A few days ago I mentioned Will Crawley; just yesterday, his classmate (who also took Latin from him, if I recall correctly) David Efird emailed me to prod me to say something about the riots over cartoons.
I rather wish he hadn’t because I’m not sure I can say anything that won’t inflame or irritate people — but since I make a habit of talking in public about theological topics, and since David asked, willful silence would be a misguided response.
The murderous violence of the past week has taken place at the point where various powerful discourses converge. One such force is the matter of blasphemy, the willful derogation of transcendent truth. I believe in blasphemy — though not, of course, on the same terms as a Muslim brother or sister would — and I can see that deliberate blasphemy (as many will have some reason to regard the publication and republication of the cartoons in question) could constitute an affront so appalling as to incite demonstrations of outrage. I cannot imagine that outrage justifying the murder of people who were not directly involved in publishing the offensive matters, but that’s part of the point: if I were possessed by the obligation to suppress blasphemy, I might sense the need to target noncombatants (as it were) as collateral damage in a war against blasphemy. Other exercises of violence take civilian casualties, too.
On the other hand, the prerogative to express oneself freely constitutes a fundamental principle of Western liberal (in the technical sense, not the “votes for the Green Party” sense) democracies, indeed, of human rights (as those have come to be defined during a period of the ascendancy of Western liberal political thought). Nat Hentoff makes a good living as the nettlesome conscience of the First Amendment because people want so badly to make exceptions to free expression when it bothers them. That’the point of free expression, though — ideally, it doesn’t change its contours whenever cultural perceptions of “going too far” change. My revulsion at blasphemy is beside the point when confronted with a cartoonist’s free exercise of his derisive view of Islam’s prophet. My horror before the magnitude of the Shoah doesn’t constrain a Holocaust denier across the street at Northwestern University. That’s what makes free expression “free.”
(Parenthetically, my rejection of mob violence surpasses, but does not negate, my rejection of politicans’ simplistic, mealy-mouthed cautions that “free speech doesn’t mean ‘anything goes,’ that it carries with it a responsibility to circumspection.” No, that’s exactly what it doesn’t entail; “free expression” means that no constituency’s sensitivities constrain the expression of others. I just don’t think that Tom Paine, Voltaire, and Jefferson risked their lives in the name of speech limited by good etiquette. If you’re a President or a Prime Minister, stand up for the principles on which your political system rests. Consistently —as Ted Rall points out.)
So the urgency of suppressing blasphemy conflicts with the fundamental prerogative to free expression; you can’t have both. A number of Islamic leaders and their sympathizers opt for the former; a number of Western publishers opt for the latter. Add to that combustible conflict the political interests of some Near Eastern people who apparently have been using this occasion callously to inflame the frustrations and anxieties of their constituents, and of some crass Western hucksters who know that sensation sells.
The Western spokespeople are not innocent of coercing others to acknowledge “transcendent” values that these others may not otherwise be inclined to affirm. The Islamic spokespeople are not innocent of inciting the murder of Western bystanders.
So far as I can tell, this outrageous impasse illustrates a point Jean-François Lyotard makes about justice: that sometimes the criteria by which one frames a claim about justice already determine the judgment one will reach. Sometimes one can’t make a decision about justice without taking sides at the outset. If we frame the bloodshed in terms of free expression and the rights of the civilians murdered in the course of the outcry, one can submit that in order for people to live in peace with one another, we must endure others’ speech even when it’s radically offensive. If one frames the conflagration in terms of blasphemy, one can (I suppose) regretfully observe that people who don’t disentangle their lives from the irreligious, corrupt, anti-Islamic institutions of the West have already chosen the consequences of their decadence. (’m guessing at this; if I’m missing a nuance, I apologize, as my intent is to propose the most coherent, sympathetic rationale for the sponsors that I can — but my imagination for justifying mayhem suffers some limitations).
I rush to add that this predetermination is not a bad thing; it’s inevitable (we can never conduct a comprehensive assay of our account of justice, nor will we attain a condition of disinterestedness from which we can pronounce one account of justice “just” and another “unjust” without the coloration of our own presuppositions and inclinations. Such circumstances permit us to feel unreflective moral horror at behavior that offends our very understanding of truly human existence. Sadly, inevitably, different communities of people will encounter different patterns of behavior as repulsively sub-human. That doesn’t make all or any of them equal — but one’s angle of view on what’s right or wrong about them will predictably vary depending what one’s already committed to.
Under such circumstances, my own sense that God calls us to ways of nonviolence and non-coercion remains steady; indeed, it seems all the more urgent that disciples of Jesus abjure violent coercion (and heedless offensiveness), whatever the apparent rationale for violence. I am not a Muslim, and I do not think that Islam is a generically “equal” way of bespeaking the truth about God and the world — but I don’t expect Muslims to acknowledge Jesus as equal to the way that their Prophet taught them. Were I recklessly to insult Muslim brothers and sisters in the name of a truth that they don’t recognize, I’d be ignoring St. Paul’s specific instructions to live on the basis of honoring others peaceably, gently, enduring oppression rather than taking the risk of oppressing others. That (as I recall) was the way of the cross, to which Jesus instructed his disciples that all of us were called.
So I offer no apology for the rioters, though I see clearly why they might rage. I do not defend the publishers and cartoonists; they’re operating within the bounds they claim as inheritors of the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I excoriate the heartless tactical manipulation of the situation by self-interested sensation-mongers of whatever “side.” I will not shrink the exercise of my faith to fit the bounds of liberal polity, and “conservative” Christian commentators should be cautious about requiring that of others. The sword of the State cuts more ways than one.
If I were a non-Christian, non-pacifist American, I suppose I’d be advocating free speech; but I’m not. If I were a Muslim, heavens, I just can’t guess what I’be doing — but I’m not.
As I type this tinny response, I’ve been listening to Fela Kuti’s “Coffin For Head Of State,” which expresses an outraged condemnation of abusive violence that underscores the inadequacy of my own words. I’m not nominating him for sainthood, but I’m listening; and I hear the voice of someone who watched as [nominally] Christian and Muslim forces crushed out his mother’s life before his eyes. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”