I have found myself in a real quandary this week as a result of the atrocity committed by the Islamist psychopaths who sought vengeance on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for daring to use satire to question the mediaeval beliefs of their fundamentalist Islam. I have written many essays about the core issues here – problems regarding freedom of speech, taking offense, and the unquestioning adherence to archaic belief systems. With regard to the latter I hasten to point out that I have not singled out Islam in this regard. I recently wrote an essay which expressed doubt that Jesus ever existed and certainly if he did he was not the “Son of God”. There seems to be more evidence that Muhammad existed but none so ever that he was God’s prophet. (I would have written “Allah’s prophet” but I understand that there are some Muslims who take offense at non-Muslims referring to the deity as Allah – and of course, as you know, I am very sensitive in this regard!) But overall, I have called a wide variety of religious beliefs to question.
(As an aside it is interesting that whilst I have often been provocative in my blog essays, when I write something anti-Islamist I seem to motivate more readers to “unsubscribe” than when I complain about other things! It seems as though many people would just rather turn a blind eye to this vexing problem.)
In the wake of this atrocity so much has been written and my quandary was really whether there was anything of extra value I could bring to the debate.
In view of the threat that such abominable behaviour causes to our society, and our ineffectual response, I feel compelled to again press my point of view. So forgive me if in this response I reiterate previously expressed points of view. But to begin with let me state that despite my concerns about various beliefs people hold I essentially believe in tolerance. So long as people are prepared to live and participate peacefully in society I am inclined to tolerate whatever beliefs they might have – but I reserve the right to question such beliefs. On the other hand I am strongly opposed to those people who insist that others must believe as they do and forcibly oppose the questioning of their ideas.
Our essential dilemma (which essentially manifested in the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo) is that whilst Western democracies are tolerant of a diversity of beliefs, Islamist fundamentalists are not. In the West we have offered displaced Muslims refuge in our societies and have not sought to constrain their religious beliefs. Unfortunately some among their ranks, the Islamist extremists, whilst accepting our hospitality take advantage of our tolerance by trying to impose by force, terrorism and coercion their uncompromising views on the rest of us.
Now in a democratic society underpinned with a commitment to freedom of speech we welcome the opportunity to examine and debate competing points of view. For centuries one of the tools that we have used in this process is satire. But the Islamists, while not suggesting its inappropriateness elsewhere, will not allow it to be applied to Islam.
Now of course, if their sacred texts are to be believed the God of Judaism and Christianity is the same God as the Allah of Islam. The God of Judaism and Christianity doesn’t seem to be so precious as to take offence at satirical writings or cartoons. Which suggests to me that the affront is not taken by the particular manifestation of God but by the particular group of believers.
All of this is aggravated by a problem that I have previously written about. In our desire to be tolerant and accommodating, Western democracies have curtailed our ability to question those who think differently to us by insisting we don’t offend them. Consequently fundamentalist Islamists have been shielded from proper questioning. When their beliefs have been questioned they have hidden behind the defence that such questioning is “offensive” and the ideologues of political correctness have shut down the debate.
As you probably know, a couple of weeks ago I published a blog which I titled A Most Dangerous Idea. In it I argued that the notion of Jihad, associated with martyrdom and automatic access to Paradise was indeed a dangerous idea, with chilling consequences. Because of the ramifications of such bad ideas they need to be subject to close scrutiny and debate. All such ideas must be treated thus. I remind you again of what the good Dr Phil taught me – there are no bad people, just bad ideas. Consequently such ideas must be challenged.
Now there is a glaring contradiction in the stance that these rabid fundamentalist fanatics take. If indeed God exists and is omniscient and omnipotent as so many of his worshippers claim, it is hard to see that He (and we won’t go into the gender debate about the deity) could possibly be so insecure as to be offended. So I think it is safe to say that it is not God who is offended but the more ignorant and intolerant of His believers. So when, for example, the satirical cartoons are published it is not God who takes offence but these believers who faced with the irrationality of their beliefs are made to feel foolish! Now when we have invested so much of our psyche in such beliefs we cannot afford to have them challenged. Who we believe we are is tied inextricably to our beliefs. For many having such beliefs challenged is as daunting as facing physical death! And so we see irrational fundamentalists giving up their lives to ensure that their beliefs are not challenged.
In a liberal democratic society all religious beliefs are tolerated. But the obverse of the coin in such a society is that whilst your beliefs are tolerated they can also be challenged. Let us welcome you into our society whatever your beliefs, but membership of our society also entitles your beliefs to be questioned. And as I have often postulated, those who do not want to have their beliefs questioned are probably, in some way, insecure about those beliefs.
Last week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo demonstrates this insecurity. The publication seemed a reasonably inconsequential boutique offering with just some 30,000 subscribers. I am sure that before last week few of you would ever have heard of it. And the satire and parody in its pages was far from being restricted to Islam. They commented on current affairs, mocking everyone from Jesus to Sony to the American President. But of course it was only the Islamists who were insecure enough to want to shut down their parody.
Now we in the West have contributed greatly to this malaise. We have assiduously avoided debating the beliefs of Islamism. These dangerous ideas have to be confronted. The Islamists seem hell bent on taking Islam’s most extreme, belligerent, sexist and intolerant teachings and basing their aspirations, as reflected in Sharia law, on them.
Now you could accuse me of intolerance and Islamophobia for promoting such a point of view. If you do so the first thing I can assure you is that I am not going to take offense! I am not going to avoid the debate by confecting personal hurt. Secondly I would also assure you that if some ratbag fundamentalist Christian sect tried to impose on us their distorted value system I would oppose it just as vehemently.
In essence this is a battle of ideas. The Islamists are motivated by some very bad ideas and we should stand up and counter them. We avoid this confrontation of ideas because we have this politically correct notion that we shouldn’t offend others with different points of view, particularly about religion. It would be far better if we could win the debate in the newspapers, television current affair shows, lecture theatres and churches, synagogues , mosques and even the local pub, than have to win the wars that such erroneous beliefs create.
But it is important that we not allow the debate to be manipulated by faux emotional boycotts. It is easy to see these at play. Take the issue of the wearing of burkas. Some people are saying that offends them. What a load of rubbish! I can’t believe that what someone wears could offend somebody. If women choose to wear such clothing they should be allowed to. But if they are compelled by their menfolk to do so we should take umbrage. Those that say they are offended are only seeking to use emotional blackmail to modify the behaviour of others without the need for substantiating rationale. Some people say they are offended by Tony Abbott wearing his speedos. Again, what a load of rubbish! That is the preferred attire of many volunteer lifesavers and nobody takes offense when they’re seen on the beach. (Strangely nobody takes offence when he wears his voluntary firefighter’s gear!)
With respect to the burka we should listen to the advice of the ex-Muslim Somalian writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
“When I look at the burka, no doubt it is a symbol of oppression, but a burka ban is not going to get us anywhere.”
“If your childhood is cut in half because you’re married off to some older person, or your genitals mutilated, or you’re forced into things you don’t really want, that is far more consequential to you as a woman and a society than a piece of textile covering your eyes and your face.”
But nevertheless, because of ridiculous concerns about political correctness we don’t confront these dangerous ideas. It would seem that we are more willing to drop bombs in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan than confront the ideas behind fundamentalist Islamism. Killing Muslims seems somehow less offensive than challenging their ideas. Unfortunately as Aly Salem, the Egyptian writer and Muslim recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal , “You can’t kill an idea with a bomb!”
We started on this downward slope some decades ago.
In February 1989, the author Salman Rushdie became the subject of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. The Ayatollah personally offered money for the murder of the author because of the publication of his work The Satanic Verses. Generously the Ayatollah not only offered a monetary reward but also a free ticket to paradise!
Christopher Hitchens, a friend of Rushdie wrote:
“It is impossible to imagine a greater affront to every value of free expression. The Ayatollah had not read, and probably could not read, the novel. But he succeeded in igniting ugly demonstrations among Muslims in Britain as well as across the world, where crowds burned the book and screamed for the author to be fed to the flames as well.
One might have thought that such arrogant state sponsored homicide, directed at a lonely and peaceful individual who pursued a life devoted to language, would have called forth a general condemnation. But such was not the case. In considered statements, the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with – the Ayatollah. So did the cardinal archbishop of New York and many other lesser religious figures.”
We should have made a concerted stand in support of the freedom of speech but we buckled at the knees when confronted with Islamic fundamentalism and political correctness. Which is the greater sin, that a man should challenge the rigid belief systems of traditionalist Islam, or that because of that challenge he should be murdered? Most rational people would believe the latter. Let us try to get the fundamentalists to justify their aberrant ideas rather than shut down debate. We largely allowed the belief to be propagated that Rushdie had committed a gross offence and therefore deserved to be pursued in retribution. Whereas, in reality, his book was based on a reasonable interpretation of the history of Islam, but one that didn’t accord with what the fundamentalist, revisionists wished to portray.
And then of course there was the infamous Danish cartoon controversy. In 2005 a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad. This caused Muslims to take great umbrage. The eruption of religious insanity that subsequently occurred resulted in one of the cartoonists living in hiding ever since, after Muslims called for his murder in 2006. After the publication there were riots, embassies stormed and peaceful people were threatened with murder.
Again the Western response was to shy away from confronting an irrational belief system. Instead of criticising this despicable behaviour, Western governments sought to appease the misguided defenders of Muhammad. Can it be that Allah’s prophet was so insecure as not to countenance a different point of view? Did he not have a sense of humour? Was he so fragile that he couldn’t deal with the inevitable challenge to his preposterous claims?
Now the murder of the unfortunates at Charlie Hebdo is directly connected to the cowardice we have shown in confronting fundamentalist Islamism. Every time we have self-censored in our pathetic attempts to avoid offending the viewpoints of these misguided and ignorant advocates of mediaeval barbarism the menu of those who they believe deserving of retribution has shrunk. It has become easier and easier for them to target those who have continued to be courageous enough to challenge their dangerous ideas.
It is time for us to confront the issue head on. All dangerous ideas need to be debated. Whilst it might be regrettable that this might offend some, it is far more regrettable if as a result of our cowardice such ideas are allowed to pervade our society, curtail our freedom and allow fundamentalism to erode our most cherished freedoms.
Prior to the election of the Abbott government, the now Attorney General, George Brandis, promised that he would amend the Racial Discrimination Act, in particular Section 18C of the Act which makes it unlawful to publish material that is reasonably likely to offend or insult a person or a group of persons. This provision of the Act would seem to make it illegal to question the archaic beliefs of the fundamentalist Islamists if they make the defence, however spurious, that they find such questioning “offensive”.
Now I am not advocating that we should embark on a campaign to offend anybody or be deliberately hurtful. But is seems to me that the consequences of allowing these dangerous ideas go unquestioned is sufficiently horrendous as to challenge such ideas whenever and wherever we can.
It is a measure of our psychological maturity that we should be prepared to defend our ideas. It is a symptom of immaturity and insecurity that we use whatever strategies we can to avoid such a challenge!
My recommendations on how we should respond to these atrocities is that we should:
- Not be cowered into self-censorship but actively oppose the dangerous ideas,
- Not be concerned about confected outrage and “offense taking” when there are more important issues at stake.
It seems to me that many are resiling from confronting the issues that fundamentalist Islamism bring to us. As a consequence those who remain to fight the cause are becoming easier targets to attack.
Also we must not lose sight of what a pervasive threat it poses. We get all affronted by the atrocities that have occurred at Martin Place in Sydney and in Paris because we are unused to such barbarism in Western democracies. But we barely seem to notice that a further 2,000 were killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria last week.
There are only two ways Islamism can be defeated. We can defeat them by superior force of arms. No doubt if the West marshalled its resources and had the will, Islamism could be physically defeated. But this would be a pyrrhic victory at best. It would create a new underclass of wronged believers that would fester away whilst undermining our society. It is best that we should try to win the battle of ideas. Most fundamentalist Islamic believers have not been exposed to competing ideas. We need to continually challenge their outdated dogma. We cannot afford to allow them to insulate themselves from the developments in civics, philosophy and politics that have taken place in the millennium and a half since Muhammad.
As quoted above Aly Salem has observed, “You can’t kill an idea with a bomb!” But maybe, discussion, debate and appropriate demonstration of alternatives can help change such dangerous ideas.
My plea to you is not to be cowered by the abomination that occurred at Charlie Hebdo but be emboldened to challenge the dangerous ideas of the militant fundamentalist Islamists.