You Have to Respect

Kofi Annan joins the unseemly rush to tell us what we may not say.

Annan condemned the drawings, first published in a Danish newspaper, as “insensitive and rather offensive,” and also denounced the violent reactions in some Muslim countries. He said the drawings, one of which shows Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, could be seen as vilifying a religion with more than 1 billion adherents.

So what? What’s the one billion got to do with anything? What is that other than moral blackmail? Number of adherents is not necessarily a good index of quality or merit, let alone of truth or rational credibility. If Nazism had one billion adherents (as perhaps in fact it does, though under other names), would that make it something we should respect or keep politely quiet about?

Annan said he defends free speech, but insisted “it has to come with some sense of responsibility and judgment and limits. There are times when you have to challenge taboos,” he said. “But you don’t fool around with other people’s religions and you have to respect what is sacred to other people.”

No, you don’t. No, you do not ‘have’ to respect what is ‘sacred’ to other people. It depends what it is, just for a start. If other people hold a small depression in the ground sacred, you may choose to respect that, if you’re in a forgiving mood, but you don’t ‘have’ to. But there sure are a lot of people – well-meaning people, many of them – running around telling us we do have to. Good thing there is also PEN.

Philip Pullman and Nicholas Hytner are leading a campaign to repeal blasphemy laws after the Government’s failure to outlaw “abusive and insulting” criticism of religion…Pullman, who wrote about the death of God in The Amber Spyglass, told The Times that the blasphemy laws had no place in modern Britain. “Exactly the wrong response would be to extend them to cover other religions. Where would you stop?” he asked. “The right response would be to repeal them altogether and let religion, like every other form of human thought, take its chance in free, open debate.”

Where, indeed, would you stop? Would every single system of irrational ideas be off-limits while all the rational ones were left out in the hailstorm? What would be the justification for that? What is the justification for it now? Evidence-free beliefs must be protected while reasonable, evidence-based beliefs must and need not? Why is that a good idea?

The idea that respect is a right is an odd idea anyway, unless respect is defined in a fairly minimal way. But of course it never is defined when people are ordering us to exercise it toward religion – it’s used to mean anything from silence to groveling.

Respect is not a right…Yet all the terrifying Muslim uprisings across the world in response to the Danish cartoons have all been about a demand for respect, as of right. They are demanding respect for religion, or at any rate for their own religion and their own religious sensibilities. The same is true of the more moderate demonstrations in London yesterday. Worse, many westerners are penitentially admitting that Muslims do indeed have a right to respect for their faith, and that it is wrong to express disrespect for a religion. This is disastrous.

Exactly; it is disastrous. It shores up (and rams home) this idea that religion is Special and should get special treatment at all times. Well, why is it special? How long have I been asking that question now – two years? Longer? I don’t know, but at any rate, I haven’t seen a convincing answer yet, and I have been looking for one. I begin to suspect there may not be one.

“What is being called for,” said Faiz Siddiqi, the committee’s convenor, “is a change of culture. In any civilised society, if someone says, ‘don’t insult me’, you do not, out of respect for them.”…First of all there is a tendentious conflation of respect for one’s religion and respect for oneself. It may be true that in traditional Muslim thought a perceived insult to the Prophet is an insult to the believer, but in western culture there is a crucially important – and highly prized – distinction. Freedom of speech depends on people accepting that criticism of a belief, even aggressive, satirical or offensive criticism, is not necessarily intended to insult a person or an ethnic community.

Clearly. Because without that distinction, no criticism, and hence no thought, is possible. Ruling out criticism and thought is not a good plan. I’m against it.

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