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The Sphere of Permitted Ideas

This week, there’s been a flurry of stories about Muslim groups trying to suppress criticism of Islam, both by law and by force. It’s worth summarizing them briefly to show how these aren’t isolated incidents, but parts of a larger and more disturbing trend.

First up: I mentioned earlier the story of a campus secular group in London that came under pressure from Muslim students and the university union to remove this image from the webcomic Jesus and Mo from their Facebook page. (Muslims claim the right to censor any drawing of anyone that even might be Muhammad, holding a container of something that even might be alcohol, even on an internet forum frequented by and aimed at non-Muslims.) To their credit, the atheists stood firm against this demand.

When Rhys Morgan, a 17-year-old U.K. student and noted skeptical activist in his own right, posted the same cartoon on his own Facebook profile in solidarity, he was berated and threatened by fellow students, and then – most shockingly of all – called into the office by his school’s administration and threatened with expulsion if he didn’t remove it. He gave in at this point, understandably so, and no blame attaches to him for that. But blame does deserve to fall on the shockingly heavy-handed and cowardly administrators at his school, who gave the theocratic bullies exactly what they wanted.

Let’s be clear about this: The religious rule that Muhammad should never be depicted in artwork is a rule for Muslims. (And not even for all Muslims, as this post’s image demonstrates.) They can abide by that rule if they choose to, but they have no right to demand that everyone who doesn’t believe in their religion do the same. They frame this as a matter of “respect”, but what it really is is a naked demand to control the behavior of others. I think there are passages from the Qur’an that are intensely disrespectful of women, Jews, atheists, and non-Muslims in general; do I have the right to demand that Muslims never recite these verses, even in their own religious meetings?

Second: As I mentioned in my last link roundup, the author Salman Rushdie had originally been scheduled to speak at three sessions during the Jaipur Literary Festival in India. But in response to protests from Muslims who are still angry that he once dared to write a book they disagree with, organizers have taken his name off the speakers list. I wish I could say I was surprised, but India has a history of censoring free speech to reward violent thugs who demand that no one ever criticize their religion. India, your democratic reputation is at stake – you can do better than this!

Again, as with depictions of Muhammad, what we have here is bullying believers asserting the right to apply their religious laws to everyone. If Salman Rushdie writes a book that Muslims regard as blasphemous, he must be shunned by the entire literary world. This would mean that the most censorious, fundamentalist forms of Islam would be allowed to dictate to the entire literary world what is or isn’t acceptable to say – and needless to say, the sphere of permitted ideas would dwindle virtually to nothing if that were the case.

Last, and most shocking: This week in London, a speech that was to be given by Anne Marie Waters, sponsored by the anti-sharia group One Law for All, had to be called off when an Islamist thug burst into the room, took pictures of the attendees with a camera phone and loudly promised violence if the content of the talk wasn’t to his liking. Waters herself has the horrifying details:

Just before I was due to start, a young man entered the lecture theatre, stood at the front of the room with a camera and proceeded to film everyone in the audience. That done, he informed us that he knew who we were, where we lived and if he heard a single negative word about the Prophet, he would track us down. (I am told he made further threats as he left the building).

These stories remind me of when the government of Jordan demanded that the Netherlands extradite the firebrand politician Geert Wilders so they could put him on trial for saying uncomplimentary things about Islam – even though Wilders has no ties whatsoever to Jordan – under the theory that the government of any Islamic country has the right to punish any criticism of Islam anywhere in the world. That would be outrageous enough, but these incidents show that even individual Muslims have appointed themselves the enforcers of doctrine – and they believe they have unlimited power.

For the moment, threats aside, this is just a self-deluding fantasy. But to make sure it never becomes more than that – to make sure it never becomes more than the growling of petty thugs and bullies – it’s vital that all people of conscience and principle speak out against it. And just to prove that free speech isn’t something I only support when it’s on my side, there’s this story from South Africa, in which an anti-atheist billboard was censored:

A church advertising campaign that depicted atheists as stupid has been banned by a watchdog in South Africa.

Officials ruled a billboard that suggested non-believers considered their existence to be accidental was likely to be found offensive.

The complaint of one individual notwithstanding, I have no objection to this billboard, nor do any of the atheists I know. We’re confident that we can win in a fair fight of ideas, and unlike some religious groups, we don’t ask the government to protect us from criticism or demand that no one ever say anything we disagree with. Do I disagree with the billboard’s backers? Of course, but I don’t want to see them silenced. Better that they speak their minds, so that we have the opportunity to reply. If Islamic believers or religious believers in general consistently refuse to accept this logic, could it be because they’re not as confident of the outcome of that fight as I am?

Image: A 14th-century Islamic depiction of Muhammad from the Jami al-Tawarikh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.


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