Not freedom of opinion but freedom of thought
Alan Wolfe reads BHL on speaking truth to power.
It is frequently said that we ought to tolerate religious differences; whatever we might think of Islam, we should respect the rights of adherents to believe what they want. No, Levy responds, what the Muslim world needs is not tolerance but secularism.
‘No’? What do you mean ‘no’? That’s not a ‘no’. That is in fact a yes. We ought to tolerate religious differences; whatever we might think of Islam, we should respect the rights of adherents to believe what they want, and secularism is by far the best way to create such a state of affairs, because secularism puts religion aside for purposes of government, thus making it unnecessary to meddle with or even take note of what people believe (about religion, which has to be what Wolfe means here). It is theocracy that cannot respect people’s right to believe what they want, not secularism. Secularism does not (and should not) undertake to respect people’s right to do what they want (without qualification), but that’s a different matter. My guess would be (not having read the book) that that’s what BHL meant by ‘not tolerance but secularism’ – my guess would be that if he did say tolerance is not what’s needed (if that’s not just Wolfe’s careless paraphrase) then he meant blanket tolerance for religiously-inspired actions is not what ‘the Muslim world’ needs.
It is not freedom of opinion that we ought to seek but freedom of thought. Only by applying to Islamic societies the same standards of free inquiry that we apply to our own do we treat Muslims as our equals. If Muslims say that cartoons caricaturing their prophet are offensive and should not be published, we should ignore their calls for sympathy and in the name of freedom of thought be willing to stand charged with blasphemy.
Yes, that’s right – especially when ‘calls for sympathy’ take the form of arson and riots and murder, or lawsuits, or threats. It is indeed the case that applying the same standards of free inquiry everywhere is the only way to treat people with respect; the alternative is a pitying kind of condescension.
The problem with this way of thinking is not just that secularism taken to such an extreme is itself illiberal; knowing what is right, it tramples on the sensitivities of others with little regard for how they may understand the world.
No, because secularism doesn’t take any understanding of the world away from people, it just creates neutrality about world-understandings in the public sphere.
On the other hand, I can’t disagree with Wolfe’s next point. I wish I could.
But Israel is not a secular society; it is a Jewish state. If we are to tell Muslims that they ought to open up their societies to outside influences, shouldn’t we be putting pressure on Israel to reform its incredibly strict marriage laws?