Freedom of Speech: When a Human Right Is Sometimes a Luxury

Young diaspora Muslims are flocking to Syria and signing up with ISIS to fight in a cosmic war while others plot domestic violence against secularism in their adopted homelands. Nothing as horrific as 9-11 or 7-7 has yet to take place but some believe it's just a matter of time.
11/18/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Young diaspora Muslims are flocking to Syria and signing up with ISIS to fight in a cosmic war while others plot domestic violence against secularism in their adopted homelands. Nothing as horrific as 9-11 or 7-7 has yet to take place but some believe it's just a matter of time.

What do western, anti-religion secularists recommend to discourage domestic jihadism? Grit-your-teeth tolerance? Or systematic protest through freedom of speech, manifested in the media as ridicule and humiliation?

Convening recently in October at the spectacular Tower Hotel in London, a two-day conference about The Religious-Right, Secularism and Civil Rights brought critical activists together to discuss the global rise of the religious-Right and how secularism is the only viable solution to this creeping influence.

The UK's hardcore, anti-religion secularists were in a majority at this conference and it was obvious that most of them believe religious tolerance in their society has gone too far. Political correctness has distorted society's perception of Islam, they say, giving diaspora Muslims too much breathing space among educated, socially progressive citizens who otherwise cannot stomach theocracy, misogyny or homophobia.

"Is the BBC part of the solution or part of the problem?" someone yelled from the audience on the first day of the conference.

This reference to media deserves attention. Although there were six outstanding panels over the two-day period, none of them focused on freedom of speech and its role in what some interpret as a dangerous rhetoric of gratuitous ridicule. All references to incidents of public anti-Muslim sentiment were celebrated and endorsed by the conference participants, including the recent comments of American comedian, Bill Maher who said on his popular HBO talk show, Real Time that Islam is "the only religion that acts like the mafia."

Only one of the conference's speakers warned about the consequences of provoking diaspora Muslims. And he was dimly booed.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is one of South Asia's leading nuclear physicists and social activists, perhaps one of Pakistan's most esteemed intellectuals. He gave an informative presentation entitled: "Has the Islamic State Ever Been a Historical Reality?" Hoodbhoy is a man worth listening to yet his closing comments were not well received.

(To paraphrase:) "Free speech can be a luxury and sometimes it is not worth the consequences."

After eight years, the existential question still haunts many Danes: were the Mohammed cartoons worth the lives of the 200 plus that died in the subsequent riots of 2006?

Many ideological secularists might very well say yes; that free speech trumps any and all practical considerations for a peaceful relationship with Muslims (or any other religious community).

Nevertheless, research has demonstrated that intentional ridicule of Muslims is undeniably counter-productive to peaceful co-existence. Take as an example, the anti-Muslim subway ads in 2012 that called Palestinians "savages," i.e., uncivilized, barbaric and ferocious; less than human.

It's humiliating to call someone savage. And humiliation matters.

Humiliation is visceral and existential. The Latin root of 'humiliation' is 'humus,' which translates as 'dirt." "When you are humiliated, "says psychiatrist and philosopher, Neel Burton, "you can almost feel your heart shrinking." Psychologists say that a person who has been humiliated often becomes preoccupied or obsessed by his humiliation and may react with rage, fantasies of revenge, sadism, delinquency, or terrorism.

Shame and humiliation are factors virtually always cited by the social psychologists and political scientists that study religiously driven terrorism. Why? Because feelings of humiliation are one of the most frequently cited "root causes" of the conversion to radical Islam. One Palestinian trainer of suicide bombers has said: "Much of the work is already done by the suffering these people have been subject to. . . Only 10 percent comes from me. The suffering and living in exile away from their land has given the person 90 percent of what he needs to become a martyr."

We're better informed today than we were in 2005-2006 and many of us who live in Denmark have a more nuanced understanding of the cartoon crisis. We've taken a step backwards and looked at the cultural context in which it happened.

And here it is:

Denmark is one of the most civilized societies on planet earth with highly ethical citizens, yet this rigorous Scandinavian culture has also bred a roughness of character in Danes whereby their DNA is coded with irony. In Denmark, you must not take yourself too seriously. Everybody is a candidate for mockery or the butt of a joke. Danes even make fun of their Royal family.

Consequently, the concepts of shame and dishonor are almost unheard of.

Zurich University has more to say about this. In a famous study about shame and the fear of ridicule - gelotophobia - they compared Danish culture to 72 other countries. At the top of the chart in first place is the Middle East with Asia in second place. Denmark is at the very bottom in 72nd place.

Did Jyllands-Posten's editors expect that people would die in response to the cartoons? Of course not. Just as fish can't perceive the water they swim in, the journalists who commissioned the cartoons - because they are Danish - didn't understand the significance or consequences of shame and humiliation. Their agenda was simple. They wanted Muslim immigrants to "get over" being so sensitive. They wanted them to act just like Danes.

But in the absence of a cultural precedent for irony, mockery and self-ridicule, it was like slapping a baby.

It took courage for Pervez Hoodbhoy to stand before the London secularism conference and warn us about gratuitous offense; how we should avoid humiliating diaspora Muslims, if we can. But it wasn't a message many people wanted to hear. "What's our alternative?" someone yelled to him from the audience.

Yes, indeed. This is the question. Is there an alternative to peaceful co-existence? Anti-religion secularists might dream of the day when human experience does not include religion, but it's not likely to happen any time soon, most certainly not in our lifetime.

What do we do in the meantime?

One option is to try and convert one billion Muslims to atheism. Another is to support the growing movement of progressive Muslims, the ones that mainstream media hardly ever mention.

Progressive Muslims integrate human rights into their catechism, including full agency for women and their LGBT colleagues. They support the separation of church and state and are grateful for procedural secularism that protects them from their enemies: internally, the ones who call them apostates; and externally, the ones who say they are "not Muslim enough" to be taken seriously. You can read about these independent thinkers in Critical Muslim, a quarterly magazine of ideas and issues that features revolutionary thinking about Islam and what it means to be a Muslim in an interconnected world.

And as for hate-speech-as-free speech, I vote for a large dose of common sense.