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Bad Faith V

David Thompson‘s latest ‘Bad Faith’ column…

Blunting the Senses in the Name of Fairness
My previous column, which dealt with cultural equivalence and the moral contortions that result, led to a barrage of email and a number of odd exchanges. Most centred on the way in which cultural equivalence can be used to present very different moral phenomena as equal in weight, generally to excuse the larger evil with a much smaller one. Recent events have given further pertinence to the arguments made in that column, and so some additional reflection seems in order.

To recap briefly, cultural equivalence is evident when Tariq Ramadan depicted those who criticise religious intolerance and intimidation as “extremists”, thereby suggesting some parity of derangement between those who published the cartoons of Mohammed, or argued for the right to do so, and the believers who made homicidal threats and set fire to occupied buildings. (This echoed Karen Armstrong’s reference to “aggressive” cartoons, published “aggressively” — again, attempting to suggest parity of motive and blame, as if one excused the other, or shared the same moral gravity.)

Cultural equivalence is also found in superficial comparisons between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims, as if no significant differences existed or should be sought. In February, Reverend Patrick Gaffney of the University of Notre Dame blamed perceived associations of Islam with violence on a history of anti-Islamic prejudice, insisting “there are parallel behaviours in every tradition”. Gaffney maintained there was little point looking for “distinct features” within Islamic theology that might have bearing on the wave of cartoon-related violence. Attempts to deflect attention away from theological specifics are commonplace, even habitual, though not entirely convincing. One cannot simply assume that all religious traditions are exactly equal in how they deal with various slights and taboos.

One might, for instance, contrast how the Christian Messiah and the Prophet of Islam are said to have dealt with unflattering comments. To the best of my knowledge, the New Testament does not inform believers that Jesus sanctioned the assassination of his critics or mocked their dead bodies. While Mohammed did occasionally forgive those who ridiculed him, this forgiveness was by no means the typical response, particularly in his later career. Al-Nadr bin al-Harith, Kab bin al-Ashraf and Uqbah bin Abu Muayt were killed at Mohammed’s instruction in 624 AD, and the poetess Asma bint Marwan was killed the same year for writing a disrespectful verse. Given there are those who are gripped by literalist passions and view Mohammed as exemplary in all regards and for all time, perhaps these events shouldn’t be dismissed quite so lightly.

By way of further illustration, while red-faced evangelists may say gay people are wicked, damned to hellfire, etc, I don’t know of any internationally renowned Christian leaders who are calling for the imprisonment and killing of gay people. Unlike the supposedly “moderate” Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who insists that gay men and lesbians should be “killed in the worst manner possible.” Not condemned, ‘corrected’, prayed for, or pitied, or any of the usual nonsense spouted by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson et al; but murdered — as brutally as possible.

However studiously such distinctions are overlooked, this one in particular strikes me as significant. Especially considering the readiness with which some will enact Sistani’s wisdom, as illustrated by Rexhep Idrizi, a chairman of Australia’s Board of Imams who thinks beheading gay people is in order, and whose son is currently serving a four-year jail sentence for attacking a gay cyclist with a machete. Given the number of believers who listen very carefully to Sistani, both in Iraq and beyond, it would be unwise for gay Iraqis to treat the cleric’s fatwas as irrelevant nonsense. And while mad Methodists or Creationists can be laughed at with relative impunity, sadistic bigots like Sistani are mysteriously exempt from comparable scorn in the “progressive” left-leaning media.

Guardian regular Karen Armstrong has echoed Reverend Gaffney and dutifully reminded us that all religions have a fundamentalist fringe, and thus, apparently, no further judgment needs to be made regarding theological factors. But the size of that ‘fringe’, its relationship to the mainstream, and its specific ideological features are not the same for all religions. Jehovah’s Witnesses are extremist in certain respects, and they have some pretty bizarre ideas about blood transfusion. And the Amish might be thought of as fundamentalist, too. But where are the fifty or so groups of Amish suicide bombers? Where are the Methodist extremists who want to legally subordinate all non-Methodists as an act of religious observance? Where are the Buddhists who murdered the translators of a ‘blasphemous’ novel while chanting the words of the Buddha as absolute justification? If all religious ideologies are equal in their merits and shortcomings, and equally inclined to homicidal intolerance, shouldn’t we be seeing all of these things, or something like them, roughly in proportion to the size each religion’s following?

During a recent visit to San Francisco, the Dalai Lama told a group of religious leaders that “[Islam is] like any other tradition — same message, same practice. That is a practice of compassion.” Certainly compassion and horror can be found among adherents of any religious ideology, whether because of those beliefs or despite them. But there is a difference between monstrous acts that ignore or invert the exhortations of a religion’s founder and monstrous acts that are entirely in accord with that founder’s stated vision.

For instance, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood directs young believers to a children’s website that celebrates homicidal ‘martyrdom’, just as Mohammed is said to have done, and exhorts young Muslims to imitate a Prophet who “waged jihad against the infidels”. The site also informs youngsters that “the Jews” are responsible for all of the “corruption and deviance in the world” and that “murdering children” is “part of the Jewish religion”. It’s not clear how this online message is to be reconciled with the Dalai Lama’s statement, or with the claims of the Brotherhood’s vice-president, Khairat el-Shatir, who, in an article titled No Need to be Afraid of Us, informed Guardian readers that “the success of the Muslim Brotherhood should not frighten anybody; we respect the rights of all religious and political groups.”

The Dalai Lama is presumably unaware of the severe limits to compassion demanded by several Islamic schoolbooks. One Egyptian textbook, ‘Studies in Theology: Traditions and Morals, Grade II’ (2001), cites Mohammed and reminds children of their duty to “perform jihad in Allah’s cause, to behead the infidels, take them prisoner, break their power and make their souls humble…” (pp 291-22). Young readers are also reminded that “the concept of jihad is interpreted in the Egyptian school curriculum almost exclusively as a military endeavour… It is war against Allah’s enemies, i.e., the infidels.” Another cheering gem, ‘Commentary on the Surahs of Mohammed, Al-Fath, Al-Hujurat and Qaf, Grade II’ (2002), warns youngsters against being “seized by compassion” towards unbelievers.

Contempt for non-Muslims is also commonplace in Saudi school textbooks. In July 2004, the Guardian reported the persistence of supremacist indoctrination, despite assurances to the contrary from the Saudi foreign minister. Six-year-olds are instructed that “emulation of the infidels leads to loving them and raising their status in the eyes of the Muslim, and that is forbidden.” Similarly xenophobic instructions have been found in contemporary schoolbooks in Palestine, Jordan and Pakistan, and in judicial texts endorsed by Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the nearest thing to an Islamic Vatican. Again, the size of an extremist ‘fringe’ and its relationship to mainstream conceptions of the faith have to be considered as they actually are, not as one might wish.

However malleable and interchangeable religions are thought to be, one cannot ignore the actual tenets of a given faith, as outlined explicitly in its texts and embraced by millions of adherents. The founder of a religion, his example, and the particulars of his worldview are rather important to many believers. And the likelihood of a religion being associated with intolerance and violence will in part be determined by how violent and intolerant a religion’s founder was, and the means by which that founder enjoined others to propagate the faith. One can no more erase Mohammed from Islam than one could airbrush the Biblical Jesus from Christianity. When given a moment’s thought, all fundamentalisms are not in fact equivalent in their particulars, or the consequences thereof. Yet this is the default prejudice from which many commentators proceed.

This pretence of equivalence has come to define much of the ongoing debate on freedom of speech and the testing of ideas. But to assume moral parity between, say, the publishers of cartoons and the unthinkingly destructive reaction to them, and to assign equal responsibility for the deaths, intimidation and violence that resulted, is evasive and grotesque. It is, more to the point, a way of denying the moral incontinence of those who threaten to kill on the basis of a cartoon, or a film, or, of course, a novel. And it is a way of avoiding any serious analysis of Islamic theology in particular and religious hysteria in general.

Cultural equivalence also underlies the current fashion for religious protectionism, whereby reason and scientific methodology are depicted as equivalent to faith and merely a matter of lifestyle choice, as if logical enquiry had no attributes that set it apart from religious ideology and a priori belief. But to equate these very different phenomena requires one to flatten values and empty the mind in the ostensible interest of ‘fairness’ — perhaps to spare the blushes of the less capable among us.

Which, once again, brings us to Madeleine Bunting (pictured), an associate editor of the Guardian and the paper’s chief commentator on all things Islamic. In another piece denouncing the infidel attachment to Enlightenment ideas, Bunting explained the strange trajectory of her opposition: “I began bumping into the subject with Muslim intellectuals who were acutely aware of how this legacy was being used (implicitly or explicitly) against Islam.” Ah, yes, there we go. It’s quite clear from Bunting’s earlier columns that anything that might be used (implicitly or explicitly) to reveal shortcomings in Islamic theology is a very bad thing indeed. Unlike, say, Catholicism or Scientology, Islam must forever remain beyond reproach or challenge, for reasons which are presumably deep and mysterious, and never made entirely clear.

Bunting informs us: “We are profoundly irrational and… rationality is a social construction”. She then asks, apparently with genuine puzzlement: “Why do people think an understanding of rationality which is over 200 years old is useful now?” Well, regarding profound irrationality, one can only wish Ms Bunting would speak for herself, or possibly for those Guardian readers who ingest her writing without objection or amusement. Why, one might ask, does Bunting think a reactionary and literalist theology which is considerably older than the Enlightenment, is still particularly valid or “useful” now? Given Bunting’s article appeared the same week in which Abdul Rahman faced public execution in Afghanistan for the ‘heresy’ of abandoning Islam in favour of Christianity, this is not just an academic question.

When asked about the Rahman case, four clerics in Kabul insisted the medical aid worker “deserved to be killed” for leaving Islam. Said Mirhossian Nasri of the Hossainia Mosque insisted “we must set an example” and maintained that Rahman “must be hanged”. Hamidullah, chief cleric of the Haji Yacob Mosque, offered a different view, arguing that if Rahman were freed or allowed to leave the country, “there will be an uprising.” One high-minded cleric, the allegedly ‘moderate’ Abdul Raoulf of the Afghan Ulama Council, said: “This is humiliating for Islam… We will not allow God to be humiliated… Cut off his head! We will call on the people to pull him into pieces so there’s nothing left…” Now, I don’t follow fundamentalist Christian literature as closely as I should, but perhaps someone could point me to where Jerry Falwell or Dale Crowley demands the hanging, beheading and public dismemberment of those who dare to leave Christianity?

The Rahman case is fundamentally about freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. It also highlights a basic and rather common error in discussions of the latter. Note how Abdul Raoulf and others used the word “humiliated” as a pretext for their anger and sadism, as if their hypothetical all-powerful deity — on whose behalf they naturally claim to act — would somehow be shamed by Rahman’s change of faith. (Quite how one shames an omnipotent being with a knowledge of future events remains a mystery, but there you go.)

The claim of alleged ‘humiliation’ touches on a central conceit in many discussions of this kind, whereby religious freedom is often presumed to entail sparing believers any hint that others do not share their beliefs, and indeed may find them ludicrous. (There is, apparently, no corresponding obligation for believers to embrace ideas that are not clearly risible, monstrous or disgusting.) When given a moment’s thought, this protectionist claim is decidedly fascistic in its practical implications. If believers wish to be insulated from any differing opinion, and even statements of fact, they would have to create a closed religious order, somewhere atop a mountain where reality can to some extent be avoided.

Alternatively, likeminded believers could strive to impose upon society a reactionary and intolerant mindset in which intellectual enquiry and dissent are punishable by imprisonment and death. Failing that, a climate of self-censorship, fear and unilateral deference would no doubt be a start. And, ultimately, one has to wonder what kind of ‘faith’ requires protection of this kind. If a prideful and supremacist ideology requires the punitive eradication of alternative ideas, then what kind of ideology are we dealing with, and just how superior is it?

Questions of this kind don’t seem to trouble Madeleine Bunting, whose depiction of rationality as a “social construction” is wonderfully loaded and warrants further consideration. Not least because it is so common among those inclined to pretensions of equivalence. In one recent discussion, I was told with breathless confidence that “science is based on assumptions; an assumption is essentially a belief, so science is based on belief.” But the scientific method is actually based on the testing of formal hypotheses, as opposed to beliefs, which are not the same thing at all. Strictly speaking, a scientific hypothesis must be self-consistent, must explain existing observations and must predict new ones. These formal obligations and restraints are not comparable with the unquestioning acceptance of unverifiable assumptions as a priori truth, which is the signature of religion. There is a profound epistemological difference.

The scientific method is one of the best practical lessons in intellectual humility, and one can only wish a few clerics — and a few Guardian columnists — would avail themselves of this tool. As the mathematician Ian Stewart pointed out: “Science is the best defence against believing what we want to.” The willingness to defer to evidence — as opposed to one’s own wishes and beliefs — is the antithesis of fundamentalism. One cannot seriously regard those who profess to know the preferences of a supposed deity — and the right to impose those preferences on others – as demonstrating intellectual rigour or humility. Though one might possibly view it as indicating megalomania or a need for psychiatric treatment.

Contrary to Bunting’s assertion, maths and physics have properties that transcend cultural barriers, or indeed presumptions of ‘fairness’. Regardless of the symbology used to describe the underlying operations, those operations are, apparently, universal. To the best of my knowledge, the laws of physics don’t mysteriously change in parts of the world where Islam or Catholicism or voodoo hold sway, and gravity and quantum chromodynamics work irrespective of whether they are understood by priests, imams or the village shaman. However incomplete our descriptions of, say, electrons may be, the described values of electrons appear to hold up extremely well. Those mathematical and physical descriptions are tested and verified billions of times a day in the operations of every electronic device on the planet. If the assertions of Islam or cultural equivalence were ever to meet a similar standard of proof, I might ease my contempt for such things. But I’m not about to hold my breath.

Curiously, the person who so adamantly equated science with belief also maintained that the theories of relativity (the details of which escaped him) are “beliefs” and thus in no way “vulnerable to the scientific method”. When I drew attention to evidence to the contrary, the subject was promptly changed, and other things were asserted with even greater adamance. This is one of the incidental rewards of cultural equivalence; it blunts the critical senses and levels all values until people who know nothing about any given subject feel entitled to assert things about that subject with great confidence and a whiff of righteousness. One can, as Ian Stewart warned, believe whatever one wants.

Reverend Gaffney and the Dalai Lama may believe that the particulars of a religion and how it is taught are incidental matters, but a note of wishful thinking is hard to avoid. In April, Comedy Central censored an episode of South Park that addressed the ‘cartoon jihad’ uproar and included — or would have included — a brief appearance by Mohammed. Given the series’ uninhibited mockery of every other religious figure, often to pointed effect, the broadcaster’s decision to censor this one in particular warranted an official explanation. According to a press release, Comedy Central had “determined that it was not prudent or in the interest of safety to reproduce the controversial Danish cartoons. Injuries occurred and lives were lost in the riots set off by the original publication… The American media made a decision then, as we did now, not to put the safety and well being of the public at risk, here or abroad.”

While one can understand the company’s concern for the safety of others, one cannot simultaneously pretend that the motive here is anything other than a very real fear of violence. Nor can one pretend that comparable violence would ensue, or be tolerated, whenever the Buddha or Jesus appeared in a cartoon. Evidently, fundamentalisms are not equivalent in nature or in the extent to which they are accommodated, or indeed in terms of why they are accommodated. And, as recent events have shown, religious ideologies are far from equal in their capacity and readiness to impose their taboos upon others, by whatever means prove expedient.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 20th, 2006.