De Profundis

What a relief it is to read Kenan Malik after Doudou Diéne.

At the beginning it feels not so much like reading Kenan Malik as like stumbling into an echo chamber.

“I believe in free speech, but…” That has become the rallying cry for the liberal left in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversy. The Guardian “believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend.” For Jack Straw freedom of speech is fine but not if it leads to an “open season” on religious taboos.

Part of the liberal left, I would urgently interject. Not all! By no means all. Not B&W and not Kenan to name two; not Nick Cohen and not the people who organized the March for Free Expression, not Maryam Namazie and not Norm – and so on. There are a lot of us, and we’re a talkative bunch. But his main point is – well, one I’ve made in almost the same words, so I agree with it.

So free speech is good, but has to become less free in a plural society. “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict,” the sociologist Tariq Modood argues, “they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.”

Well, there’s one of the more revolting ideas I’ve seen in awhile. One could take it as a mere banal definition, of course – he could simply be saying that subjecting fundamental beliefs to criticism can lead to conflict, can be seen as a kind of conflict itself. This unstartling observation can be followed with ‘and a good thing too’ along with the observation that fundamental beliefs that never get subjected to criticism are about as exciting and inspiring as one’s own pancreas. They’re just there, they’re inert, they’re like wallpaper; who cares. But that probably isn’t what Modood means. (If it were, Kenan probably wouldn’t have quoted it.) There is that ‘have to’ for instance – that has that familiar whiff of intimidation and coercion about it, that we’re all getting so immensely tired of. ‘You have to limit your criticism of my fundamental beliefs – limit it to zero, please – or else I will show you some conflict, if you get my drift.’

It’s a Rawlsian view of sorts, I suppose. A slightly bullying version of Rawls’s political liberalism. It depends among other things on what one means by ‘political space’. Does Modood mean literally, narrowly political space, where laws are made? Or does he mean the social world in general? If the former, it can mean (if I understand Rawls properly, which I’m not sure of) something like bracketing fundamental beliefs and disagreements about them for the sake of agreeing on something that needs doing. But if, as I suspect, it means the social world in general, it just means the same old crap. ‘Shut up because I don’t like what you’re saying’ – dressed up in grand talk about occupying space without conflict. Not a modification of free speech then, but its flat obliteration.

Ah, say the would-be censors, the problem is that you secularists simply do not understand religious believers’ depth of attachment to their faith, and hence their outrage at any insult to it…This argument reveals how little attached many liberals are to their own beliefs…There is no reason to treat Muslims – or, indeed, any religious believers – as special cases. Communists were often wedded to their ideas even unto death. Racists have a visceral attachment to their prejudices. Should I indulge them because their beliefs are so deeply held? Of course not.

Of course not indeed. Depth, intensity, passion, fervour, devoutness, warmth, zeal, profundity of feeling are no guide whatsoever to the merit of the object of the feeling. Absolutely none. Hitler was deeply attached to the mess he believed in, Timothy McVeigh was similarly attached to his, zealots in general are fervent and intense about what they believe; it does not follow and it is not true that what they believe is true or right or just or good for other people. The merit of the content of beliefs has to be evaluated quite separately from anyone’s emotional attachment to said beliefs.

In any case, I would challenge anyone to show me that my humanism is less intensely felt than the faith of a Muslim or of any other believer. There is something almost racist about the claim that Muslims are so different from everyone else.

I would just drop the ‘almost’, myself. I think it is exactly inverse racism (except that Muslim isn’t a race, but the people who go in for this kind of inverse racism are just the people who insist on pretending it is, and they certainly think about it as if it is). It makes a special category of Muslims and then treats them with special rules it would never apply to, say, the BNP or Fred Phelps. No matter what the depth of Fred’s attachment to his ‘faith’.

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