How to Discuss Religion Without Appeasing Tyrants

In 15-minute segments many panelists offered insights on dealing with the candor-or-respect issue. Journalist Ari Goldman admitted that objectivity "is dead." The best option is for journalists to use "fairness." Respect is what journalists owe the subject of an article and candor is what they owe the reader.

Faisal Devji, assistant professor of history at the New School, discussed the limitations of the law in dealing with boycotts and other protests against blasphemy. In the following Q&A session, Bat Ye'or, an Egyptian-born historian who has researched the history of dhimmitude, pointed out that Islamic law does not recognize these legal limitations.

When Bat Ye'or spoke as part of a panel discussion on "Why is religion such a touchy subject?" she investigated the reasons why Muslims were so touchy about criticism. Muslims believe that the Koran is a "divine truth" and that the prophet was a perfect model for all to follow, whose every word and deed was inspired by God. Islam is not just a religion; it's a lifestyle, a political system, and a legal system. For believers, if one criticizes only one aspect of the belief, the entire system is under attack.

Marci Hamilton of Cardozo Law School discussed the tension between what one is allowed to say about religion and what one is not. This concept was basically unknown to her ten years ago, when a religious lobbyist told her that it was "wrong" to use the words "religious" and "lobbyist" in the same sentence. But when she found out about this unwritten and unenforceable law, she lightly noted that she was determined to say those words in the same sentence every day.

Legal theorist Brian Tamanaha discussed the way the subject of religion can cause disagreements among friends or colleagues who otherwise agree on most principles. Of all of the insightful observations expressed during this conference, this one was very apt. The majority of the speakers agreed about basic political issues: most disagreed with the UN and the OIC's attempt to stifle free speech; most agreed that respect should be earned, not forced through intimidation. All agreed that nations based on Sharia law were totalitarian states, attempting to impose their legal system on the rest of the world. But when the subject of religion and discussions about faith began, panelists were criticized (and criticized each other) for not respecting or condemning enough. Since the introduction of religion to a discussion does tend to create insolvable conflict, even among allies, how can issues of candor or respect be resolved?

Keeping religion out of political discussions would be one solution, but these days that's not an option. Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School, who arranged the conference, said that before 9/11 there was a brief period in human history in which we could pretend that religion didn't matter anymore. Then, he said, it "all came crashing down." Religion matters, so we have to deal with it.

David Littman, a UN historian and human rights activist, whose right to speak out against Sharia law is relentlessly censored by other UN delegates, suggested that we follow the advice of Sir Karl Popper, who said:

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. ...

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

Another useful idea to remember is the quote often attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The violent Muslim reaction to Jyllands-Posten's publication of the Muhammad cartoons was an attempt, organized by Islamist states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran, to enforce Sharia law in Europe. The Western government and media response to this violent intolerance and this attack against our laws was, for the most part, submission. The elites showed that they were not willing to stand beside the people who bravely created and published the drawings. They were not willing to risk death or even mild social discomfort to defend our rights. This obsequious reaction proved to the Islamists that they had free rein to bully us further.

The opponents of the "anti-blasphemy" resolution need to put various divisive religious and cultural arguments aside, and we need to unify to defend our right not to tolerate the intolerant. In addition to Littman and the participants in the conference, many rational voices are speaking out against the United Nations' attempt to make the "anti-blasphemy" resolution binding for member nations. The West missed -- or chickened out of -- our last opportunity to defend our rights. We can't let that happen again.