Threat-Miminization and Ecumenical Demobilization

Religion divides people into categories in order to control them: believers (devotees of the ideology), infidels (nonbelievers or believers in something else), heretics (critics and reformers), sinners (rule breakers), blasphemers (insulters of gods and prophets), and apostates (faith-leavers). Appealing to nature, myth, and virtue, religion creates an order to the world—a master plan for those inside and outside its walls. It uses multiple strategies to separate people into categories of things and maintain its sway over the population. Tribal marking, indoctrination, violence, and shaming are just a few of these ways. These categories are features of a system of control that parallels other control systems, such as fascism, white supremacy, and the patriarchy.

Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh lies dead in the street

Examples of violence by Muslims as a means of control are numerous. In 1988, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was met with protests from Muslims in several countries and death threats were made against his person, compelling governments to place Rushdie under constant police protection. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated for his film Submission, the killer leaving a note on the knife pinned to van Gogh’s chest threatening Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of such works as Heretic and Infidel, and script writer for Submission, with death. Like Rushdie, Ali required constant police protection for many years. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting Muhammad, the result of a competition inspired by the withdrawal of a children’s book on the life of Muslim prophet out of fear of retaliation for transgressing Islam’s irrational aniconism. Upon the publication of the cartoons, violence erupted in many Muslim-majority countries and in the West, including attacks on the Danish and other European diplomatic missions. Christian churches and Christians were targeted with violence. In 2015, men raided the offices of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed a dozen people for publishing cartoons offensive to Muslims.

Massacre of cartoonists at at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, French satirical weekly magazine 

These killings represent a campaign of terror to impose Islamic blasphemy rules on secular society. The evidence of the success of the campaign is considerable. In 2009, Yale University Press published a Bowdlerized version of Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons That Shook the Worldabout the Jyllands-PostenMohammad cartoon competition that resulted (not from the competition, but from the offense Muslims took to it) in the deaths of dozens of persons with the cartoons expurgated. Readers could read about a controversy surrounding offensive cartoons but could not see for themselves the cartoons that causes the offense. Yale University Press removed not only the cartoons but other images of Muhammad, as well. As Christopher Hitchens noted in Slate in 2009, an illustration by “Gustave Doré of the passage in Dante’s Inferno that shows Mohammed being disemboweled in hell” was removed. “These same Dantean stanzas,” Hitchens warns, “have also been depicted by William Blake, Sandro Botticelli, Salvador Dalí, and Auguste Rodin, so there’s a lot of artistic censorship in our future if this sort of thing is allowed to set a precedent.”

Another method of control is the expansion of law punishing criticism of Islam and Muslims. Strict control over thought and expression has already been achieved in many Muslim-majority countries through the imposition of the law. But this is not good enough. On September 28, 2012, Reuters reported that “Muslim leaders were in unison at the United Nations arguing that the West was hiding behind its defense of freedom of speech and ignoring cultural sensitivities in the aftermath of anti-Islam slurs that have raised fears of a widening East-West cultural divide.” What had offended the Muslim community this time was a short film, Innocence of Muslims. The movie was associated with riots in many Muslim-majority countries, as well as in some Western countries, riots that included attacks on diplomatic missions. The Turkish Foreign Minister (Ahmet Davutoglu) said it was time to put an end to the protection of Islamophobia masquerading as the freedom to speak freely. “Unfortunately, Islamophobia has also become a new form of racism like anti-Semitism,” he said. “It can no longer be tolerated under the guise of freedom of expression.” President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, where more than a dozen people were killed in protests against the film, demanded insults to religion be criminalized. One after another, Muslim leaders delivered a version of this sentiment. Outside the UN building hundreds of protesters chanted, “there is no god but Allah.” One placard read: “Blaspheming my Prophet must be made a crime at the UN.”

It is one thing for a believer to hold himself accountable to the blasphemy rules of his religion, albeit it is problematic to suppose that it is appropriate for him to be held to such account by the others, but it is another thing altogether to hold to account a member of a free society for the rules of a belief system to which he does not subscribe. Nonetheless, western governments have becoming increasingly receptive to these demands. In 2008, the Canadian publication, MacLean’s, the nation’s leading newsweekly, was tried in the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal for an article, “The Future Belongs to Islam,” that argued that the rise of Islam threatened such western values as free thought and expression. The court held that the article was “destructive,” “intolerant,” and “xenophobic,” but dismissed the case on the grounds that that it did not have jurisdiction over published material. That admission does not negate the fact that the Tribunal brought a case against a newsweekly for publishing a critique of religion in the first place. It does, however, highlight the irony of potentially punishing journalists for writing stories critical of an ideology that punishes journalists. In 2008, The New York Timesreported that Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, was fined $23,000 in a French court for provoking racial hatred by criticizing a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep. In spring of 2017, the Canadian parliament debated an “anti-Islamophobia” motion, M-103, sponsored by liberal MP Iqra Khalid. Conservative MPs raised an objection over the focus on the term “Islamophobia” (which was conflated with “systemic racism” in the measure) noting that it could be interpreted to include criticisms of Islam. Human rights expert and former Liberal Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, advised Khalid to strike the word “Islamophobia.” Khalid said she was unwilling to “water down” her motion. The measure passed down party lines. Tarek Fatah, Canadian secular and liberal activist and founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, noted that right-wing Islamic groups in Canada celebrated Khalid’s measure as a victory for the movement. Popular TV host Asif Javaid argued that the measure echoed the agenda of Islamists and Islamic extremists in North America who advance the international Muslim Brotherhood agenda to silence any criticism of Islam.

Remains of the World Trade Center

On February 26, 1993, bombing the World Trade Center in New York City, Muslims killed six and injured more than a thousand people. On September 11, 2001, in yet a second attack on the World Trade Center, Muslims killed 2,996 people and wounded more than 6,000 others. On November 5, 2009, at Fort Hoot, near Killeen, Texas, a Muslim killed 13 people and injured more than 30 others. On December 2, 2015, at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California, two Muslims killed 14 people and injured 22 others. On June 12, 2016, in a Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a Muslim killed 49 people and wounded 58 others. Taking just these five incidents from a universe of incidents of Muslim violence, and focusing only on the United States, Muslims have killed 3,078 persons and injured more than 7,000 people, mostly civilians, but also military personnel, police officers, firefighters, and rescue workers. These incidents were not random attacks. They were inspired by the ideology of Islam. They were not, as President Obama suggested when he said the San Bernardino shooters embraced a “perverted version of Islam,” contrary to the actions of Muhammad or the spirit of the islamic doctrine. They were inspired by his example. As I wrote in Assert Your Right to Tell the Truth:

Muhammad was a warlord who sought to spread the doctrine of Islam through subjugation of surrounding populations. Like Muhammad, Muslims spread Islam wherever they live and migrate, encouraging others to become devout believers, and hoping that, one day, sharia will be the law of the land and that all people, whatever their religion, will have to submit to that law and pay tribute to the Islamic state. The end goal is to see the entire world under the rule of Islam. Not all Muslims believe such things. But hundreds of millions of Muslims do. Just as hundreds of millions of Christians desire global Christian hegemony (but with Jesus meek and mild, not Muhammad the warlord). Islam is the fastest growing ideology in the world, presenting a unique threat.

It was in this context that future president Donald Trump called for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He was criticized for this by the usual suspects—the White House, the Pentagon, the United Nations, as well as British Prime Minister David Cameron and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (the Blarist Socialist Party member who endorsed Emmanuel Macron after pledging to support the Socialist candidate). But other Republican presidential candidates responded to the San Bernardino in a manner that echoed Trump’s frustration. Chris Christie argued that “this is a new world war and one that won’t look like the last two. And this is one where it’s radical Islamic jihadists everyday are trying to kill Americans and disrupt and destroy our way of life.” Jeb Bush: “If this is a war, and I believe it is since they have declared war on us, we need to declare war on them.” It struck me at the time that this was the right spirit to express. If our way of life was being threatened in this serious of a manner, a range of responses should at least get a hearing. The political left was horrified that anybody should express ill will towards a pet ideology they had relied upon to signal tolerance and their progressive ecumenical bona fides (you’ve seen the bumperstickers). After all, Muslim women look so exotic.

These events point to the problem of defining irreligious criticism—a crucial element in the creation of liberal secular societies based on scientific reason and human rights—as bigotry, let alone racism. The laws and conventions that are being extended to the case of religious criticism and mockery, whether one thinks they go too far or not far enough in their given domains, are based on a desire to marginalize fascist, racist, sexist, and homophobic speech—expressions deemed to strengthen the position of oppressive ideologies in society. Irreligious criticism is designed to do the opposite of this: to suppress oppressive ideologies, ideologies that seek to fracture the moral worth of human being in order to control populations for the sake of a few. In the case of their application to antitheism, such laws and conventions intend to stifle criticism of an oppressive ideology by lumping irreligious speech with hate speech. This is the reverse of what hate speech laws are designed to do.

Crucially, the inclusion of irreligious criticism in hate speech laws is not aimed at protecting religion generally. Nobody who seeks to shield Islam and Muslims from criticism and ridicule is suggesting extending hate speech laws to include similar treatment of Christianity, a religion whose followers did not erupt in violence with the release of Monty Python’s 1979 satire Life of Brian. (Indeed, Mormons see the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, as a chance to peacefully proselytize.) It is an effort to suffocate popular resistance of the greatest threat to western civilization since National Socialism.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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