At a recent academic seminar, Swedish artist Lars Vilks was attacked by a Muslim student and forced to cease his presentation as the crowd angrily rushed the stage. His presentation, juxtaposing homoerotic images with Christian and Muslim images, was controversial and has aroused some interesting questions. See the video here.
First, it should be accepted that Muslims, or religious people generally, are not the only group to oppose, often violently, unpleasant images, ideas, or people. For instance, many Americans are proud of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which declares that Congress may make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, of of the press…”. Indeed, these “liberal principles” are what America was founded on!
What most people in America do not know is how this eloquent defense of civil liberties has been regularly ignored. The Alien and Sedition Acts criminalized “false, scandalous, and malicious” statements about government officials “with intent to bring them into disrepute”; for example, many people who criticized the policies of John Adams’s administration were arrested and sent to prison under this act.
The Supreme Court, at the time of the First World War, decided that freedom of speech could not be allowed if it created “a clear and present danger” to the nation. The court case in question was in reference to a man named Schenck, who had been imprisoned under the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to say or write things that would “discourage recruitment in the armed forces of the United States”.
World War Two brought even more repressive legislation in the form of the Smith Act, with made it a crime to “teach and advocate” the overthrow of the government by force and violence. During the war, eighteen members of the Socialist Workers Party in Minneapolis were given prison terms, not for specifically advocating the overthrow of the US government, but rather distributing literature like the Communist Manifesto; not to mention the more than 100,000 Japanese Americans who were put into detention camps simply because of their national origin.
Granted, the previous examples are during “war time” in the US. However, even during the Cold War (virtually a meaningless term at this point) an atmosphere of hysterical fear of communism led to loyalty oaths for government employees, imprisonment of men and women based on their political beliefs, and jail terms for anyone refusing to answer questions put to them by the House Committee on Un-American Activities about their political affiliations. Hostility towards free speech and free association is not limited to Muslims or Islam.
The question does remain though: Are Muslims incapable or unwilling to respect a diversity of opinion; especially when that opinion offends their particular beliefs? Furthermore, is there a “clash of civilizations” in Europe and increasingly in the US?
It has become fashionably common to portray Islam and the West (both monolithic and non-descriptive terms) as inherently opposed. Unfortunately, the general public in America and Europe view of Islam has become “news” of a particularly unpleasant sort. The media, governments, and academics are virtually in agreement: Islam is a threat to Western civilization.
First, the fact that democracy is quite absent from a large part of the Muslim world has been a talking point for many commentators in the West; however, this reality is grounded in history, economics, and politics; not in religion. Secular governments have existed in the Arab and Muslim world; Nasser in Egypt and Sukarno in Indonesia to name just two examples. Incidentally, the demise of a secular, largely popular, government in Indonesia under Sukarno disappeared because of US policy; mainly out of a misplaced fear of his communist leanings.
Iran’s brief democratic experiment in the early 1950s was rolled back by US/UK policy. Mohammad Mossadegh was democratically elected and immensely popular among Iranians; however, his economic policies- nationalizing a British-owned oil company- lead to a US led coup and the installation of yet another brutal, despotic regime under the Shah. Democratic movements have been consistently crushed and authoritarian leaders kept in power in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia; all US allies. Further examples exist; the French in Algeria and Morocco, US/Israel in Palestine and Lebanon, and the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This brief history, without mentioning centuries of Western colonialism and imperialism, suggests that democratic movements in the Muslims world over the last seventy years have largely been crushed and beaten back by the West. This hindering of democracy had little to do with Islamic opposition to such political movements, but rather with Western imposition and imperialism; particularly under the umbrella of the Cold War.
Furthermore, the failure of civil governments to provide a cleaner government, stop vice, and help the poor has led many Muslims to seek alternative avenues to freedom. Also, when nonviolent means of protest are eliminated (like in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan, and Indonesia under Suharto) violence becomes the only mechanism a poor and oppressed populace can use to initiate change (known as the battle between ballots and bullets). Until men like Bernard Lewis, Robert Spencer, or Daniel Pipes explain this, a “clash of civilizations” paradigm should be abandoned.
In Who Speaks for Islam, John Esposito recounts some relevant statistics on Muslim perceptions and desires for democracy. According to professor Esposito “Substantial majorities in nearly all nations surveyed (95% in Burkina Faso, 94% in Egypt, 93% in Iran, and 90% in Indonesia) say that if drafting a constitution for a new country, they would guarantee freedom of speech, defined as ‘allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day’”.
The belief that Muslims oppose democracy and pluralism is quite unsubstantiated. A popular example of Muslim opposition to free speech and pluralism is the 2005 Denmark cartoon controversy. A Danish newspaper published cartoons that showed the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. This event led to mass protests in Europe, Africa and East Asia, as well as vandalism and violent attacks against Danish embassies and property.
To be sure, the decision to vandalize property and violently attack people are not justified. However, we should be mindful of the major complaints by Muslims around the world; namely, that Islam and Muslims are consistently denigrated and equated with terrorism. Note, for example, that the cartoon did not satirize or ridicule Osama bin Laden but rather the venerated Prophet Muhammad.
While no one should be denied the right to speak their mind, the questions is whether the outrage was against free speech or against the continuos denigration and vilification of Islam. There is a distinct difference between the cause of violence and the trigger that sets off violent action. The cartoons that were published were merely the trigger that ignited passions, fears, and grievances from decades of poor economic policy and opportunity, despotic political regimes, and lack of cultural and social cohesion in Europe. The recent event in Sweden represents another trigger moment, rather than a reflection of the believed danger of Islam.
In times of economic and political struggle, many Americans advocate a return to the Constitution and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Similarly, after decades of failed democratic movements, secular regimes, and Western economic policies, many Muslims urge a return to the Islamic principles and values that made Muslim countries so powerful throughout history. This is not a desire to return to religious dogma and intolerance; rather, it is the next experiment of a repressed, humiliated, and poor people.
Just like Christians, Muslims represent many diverse orientations, from literalist/fundamentalist, conservative, and traditionalist to secular and reformist. The difference is that Muslim reformers have had decades, not centuries, to initiate reform and change. Furthermore, many reformers pursue reform not from a position of power and strength but from one of relative weakness. These reformists seek change in the face of authoritarianism, repression, war, and Western neo-colonialism.
The problem is not Islam any more than Christianity (liberation theology) or Judaism (radical zionism) is the cause of its extremists and terrorists; it’s the political radicalization of religion that creates militant ideologies.