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  • just a thought
    September 17, 2012, 9:00 pm
    Libya, Violence and Free Speech

    Back when Salman Rushdie was made the object of a fatwa because his book "The Satanic Verses" was regarded by many Iranians as a blasphemy against the prophet, I went to a conference where a panel discussion was devoted to Rushdie's situation. A member of the audience raised his hand and, without a trace of irony, asked, "What's the matter with those Iranians? Haven't they ever heard of the First Amendment?"

    The implication was that if they had heard of it and read it and gotten its message, they would have understood that you don't target or attack people because of what they have written; you don't respond to words, however harsh and wounding you take them to be, as if they were physical blows. Now, in the wake of the events in Libya, the same kind of thing is being said by American politicians and commentators. If you're listening to the radio and tuning in to the cable news shows, you're hearing any number of people (including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) declare, first, that of course the video vilifying Islam is reprehensible and, second, that nevertheless nothing can justify the eruption of "senseless violence."

    "Senseless" means without reasons, and the assumption is that it can't be a reason to set a consulate on fire that someone in the consulate's home country made a movie saying nasty things about your religion. After all, if your religion is worthy and strong it will survive a malicious representation of it. And besides, an assault on your religion is not an assault on you; it's not personal. This is the point made by the Florida pastor Terry Jones, who insists that the video (with which he is associated in some way not yet specified) was "not designed to attack Muslims, but to show the destructive ideology of Islam." In other words, we're not attacking you, just some of the ideas you hold, an assertion that makes sense if you think that your religion is just an add-on to your essential personhood, like the political party you belong to or the football team you root for.

    That is the view of religion we inherited from John Locke and other "accommodationist" Protestants, Protestants who entered into a bargain with the state: allow us freedom of worship, don't meddle in our affairs and we won't meddle in civic matters or attempt to make public institutions reflect theological doctrines. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke is eloquent when he explains how this parceling out of the world into two distinct spheres - a private sphere and a public sphere - will put an end to the violence that is likely to occur when religious imperatives stray from their proper home in the heart and the chapel (or mosque or synagogue) and insist on ordering every aspect of life. If church and state will "each of them contain itself within its own bounds, the one attending to the worldly welfare of the commonwealth, the other to the salvation of souls, it is impossible that any discord should have happened between them."

    Those who buy into this division of labor and authority will themselves be bifurcated entities. In their private lives they will live out the commands of their religion to the fullest. In their public lives - their lives as citizens - they will relax their religious convictions and display a tolerance they may not feel in their heart of hearts. We give witness to this dual identity when we declare, in fidelity to the First Amendment, "I hate and reject what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

    It hardly needs pointing out that the protesters in Libya and Egypt won't say that - not, however, because they don't understand the First Amendment or the firewall that should separate religion from civil life or the distinction between one's identity as a citizen and one's identity as a believer or the difference between words and blows, but because they reject all four and, indeed, regard them as evil. In their eyes, a religion that confines itself to the heart and chapel, and is thus exercised intermittently while the day's business gets done, is no religion at all. True religion does not relax its hold when you leave the house of worship; it commands your allegiance at all times and in all places. And the "you" whose allegiance it commands is not divided into a public "you" and a private "you"; it is the same at home as it is when abroad in the world.

    And since for them religion is not an internal, privatized matter safe from the world's surfaces, but an overriding imperative that the world's surfaces should reflect, a verbal or pictorial assault on their religion will not be received as an external and ephemeral annoyance, as a "mere" representation; it will be received as a wounding to the heart, as a blow, and as a blow that is properly met by blows in return. No "sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me" for them.

    So the entire package of American liberalism - the distinction between speech and action, the resolve to protect speech however distasteful it may be, the insistence that religious believers soften their piety when they enter the public sphere - is one the protesters necessarily reject. When they are told that the United States government had no part in the production of the video and deplores its content, educated Libyans and Egyptians reply (reporters tell us), "Well, if they think it's bad and against their values, why didn't they stop it or punish those who produced it?" The standard response is that we Americans don't suppress or penalize ideas we regard as wrong and even dangerous; in accordance with the First Amendment, we tolerate them and allow them to present themselves for possible purchase in the marketplace of ideas.

    But that means that protecting the marketplace by refusing to set limits on what can enter it is the highest value we affirm, and we affirm it no matter what truths might be vilified and what falsehoods might get themselves accepted. We have decided that the potential unhappy consequences of a strong free speech regime must be tolerated because the principle is more important than preventing any harm it might permit. We should not be surprised, however, if others in the world - most others, in fact - disagree, not because they are blind and ignorant but because they worship God and truth rather than the First Amendment, which not only keeps God and truth at arm's length but regards them with a deep suspicion.
    this is nothing new.

    no matter what the subject is about, there will always be a group of people trying to control any form of free speech/free thought that someone else is practicing.

    i would never insult islam out of hate... but i constantly insult islam to make a point.

    "Yeah. I understand the mechanics of it, shithead. I just don't understand how this is any less retarded than what I'm suggesting." - Kiley; Housebound.

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