Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Islam and Intellectual Freedom

We here at the Annoyed Librarian Association are strong proponents of Intellectual Freedom and the expression of unpopular ideas. As our mission statement says, we believe that expressing controversial views is essential to a healthy democracy and that controversial views should be aired and addressed in reasonable debate. Since the ALA supports Intellectual Freedom, we feel completely justified in speaking out when people try to destroy that freedom. Next week is Banned Books Week; let's make this Banned Ideas Week.

On a completely unrelated note, let's talk about the Pope and his attempt to exercise his intellectual freedom, and then let's consider the response to this attempt and what it says about our freedom.

According to this story in the IHT (and obviously news all over the world), the Pope gave a speech last week. He does that a lot. But this speech was different.

"He began the speech by recounting a conversation on the truths of Christianity and Islam that took place between a 14th-century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and a Persian scholar.
'He said, I quote, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,'" the pope said.
He also briefly discussed the Islamic concept of jihad, which he defined as 'holy war,' and said that violence in the name of religion was contrary to God's nature and to reason."

Probably as a result of this, some Muslims have murdered an Italian nun in Somalia, theology students in Iran are protesting, and "five churches were firebombed in the West Bank and one in Iraq." Oh, and there's talk of yet another Turk trying to kill the Pope when he visits Turkey. No violence there.

Since then, instead of telling the protesters and murderers to stop being such babies and engage in rational debate, the Pope's been trying to distance himself from his remarks. Apparently, you're not supposed to suggest that Islam may be and have always been a violent religion. If you say something crazy like that, some Muslims may murder you just to teach you how wrong you are. That definitely has a "chilling effect" on public speech, the kind we here at the ALA don't like to see. There are some political groups in this country who think that if their ideas are criticized by anyone, this creates a "chilling effect" on speech. They're just hypersensitive and desire to destroy public debate. But murdering people has its own sort of chilling effect, especially for the people who are murdered.

Regardless, what exactly should the Pope apologize for? Is it for quoting 14th century emperors? That is pretty foolish behavior. He should know that no one in the contemporary world cares about anything written before 2000. How foolish of him. No wonder people are upset. He's just so dated and all. Of course that should have been obvious by his outfit, but now he goes and quotes medieval emperors.

Or was it (and here I'm going out on a limb) for suggesting that the command to spread the faith by the sword is contrary to God's nature and reason itself? That doesn't sound very controversial to me. Oh, wait, I guess it would if my religion believed that spreading its faith by the sword were a good thing instead of something to regret. If that was the case, I guess it would be controversial because it would be saying that my religion is contrary to natural law. That would mean my belief that I can indiscriminately kill people who oppose my faith is wrong, if indeed I had such a belief. And if people say I'm wrong, I just might have to kill them.

Or maybe it's the suggestion that Islam promotes religious violence? We can't have people making claims like that, now can we. Best to behead them before they get a chance to make such a claim.

But why would Muslims get so upset over these suggestions? Well, first, it could be untrue. If it is untrue, then we who celebrate the joys of intellectual freedom know that the proper response is a reasoned rebuttal, and in the end the truth will triumph in a glorious battle of ideas. This is what's known as the "rhetoric of the open hand" by the rhetorician Edward Corbett. That's how intellectual freedom and liberal democracy work. We argue, we discuss, we debate, we consider the evidence.

However, there's also the "rhetoric of the closed fist," which happens when reason fails. That's when you get protest marches where lots of people shout slogans and smash shop windows. More rhetoric of the closed fist might include things like, oh, killing nuns and firebombing churches. Yes, that's what you get when people can't think clearly and argue rationally. It turns out this rhetoric doesn't persuade anyone who isn't already persuaded.

The reasoned response to the Pope's remarks might have gone something like this: Islam is a religion of peace. Even the American President says so, and he's never wrong. That's why you can look all over the world--America, Britain, Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, Denmark, wherever you like--and find absolutely no examples of Muslims committing violent acts in the name of their religion. You just don't find that kind of religious violence in the world. And if you do, it's probably all being done by the Catholics and the Buddhists. Those are the real religions of violence. Don't you remember the Crusades, when the Catholics came to Arabia and tried to capture all those lands we'd captured from them centuries before? And the Rape of Nanking? Weren't some of those Japanese Buddhists?

That would be just the beginning of a reasoned response, but I'm sure it could go on for pages.

The other possibility is that the suggestion could be true, that Islam spread itself by the sword offering conversion, dhimmitude, or death, and that while most Muslims are indeed peaceful and want to live peacefully with their neighbors there are a lot of Muslims who want to convert the world to Islam and don't want to live peacefully with non-Muslims and are indeed conducting a holy war against the infidels. I know that sounds crazy, but you have to admit there's at least a small chance that it could be true.

It could also be true that at least a small percentage of Muslims don't believe in liberal democracy and intellectual freedom. They don't want to debate ideas in the public forum. They'd rather blow themselves up in the public forum. Again, I know this sounds totally crazy. You're probably thinking to yourself, "AL's really gone off the deep end this time." But I'm just putting forward this wacky proposition in the name of intellectual freedom. In the name of intellectual freedom, let's debate the issue. That's all I'm saying. Really. I'm not saying it's true, so please don't try to kill me. I'm only offering a topic for debate. (And keep in mind if you do try to kill me that it's possible I keep a Glock 26 in my garter belt at all times. Also, I have a black belt in karate and the sensible shoes to match.)

The debate over Islam and its relation to peace and violence is probably the best example today of an attempt to squash intellectual freedom and free discussion of ideas. It's gotten to the point where I can't tell what most public figures really think because everyone knows that to criticize Islam in any way leads to Muslim violence, so no one criticizes Islam. Or maybe everyone doesn't know that, and the attempt to bend over backwards not to offend Muslims is the result of compassion and consideration for people's religion.

And then we have the irony that when anyone criticizes Islam for being violent, lots of Muslims protest and commit violent acts in reaction. It's possible, just possible now, that they're making the case for the critics. Only we're not supposed to think that, because we live in topsy-turvy land where every day is, as they used to put it when I was in school, "opposite day."

It's certainly different with Christianity. Lots of people like to abuse Christianity, especially the American left. Respect for a person's religion stops at Christianity. Most of the hostile critics don't really know much about Christianity in my experience, any religious education they have being stunted at about a third grade level, but it's familiar enough to breed contempt. Some evangelical Christian condemns homosexuality in a sermon, and he's universally derided as evil. Some Muslim in Iran beheads homosexuals on principle, and he's called a proponent of the religion of peace. And of course there's all that violence committed by Christians in the name of God, you know, 500 years ago. That's certainly morally equivalent to contemporary suicide bombers. I guess if you criticize Christians, though, they don't kill you. At least they're not supposed to. But I digress.

True defenders of intellectual freedom should address this issue in public. The American Library Association claims to be a defender of intellectual freedom, but that usually consists in raising a stink if some parent asks a school library in Bumflap, Alabama to remove Heather Has Two Very Excited Fathers from the shelves, or in trying to make sure that perverts have a steady flow of pornography on their public library computers, er, I mean access to information.

But we have nothing but silence on perhaps the most pressing issue of intellectual freedom of our time, an issue that challenges the very foundation of intellectual freedom itself--the fact that many people around the world, including in the United States, are afraid to express an opinion because of the fear of violent reaction, and that the violent reaction itself confirms the opinion that everyone's too afraid to express. We have glaring evidence--the Muslim reactions to the Danish cartoons and the Pope's speech, for example--that significant portions of the Muslim world are violently opposed to the ideals of intellectual freedom and the freedom of expression that we as librarians supposedly cherish. Why hasn't anyone on the ALA Council proposed a resolution condemning Muslim violence in reaction to criticism and the sustained and violent attempt by Muslims to destroy the foundation and exercise of intellectual freedom? That might be a resolution worth voting for.