When discussing religion, how do we know when respecting apparently faith-based beliefs leads to contempt for our beliefs? Should we tolerate the intolerant? These questions are particularly relevant when a secular political body, the United Nations, recently passed an anti-blasphemy measure (backed by the 57-state Organization of the Islamic Conference) combating “defamation of religions.”
The Columbia University School of Law conference Candor or Respect: Talking About the Religion of Others, held on February 26, was supposed to focus on the treatment of all religions within the realms of the public sphere (governance, diplomacy, and journalism). It was not supposed to concentrate solely on Islam. But these days, when a discussion focuses on religion, and when panel members agree that “there is reason to believe that a failure of either candor or respect could be profoundly dangerous,” the subject of Islam will tend to take center stage.
As several panelists noted, the association of religion with profound danger and abuse would not have occurred to the majority of the population ten years ago. But we all understand the concept now. Speaker Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society said, “We’ve seen a shift” in the concept of respect for religion since pre-Cold War times. The old definition, described in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concerned the need to protect religious belief against coercion by the state. The religious defamation resolution that was passed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2008 defines respect of religion as the protection of Islam from “attempts to identify [it] with terrorism, violence, and human rights violations.” As Mr. Leo noted, restraints on criticism of Islam were not just directed at states; they were also directed against individuals.
This definition of respect was put forward by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an organization of 57 states that call themselves “the collective voice of the Muslim world.” Flemming Rose, the Jyllands-Posten editor who published the “Danish cartoons,” understood why the OIC demanded censorship in the name of “respect.” As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, he saw how the Russian government and mafia used intimidation to gain “respect.” In his Washington Post article titled “Why I Published Those Cartoons,” he said: “I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. … The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants.”
Lately, it’s sadly obvious that most Western elites have changed their policies on appeasing totalitarian 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.