Many Muslims around the world feel singled out for abuse when non-Muslim nations allow "blasphemous" or otherwise denigrating representations of the Prophet Muhammad or the religion of Islam in general. They claim to be unimpressed by western nations' appeal to the principle of freedom of expression because they see that the principle isn't honored universally. In particular, they see western nations compromising the principle of free expression out of perceived sensitivity to one religion and wonder why no similar sensitivity is showed toward them.
A Gambian newspaper columnist, for instance, notes that "Denying the holocaust against the Jews has been criminalised whilst
contempt of another religion, Islam to be precise, is categorized under
the banner of free speech." In the writer's opinion, allowing denigration of any religion belies the west's claim of global moral leadership. In Lebanon, Hezbollah boss Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah makes a similar equation between Holocaust denial and anti-Islam expression. Noting how the U.S. seems to rebuke every instance of skepticism about the Holocaust, Nasrallah asks: “Don't the Muslims - followers of this Great religion - deserve to have
the same level of presence and a similar law to be issued in their
Are these Muslims missing the point about Holocaust denial -- leaving aside the point that it is not illegal in the country where the "Innocence of Muslims" film was made? In both cases quoted here, the assumption seems to be that Holocaust denial is banned or stigmatized primarily because it is offensive to Jewish people. They might argue that the Nazi party and Nazi regalia are banned in Germany for the same reason. It should be possible, however, to argue that such measures have less to do with Jews than with Nazis. Holocaust denial, I presume, is banned in some places and deplored practically everywhere not because denying it insults the Jews but because it aims to exculpate the Nazis. In any event, Holocaust denial is something different from generic anti-semitism, which is more freely expressed, and as readily deplored, around the world. In fact, non-Muslim critics of this month's violence quickly point out that anti-semitism is probably more common in Muslim (or at least in Arab) countries than anywhere else on earth today. If they can denigrate Jews (and Christians, and others), it is asked, how dare they throw tantrums when anyone mocks Muhammad? Islamic apologists answer with a self-serving distinction between denigration of religion and denigration of prophets. They claim that, as Muslims, they revere Moses and Jesus, at least, almost as much as they revere Muhammad, and that no matter how much they may criticize Jews and Christians, they'd never stoop to insulting their founding prophets. Our Gambian writer goes so far as to boast that "of all religions on earth, Islam is the only one, which approves the
Christians fundamental dogma that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin in
an immaculate manner, without a father." But that's only part of the story, of course. A Christian might comment that unless Muslims acknowledge that Jesus's father was God, which they cannot do, they are denigrating his mission if not the man himself. That point aside, this pious respect shown by Muslims to Moses and Jesus proves nothing, since Muslims revere both men as Muslim prophets, on the assumption that the revelation each man brought was essentially the same as the Qur'an, but was distorted in each case by his followers and successors. Members of the Baha'i faith tell a quite different story about Muslim attitudes toward their founder, who dared to be a post-Muhammad prophet. We should also like to know the Muslim attitude toward people like Joseph Smith who likewise fall outside the approved line of prophetic succession.
It's easy to dismiss many Muslims as hypocrites, but does that invalidate the principle they espouse -- that world peace requires an equal respect for all religions and a principled refusal to denigrate any of them? The answer depends on the definition of denigration. If a person can't say that there is no god without denigrating a group of believers, we have to side with the denigrator against the denigrated. No one on earth should be compelled to affirm the existence of a god out of sensitivity to the feelings of those who already believe. Nor should the atheist be compelled into silence out of the same sensitivity. I would probably agree with Muslims that Islam is too easily insulted, but we'd agree for different reasons. But am I wrong -- is the west wrong -- to believe that Muslims are too thin-skinned for everyone's good? Pragmatism and an interest in peace might require some degree of mutual respects among faiths, and a respect from all faiths for atheists, but the rules for respect can't be written unilaterally by any side. It can't be a matter of a Muslim ultimatum followed by more tantrums. The world is not obliged to acknowledge Muhammad as a great or even a good man. If Muslims will not accept this without throwing tantrums, perhaps it should be they who are compelled to respect the opinions of the majority of mankind. But if it makes them feel better, they may not be the only people on earth who could use such compulsion.