive. The ‘truth’, or the most plausible argument, will emerge triumphant in a market place of ideas. Moral and social progress will also be given an important stimulus by unrestricted freedom of speech as well helping individuals attain a sense of well-being. History simply does not bear Mill out.

The ‘truth’ seldom emerges out of an unrestricted collision of contradictory ideas. Arguments hold sway over the masses not because of their rational superiority or logical pristineness but often because one side has more effective tools of propaganda and is more adept at psychological manipulation. Rhetorical sophistication and oratorical skill sometimes play a disproportionately greater role in ‘proving’ a point of view than the actual substance of the ideas. In an age saturated by media imagery, armed by people trained in the art of manipulating human perception, there is every reason to believe that style can prevail over substance. The war in Iraq is a case in point. Added to this is the fact that people’s views about science, morality, religion and politics are scarcely founded on logical impeccability or rational deduction; prejudice, cultural conditioning, emotion and instinct, (a host of non-rational factors), are in the last instance what often settles an argument. One only has to consider the ability of the Nazi regime to exploit the insecurities of the German people and seduce them into a willingness to die for a heinous ideology. The implications for freedom of speech are profound. Extremist ideologies that preach racism, sexism or an irrational hatred of a religion could quite justifiably be restricted on the grounds that they a likely to lead to the demonisation of certain groups. It is no good appealing to the rationality of people in the belief that individuals can see through erroneous ideas; history shows that this is not always true. Mill’s faith in human rationality is fundamentally misplaced.

It is in this context that the publication of the cartoons is also unjustified. They are likely to add to the growing prejudice and new wave of McCarthyism that is unfairly treating Muslims as nothing other than potential if not actual terrorists. It is the responsibility of people in power to ensure that any content that is deliberately designed to demean and debase any race, sex or religion is not given a public hearing. If atheists such as Richard Dawkins can demand that creationism should not be taught in schools because it is plainly wrong and can lead to a potentially dangerous form of indoctrination, (a genuinely contentious matter-clearly he doesn’t believe that the ‘correct’ view will naturally gain ascendancy), then why cannot Muslims demand that outrageously distorted portrayals of the Prophet Mohammad be censored because of the genuine possibility of it fuelling the increasing antagonism and prejudice against Muslims?

Secular liberals have been predictably inconsistent in their approach towards free speech. Boris Johnson, the editor of the Spectator magazine and a Conservative MP, typified the inconsistency in his interview on Radio 4 where he passionately argued for the right of newspapers to publish the cartoons. But one is apt to ask why his commitment to free speech deserted him when he made a public apology to Liverpoolians for allowing the publication of an article in the Spectator that effectively mocked the reaction of people in Liverpool to the beheading of Ken Bigley in Iraq. If he really does believe in free speech, then why the public apology? As the editor of the magazine he should have stood by the decision on the grounds that journalists have a right to free speech. Clearly for Boris Johnson the sentiments of the people in Liverpool are more sacred and important than the religious sensitivities of one billion Muslims. In either case the approach is typically inconsistent.

The government or perhaps Tony Blair in particular, also cannot escape this charge. Glen Hoddle, the one time manager of the English football team, openly stated his belief in reincarnation in reference to the idea that disabled people are born into their condition because of sins committed in a previous life. In an interview with David Frost, Tony Blair criticised Glen Hoddle and considered his position as the English manager to be indefensible. Joined by ritualistic condemnations from almost all quarters of the media Hoddle finally lost his job. Why did Hoddle have to lose his job just because he exercised freedom of speech? The offence it caused disabled people was considered sacrilegious. Blair has not seen it fit to condemn the cartoons in the same vein.

Arguably the most potent example of inconsistency is the attitude secular liberals take towards the question of Holocaust denial. The history of the Holocaust quite understandably has a powerful influence on contemporary Jewish identity and those that choose to deny the massacre of the Jewish people have little regard for historical evidence. Yet if free speech is about the right to proclaim one’s views as opposed to the veracity of one’s beliefs, it is inconsistent for secular liberals to demand that people like the controversial historian Dr Irving, infamous for his denial of the holocaust, be denied a public platform to propagate his views. Countries such as Austria have effectively sacrilised the memory of the holocaust and turned into an official doctrinal orthodoxy, much like a theocratic might do with a religious belief, by making it illegal to deny the holocaust. It is a state enforced doctrine from which dissent is not tolerated. Self-proclaimed lovers of free speech are conspicuously silent when it comes to restricting the free speech of individuals who wish to take an idiosyncratic view of history.

If the memory of the holocaust has a sacred status in some countries without creating an outbreak of liberal outrage, indeed the measure is actively endorsed by people who would feel perfectly content in defining themselves as secular liberals, then it appears to be equally legitimate for Muslims to demand that their sense of self-identity and sacredness should not be publicly defiled. An insouciant act of publicly insulting and humiliating the character of Mohammad amounts to nothing less. In fact the Muslim demand is far more moderate; they are not arguing that history should become enshrined as unquestionable truth, but only that disagreements be expressed according to etiquettes that respect the importance and seriousness of critical cross-cultural dialogue.

Mill’s view that unrestricted freedom of speech is a motor for social and moral progress can be given little credence for precisely the same reasons that exist for doubting the inevitable triumph of truth in a marketplace of ideas. If we have no guarantee that truth will naturally emerge in this way then we certainly have no assurance that it will generate social and moral progress. How we measure and recognise social and moral progress is an even more problematic question, particularly in the absence of agreed criteria. We need to search for an alternative rationale for freedom of _expression, one that will serve to define its value and by the same token, determine its limits.

Contrary to popular perceptions in the West Islam has never had a difficulty in engaging with communities with differing beliefs; this is partly due to the conviction in its own message, and also with the fact that a proper appreciation of Islamic theology necessitates an understanding and knowledge of Christian, Jewish and even pagan beliefs. Theological disputation and the free _expression that it presupposes it thus not alien to the Muslim psyche and historical experience as records of debates between medieval scholars of Islam and Christianity testify. The purpose of discursive engagement the Quran explains is to reach a ‘common ground’, to try and create a mutual understanding that results in recognition of the true reality of humankind, but if a common ground cannot be attained then Muslims are to declare and reiterate their convictions without the threat of compulsion. Muslims are commanded by the Quran to use wisdom and the most effective styles of discussion to make individuals more receptive to the divine message. Muslims are thus strictly forbidden from insulting Jews and Christians or from desecrating their places of worship as this is likely to hamper the task of creating a common ground. As the Quran states, ‘And do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation (Jews and Christians) otherwise than in a most kindly manner’ (29:46).

From this very brief account of Quranic guidance, it is possible to sketch out the contours of a rationale for free speech. Free speech can be justified on the grounds that it greatly enhances the possibility for mutual understanding between groups that hold different beliefs in order to facilitate the process of establishing a ‘common ground’. To the extent that this rationale is accepted it can also function as a limit on all forms of _expression that damage the possibility of mutual understanding. From this perspective the publication of the cartoons is actually a disservice to free _expression because it undermines the rationale that gives free _expression its value. All the cartoons have succeeded in doing is exacerbating a prevailing condition of mutual incomprehensibility and misunderstanding between Islam and the West, an outcome that could quite easily have been predicted. We have to s eriously question the value of a form of free _expression whose only outcome is likely to be the heightening of mutual antagonisms.

Muslims are not afraid of a critical dialogue with the West, or people taking issue with the doctrines of Islam. After all, no Muslim has called for the banning of works of non-Muslim orientalist scholars whose sole motivation often appears to be a desire to falsify Islam. Part of the frustration is the paucity of serious and honest candidates who want to engage in a sustained and meaningful exchange with Islamic culture. It is not the fact of having a critical dialogue with an agnostic Western audience that enrages Muslims but the manner in which the dialogue is conducted and the crude stereotypes that often infect it. In not wanting to lay open the charge of a purely partisan assessment of an issue that requires more extensive discussion, it is pertinent to end with a quote from the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle:

‘Our current hypothesis about Mohammad that he was a scheming impostor, a falsehood incarnate, that his religion a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to any one. The lies which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man was disgraceful to ourselves only. It is really time to dismiss all that’.

We have not sent thee (Muhammad) except as a mercy to all nations. (Quran, 21: 107)


One response

27 06 2008

Wassalaam aleikum:

This is an interesting article, and I think it is a good thing that you’ve pointed out the role of liberal fundamentalism and its attempts to undermine the Islamic deen. Indeed as a socially conservative man living in the United States, who studies all religions, and who also is a recently reverted Muslim, I am constantly under criticism from both the far left and the American “right”. When attacked by the left, they paint me as a reactionary mysoginist, homophobe, racist, or anti-semite. When attacked by the right, I’m painted as most of the same things (as the current Party Line goes), but also a terrorist sympathizer to top it off.

But I think (and others have pointed out), that it is not enough to use the terms “left” and “right”, nor “conservative” and “liberal” to describe today’s politics. Today’s American right, are in fact the direct ideological descendants of extreme leftist Trotskyist communists, which is why they place such a high value on secular humanist interpretations of human rights, and envision a “liberal democratic internationale” with America at the forefront. Meanwhile the “Left” really only seems to favor Islam because they’ve been told that Islam is at odds with Christianity. However, if we look at which European nations more staunchly oppose Islam, we will find that they are the ones in which socialism, homosexuality, hatred of religion, post-modern feminism, and many other social ills are present. On the other hand, the more genuinely conservative elements, both in the past and now, express an admiration for Islam (e.g. Julius Evola and Aleksandr Dugin).

Anyhow, thank you for this wonderful article. If you have time, I’d appreciate some comments at my own site,

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