Thursday, May 6, 2010
Posted by ISSA at 10:59 AM
To qualify as hate speech under U.S. Law, speech must directly exhort to acts of physical violence against a person or group of people, or it must directly urge to overthrow the government. Drawings of smiling stick figures of Muhammed do not call for violence against Muhammed (who died around 1,300 years ago, I believe), and they cannot reasonably be construed to call for violence against Muslims. This settles the question of whether or not atheist groups' actions legally qualify as hate speech.
Can AAF's actions be seen as indirectly encouraging people to hate Muslims? No, their clear intent is to assert the primacy of free speech. To read more into it would be truly stretching the literal content and expressed meaning of the words and images; one should not be surprised that Muslims might do just that considering that the Abrahamic religious traditions are well versed at taking literal content and arguing for whatever alternate meaning suits their purposes at the time. Those of us interested in genuine text exegesis are justified in balking.
“Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God...promises, covenants, and oaths, which are bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.”
One is apparently very careful to protect the reverence given Muhammed, I hear, so let's take a look at the Sura in the Koran named after this supposedly great man:
“When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters. And afterwards let there either be free dismissals or ransomings, till the war hath laid down its burdens. Thus do. Were such the pleasure of God, he could himself take vengeance upon them: but He would rather prove the one of you by the other. And whoso fight for the cause of God, their works he will not suffer to miscarry; He will vouchsafe them guidance, and dispose their hearts aright; And he will bring them into the Paradise, of which he hath told them. Believers! If ye help God, God will help you, and will set your feet firm: But as for the infidels, let them perish: and their works shall God bring to nought.” (Sura 47 “Muhammed”: 3-9)
How could one interpret this passage as anything short of the worst form of hatred? Amazingly, moderate Muslim scholars often present defenses of it as a spiritual allegory, but one can clearly see that those who are following this passage of the Koran do not belong to the MSA, but rather to Al-Qaida. The Koran, however, is not an ironic postmodern narrative, and the less crassly credulous among us will not buy it when Muslim theologians piss on us and tell us it's raining. Those of us who refuse to afford extra respect to traditions simply because they have been deemed oppressed by our home culture historically will similarly balk, as will all people who assess arguments based on their clearly stated tenets.
And yet even very moderate Muslims claim that the Koran is the literal word of God, the perfect and final source of all knowledge. That is quite a claim. If they truly followed their Holy Book, one has a legitimate case against them for espousing a doctrine of hatred, intolerance and violence. If it weren't for our society's politically correct, misplaced reverence for the Islamic tradition, I'm sure someone would have done this by now.
And yet, I strongly oppose any action against any Muslim based on his or her stated belief in the perfection of the Koran, even though it contains messages of violence and hatred (intermixed with messages of charity and love; reading it, I have always thought the author must be bipolar). Why do I oppose this? Because I do not believe in thoughtcrime (Orwell, “1984”).
The issue of thoughtcrime brings me to the second accusation being leveled at AAF: intolerance. What exactly is tolerance? Does tolerance mean accepting or respecting anyone's views or belief system regardless of what one thinks its consequences to be? Sadly, this is the notion of tolerance that many people have been taught since around the mid-1980s, and because it has come to them from university professors and high school teachers, many have imbibed it as the proper, right-thinking person's doctrine. Following this conception, it is not enough merely “to tolerate,” one must “embrace” diversity. (For those who believe in “embracing” anything and everything, diversity points might be maximized by embracing total free speech, like that of AAF, instead of tolerating only that which satisfies present dogma.)
The Enlightenment's conception of tolerance is modishly criticized as “Eurocentric” and “outdated.” However, the Enlightenment's notion of tolerance proclaims freedom of conscience and establishes actions as the sole criterion for considerations of punishment. The Enlightenment's conception of tolerance does not condemn thinking one way or another, or expressing one opinion or another, but rather it believes people should be judged on the basis of their actions alone. It is based on this notion of tolerance that AAF is free from any accusations of intolerance or hate, just as the Muslims in the MSA are free from accusations of hate on the basis of the clear content of the book they esteem as the perfect moral guide to be followed without error. Even if members of AAF did hate Muslims (I don't know of any who do), this would not be a crime in any way, although there are many who seemingly wish it were. AAF is justified in defending itself against all Orwellian persecutors of conscience.
Furthermore, this notion of tolerance being used to accuse AAF of intolerance is bankrupt because, were it widely applied, it would render society impotent to make judgments about the ethicality of actions, and it would remove any possibility for programmatic social reform. If our idea of tolerance is acceptance of any and every idea, then we should be accepting Nazism, racist ideologies, misogynist groups, and any other crackpot, bigoted ideas a group may put out there. How many MSA students would march around and deface AAF postings that unequivocally expressed hatred for Nazis or the Aryan Nation? I'd wager none. Such an experiment would isolate the variable “hate speech,” and positively show that it is not the active ingredient motivating MSA's rejection of AAF's action. They are opposed to being offended. No one has the right not to be offended. Perhaps MSA students feel it indicates a hostility to them that will result in some real form of discrimination some time soon.
As Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers, AAF should resoundingly reply: Look who you are talking to! Atheists are the single most maligned group in history, such that atheism was long taken by the religious and irreligious themselves as synonymous with immorality. One of the first great atheist philosophers of the Early Modern Era, Benedict Spinoza, responded defensively to accusations of atheism, saying “they would not call me an atheist if they saw that I lead a moral life.” If atheists themselves show such an awareness of its connotations, we can be sure of the values of the sort of society that gave the word “atheist” such a meaning. Atheism has been equated with immorality and evil by Islam and Christianity since their respective inceptions, and it is only due to the work of the Enlightenment that they suffer atheists to live at all. Even some more conservative figures of the Enlightenment, like John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government (1690) is credited as being a major source for U.S. Law, writes of atheists in another place, “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God...promises, covenants, and oaths, which are bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.” And yet, does one hear atheists demanding not to have their beliefs on metaphysical questions maligned? I have not heard of this being done: I have only heard of atheists insisting on the separation of Church and State, and on people being held accountable for their actions. Muslims have not won a special right not to be offended by virtue of their being discriminated against by some. A stated support for free speech and an attempt to prevent the same from being exercised (or an attempt to punish the same after it has been carried out) is not a belief in free speech at all.
Claims concerning the appropriateness of AAF's protest on the UIUC campus, given the moderate nature of the MSA, are legitimate insofar as this is understood to address nearly all forms of campus protest. This “relevancy heckle” should be similarly raised by the MSA to campus protests against the immigration law in Arizona (we cannot really affect Arizona law here; why not go there to protest?), to campus protests against Proposition 8 (an issue in California), to campus protests against genocide in Darfur, war in Iraq, etc. If you think this campus protest is inappropriate because it will not speak directly to the radicals and those controlling the issue directly, fine: then similarly oppose other protests on college campuses that do the same, which, by the way, amounts to nearly all campus protests. With the relevancy variable isolated, one also can reasonably induct that the MSA's (and others') objection does not lie with the “relevancy” of the AAF's actions. Campus protests on any of the aforementioned matters would surely offend some: conservative Christians could be offended by protests against Proposition 8, those who feel slighted by illegal immigration could be offended and outraged by immigration law protests, etc.
In conclusion, criticism of AAF and AHA's actions as hate speech and intolerance are hollow, and a simple analysis shows that the true opposition lies in the belief of some that they have a right not to be offended (and the belief by others that certain groups to which they do not belong have a right not to be offended). It would not be necessary for AAF to take actions that might offend some if those same truly assented that they have no right not to be offended, but seeing as they do not, I view any action calling out Muslims or any other group for thinking they are exempted from this as an appropriate defense of free speech and exposure of hypocrisy. Hopefully we can build a society in which free speech is truly respected by all, and then, offending others would lack rhetorical purpose and be rendered pointless; this is the true way to stop such protests.
Ph.D. Candidate – Germanic Languages & Literatures