“Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself.”
– Robert Ingersoll.
In November last year, Recital Hall in Sydney played host to a debate with the motion: “God and Prophet’s should be protected from insult”. Arguing for the motion was Uthman Badar of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Naturally, Badar’s position was one in which he attempts very weakly to rationalise the irrational, advocate oppression, whilst trying to appear not just to be having a bit of a tantrum. I thought I’d address several of Uthman Badar’s claims in this article.
I was immediately struck by this incredibly hypocritical line from Badar:
“Here’s a frank memo to the liberals…. enough of the self indulgence.”
– If this isn’t the most ironic statement made by someone who advocates a global Caliphate based on the supremacy of his particular ideology above all others… I don’t know what is. It isn’t liberals who punish apostates, or call for the execution of those who make jokes out of our ideas. It isn’t liberals who poison and injure the minds of children with dogmatic stories of eternal torture for non-belief. It isn’t liberals who burn down embassies if someone publishes a cartoon we don’t like. It isn’t liberals who insist on banning people from marriage if they don’t have the specific set of genitals we deem to be ‘acceptable’. So it is perhaps prudent of Uthman Badar in future to look closer to home when it comes to centuries of religious self indulgence before churning out the pitiful line that it is liberals that are the self indulgent ones.
“Free speech is a liberal position. It is an ideological liberal position. Not some logical, universal position”.
– Very simplistic. Free expression absolutely is a logical, universal position. Liberals didn’t invent the idea of not being punished by oppressors for words that those oppressors don’t like. Oppressing expression requires an ideological framework of power, like, say, religion. Oppressing expression does not extinguish the thoughts, it simply reduces the person who has those thoughts, to silence through fear. It chains the tongue and instills fear into the mind. This is incredibly unnatural, very dangerous, and completely contemptible. The erected oppressive barrier is thus simply a form of control over others. Liberals may have broke down that oppressive barrier in periods of enlightenment and emphasis on human rights and individual liberty. It is the barrier itself that is not a natural one. Nature does not inherently permit the oppression of thoughts and expressions that run contrary to the dictates of a 7th Century Middle Eastern sect. The thoughts and expressions of others, are not the property of any ideology.
To be free to express oneself is a natural condition that is only subject to oppression in some form or another from ‘outside’. We erect walls of oppression around the freedom to express oneself that must also be reasonable and logical if they are to be acceptable to us collectively; defamation for example. I know of no one who would argue that defamation laws are not beneficial to us all, or that they restrict others in their pursuits. They protect us equally from damage to our reputation by those who seek to harm us. It is more than expression in that respect. Similarly, threatening through words to murder someone has implications to the safety of the person, and so is likely to encourage a visit from the police. This is entirely different from words that someone may find offensive about the ideas they quite like. We are not naturally restricted in how we express ourselves. Those who wish to do so, simply seek to enslave the mind of those they cannot win over any reasonable way.
It is therefore the burden of those seeking to erect barriers to that natural liberty, that must explain why they have that privilege, why they believe our lives are theirs to play with, and why the rest of us must acquiesce. Free expression is not ideological, it is natural.
We are also endowed with curiosity. This is expressed in terms of critiques (like this article), or artistically – through music, or comedy, or theatre, or any other form of self expression. It is this self expression – and primarily through comedy/satire/mocking – that Uthman objects to. What then Uthman Badar is arguing for, is the legitimacy of erecting further walls of oppression over a natural human condition, based solely on what he deems to be “offensive” for what he holds as sacred beliefs. It is no different to a non-Muslim advocating the banning of Islam or the Qur’an, if they find it to be offensive. For me, this is intensely irrational and dangerous. Why must we take Badar’s supremacy seriously, but not the individual wishing to restrict Islam? (Similarly, I have defended the right of Muslims to build a Mosque in Bendigo, when other supremacists demanded it stopped).
We know what happens when defensive, insecure and paranoid religious folk have power over the cogs of state. Currently, 72 year old Brit Masud Ahmad – part of the Ahmadiyya sect – faces three years in a Pakistan prison for reading the Qur’an out loud. Apparently blasphemy if carried by a ‘non-muslim’. The logic behind just what actually constitutes blasphemy in Pakistan, is irrelevant. The very fact that someone can face jail time for “blasphemy” is so utterly abhorrent, and enough to remind us of just why a state should never be governed along religious principles. When a state is governed by religious principles – the dogmatic adherence to moral ‘rules’ set out centuries ago by one group in one place in one time – human freedoms quickly erode, human progress quickly erodes, replaced by personal beliefs of the dominant group and the inevitable oppression of others.
Badar never actually explains why causing offense to a religion – blasphemy – should be off limits, yet other forms of offense shouldn’t. He never offers an explanation as to why his particular authoritarian idea – that includes political control over others – should be protected from the mocking words of those they seek to control. Defamation is quite clear cut and covers us all. Trying to ban offending someone’s beliefs isn’t as clear cut, and only seems to cover religious beliefs. If Badar’s demands for a ban on offending religious beliefs, doesn’t extend to offending political beliefs, or indeed, any form of offense that one might cause someone else through any medium including practically all forms of comedy; then immediately his argument falls down through a massive hole of inconsistency, and he is relegated to simply having a silly little child-like “I hate blasphemy” tantrum.
Indeed, every human being ever condemned as a heretic or a blasphemer, and violently punished or killed as such across the centuries, must today be considered a hero in the cause of human freedom.
“To insult others is to treat them with gross insensitivity, insolence, or contemptuous rudeness. Those who want to allow this, the onus is on them to prove that such depravity should be allowed.”
– Yes. Exactly right, to insult others. Though it shouldn’t be banned by the state, insulting others for the sake of it certainly shouldn’t be encouraged and should indeed be discouraged. As adults, we should of course regulate ourselves as best we can. For example, Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman failed miserably on that, when he said:
“The kaffar, the disbelievers, the atheists who remain deaf and stubborn to the teachings of Islam, the rational message of the Quran; they are described in the Quran as, quote, “a people of no intelligence”, Allah describes them as; not of no morality, not as people of no belief – people of “no intelligence” – because they’re incapable of the intellectual effort it requires to shake off those blind prejudices, to shake off those easy assumptions about this world, about the existence of God.”
– This Kuffarophobic bigotry should indeed be discouraged. I wouldn’t wish to see Mehdi Hasan punished for expressing his bigoted views toward people he’s never met. He is entitled to hold those views and to say them. I should not be trying to punish that. And I wouldn’t wish to silence the words of his God, who considers me someone of “no intelligence” apparently. This is insulting to me as a person. Not to my beliefs, but to me as a human being. Insulting other human beings is entirely separate. Challenging authoritarian ideas and concepts – be them political or religious, with critique and satire, with criticism and poking fun – should be considered uncompromisable and absolutely necessary. Authoritarian ideas like Islam must not be afforded the opportunity to regulate our thoughts and our expressions. Humanity is not to be chained by a single ideology.
In his follow up article (it’s the same wording as the video, with a few tweaks), Badar says:
“…Would we accept white people using the “n word” against blacks?”
– No. The issue here isn’t the expression, the issue is the sentiment behind the expression. The sentiment behind the expression is one rooted in the history of an oppressive, supremacist ideology based on race. It is supremacy that is the problem. Racism is institutional supremacy, and its partnered language further goes to solidify those supremacist notions. For example, if a group – such as the one Badar represents – was to openly suggest “eradicating” Jews from the Earth, we may say that the words themselves are not the issue, the issue is the sentiment behind it. A very neo-nazi sentiment seeped in violent, oppressive history.
Secularism ensures a line of equality. It affords the same rights for you as a person as it does for me as a person. My gender, my sexuality, my race, or my beliefs have no more right to oppress you, as your gender, sexuality, race or beliefs have a right to oppress me. It is the only safeguard against supremacy. Anything that deviates from that line – the elevation of one race above another, or the elevation of one system of belief in a place of power above all others – is supremacist. This is the problem. This is what Badar advocates.
“Insulting another person’s beliefs does not encourage them to think. Instead, it makes them more entrenched, defensive and prepared to retaliate – that’s human nature.”
– Two problems with this quote also. Firstly, Badar makes the mistake of presuming that offending religious beliefs, is primarily about trying to encourage people to think about those beliefs. Why does he presume that’s the case? I am quite certain that the ‘Life of Brian’ or ‘Father Ted’ were not intended to encourage people to think. They exist to make people laugh. Political satire equally is there to make people laugh, not primarily to make people think. Though, some is. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show exists to make people laugh, but also – as with the Kramer interview – to encourage thought. Still, Stewart mocks political ideas. For Badar, this is unacceptable.
Badar appears to believe any criticism of ideas must only be encouragement to think. I reject this wholeheartedly. Indeed, even when it is presented as a thoughtful discussion, it tends to be claimed to “insult” those who hold beliefs to be sacred. Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” was so insulting to Christians, that in Britain he was condemned:
“…as an enemy of proper thought and of the morality of decent, enlightened people.”
– In this respect, Paine was writing to make people think, and simultaneously managed to insult people. Centuries earlier, the Syrian al-Ma’arri wrote poetry that openly mocked religion, but it is also conducive to thought and understanding; the history of non-belief in this case. This immediately shows just how mistaken Badar was when he claimed insulting beliefs does not encourage thought. It doesn’t have to be primarily about encouraging thought, but often when that is the primary point, it is still considered insulting anyway. It is often true, that most great leaps forward intellectually, were considered incredibly insulting and offensive when first proposed.
Secondly, in insisting that insulting another person’s beliefs is fundamentally wrong, Badar appears to be disagreeing with his own God. And he goes on to contradict the words of his own Holy Book again later, when he states:
“When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam.”
– And yet, the Qur’an begins almost every chapter with a vivid description of the punishment awaiting we non-believers if – even through serious debate – we conclude there is no God. Here, a quick example:
“Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”
– Essentially, let’s debate it… but if you don’t end up agreeing with me, you will be tortured forever. This should be insulting to anyone who values free thought, and critical inquiry. It is insulting to me as a non-believer. It is a threat. I am insulted by this. It isn’t encouraging me to think. It is nothing but intimidation. When I point this out to Muslims, most say “You don’t believe it, so you shouldn’t be offended.” This cop-out completely misses the point. Just as it is not my place to tell you that you shouldn’t be offended by a cartoon of the Prophet, it is not your place to tell me I shouldn’t be offended by what is written in a Holy Book I find to be repugnant. And if a Holy Book spends so much time insisting that I as a non-believer deserve to be tortured for eternity, then I absolutely reserve the right to mock it. It deserves nothing less from me. There is no inherent right for this one particular ideology to be respected without question. It must earn our respect, and for me it has managed the complete opposite.
Further, the suggestion seems to be that if we non-believers do not inherently respect your religion, and your Prophet, then we should be forced to respect your religion, and your Prophet through threat of punishment. It seems rather obvious to me, that if you need to force people to respect your religion through blasphemy laws – chances are, it’s not a respectable religion.
Indeed, what I defend as a freedom for myself to express without force or punishment, I defend for those whose actual existence I am so vehemently offended by. I am insulted that Hizb ut-Tahrir wishes to establish a Theocratic system whereby I am relegated to a social rank below Muslims who are to have power over me, protected by a thoroughly Islamic constitutional framework. I am offended by Badar’s expression of this goal, but I do not wish to punish him for having it or expressing it. The same freedom that allowed for Graham Linehan’s wonderful ‘Father Ted’ blasphemous comedy, allows for Hizb ut-Tahrir to announce on their East Africa website that:
“Homosexuality is an Evil that Destroys Societies!”
– This is insulting on such a grand scale. Incredibly offensive. It is this that we can compare to use of the “n word” Badar mentioned earlier. When I read this statement, it is like reading a KKK white supremacist pronouncement of the evils of those with darker skin. It is supremacy based on the idea that one biological trait is supreme and must have control over others, for the benefit of that one trait. This is hideous to me. Sexuality, like race, is largely genetic and a vast spectrum that has no “right” or “wrong” and the only reason sexuality has been oppressed so viciously over the centuries, is entirely down to religious supremacy; a heterosexual male dominated sphere of influence. Similarly, the only reason those with darker skin tones have been so viciously oppressed over the centuries, is racial supremacy. The poison is the same; the irrational oppression of freedom forged by those with power over those with no power, in order to ensure conformity to that particular oppressive ideology.
It is because of that inherently oppressive nature of supremacist ideologies – they are not just ‘beliefs’ if they seek control over others – that I maintain that not only should mockery and criticism not be punished by the state, but if that mockery or criticism is aimed at supremacist ideologies with a long history of oppression and with very imperialist, supremacist doctrines that I find offensive – then mockery and criticism become vital and necessary. Similarly, I absolutely support Badar’s right to offend my views on the superiority of secular democracy and human rights. The line of equality is essential.
If Uthman Badar wishes me not to “offend” his God, or his Prophet, then I demand with equal passion, that the Qur’an be rid of all references to the vicious eternal punishment awaiting we non-believers. Why is me feeling insulted by the words promoted in a book that believers have long used to oppress people like me, less important than the feelings of muslims with delusions of the importance of their doctrines? Why, if I find an ideology so repulsive to my own ideas of human freedom and rights, must I keep that to myself? When that faith no longer demands power over the lives of others through the mechanism of the state, when it longer seeks to indoctrinate children, when it no longer punishes apostates, when it doesn’t tell my gay friends they’re “unnatural” or shouldn’t be allowed to marry, when we’re not constantly told how awful the “kuffar” are or how evil the “west” is….. when all that self indulgence and Islamic supremacy stops, then I might cease criticising and mocking Badar’s ideology. Until then, I reserve the right without fear of punishment, to believe that all authoritarian ideas – of which Islam is certainly up there – should be open to criticism, mocking, and satire. And that those like Uthman Badar, a danger to the very basics of human liberty and dignity. Blasphemy is not just acceptable, it is absolutely vital to extinguishing the illegitimate power of religious oppression and supremacy.
It is quite simple, if you are not secularist, if you do not believe in a line of equality regardless of faith, race, gender, sexuality, then you are by definition advocating the power of one race, or one faith, or one gender, or one sexuality above all others. In Badar’s case, he advocates a state in which his particular ideology deserves power over the lives of us all, should be given special privileges over all others, simply because he believes its premise to be true. This is the advocating of oppression, regardless of how it is dressed up. No supremacist – to my knowledge – including Uthman Badar has ever provided a reasonable position as to why we should all accept their particular brand of supremacy as legitimate over our lives.
Let us be clear; free expression, freedom of belief, human and civil rights based on racial, religious, sexuality, and gender equality are not “liberal” principles. They’re not “Western” principles. They’re just not oppressive Theocratic principles. Those of us who hold those ideals; those of us with a respect for human beings before ideologies; those of us who believe in equal treatment under secular law… we should be intensely proud of those values.