12 January 2015

Liberalism and the sacred

Since I last wrote, the men believed to have carried out the shootings at Charlie Hebdo magazine were cornered and killed Friday while a possibly self-appointed ally who murdered a police officer on Thursday and took hostages in a kosher grocery the next day, killing four of them, in defense of the first gunmen, was killed when police stormed the building. This third man prepared a video for release this weekend avowing his loyalty to the self-styled Islamic State, while the first gunmen reportedly identified themselves with the Yemen branch of al-Qaeda. Charlie Hebdo's editor had been placed on a hit list illustrated on the cover of a recent issue of an English-language magazine for al-Qaeda sympathizers. Parisians took to the streets yesterday by the hundreds of thousands to declare their solidarity with the victimized cartoonists and their defiance of terrorism. Since no one had the guts to go into that crowd with even a knife, I suppose you can say that terrorists were cowards that day. Meanwhile, some may feel that President Obama was a coward for not joining the leaders of France, Germany, Great Britain and Israel, among others, at the Paris rally; others with more vivid or pathological imaginations may see this as further proof of his closet Islam, or at least of an excessive reluctance to confront militant Islam as such. As some apologists have noted, however, those who criticize the President for not going to Paris would just as readily have criticized him for hogging the spotlight or merely seeking a photo op had he gone -- and god help him had he delivered a speech.

The Paris massacre raises anew the question of Islam's compatibility with modern, liberal society. For most Muslims, at least in the U.S., there really is no question; however they may feel about the taboo on picturing the Prophet Muhammad, very few here would feel entitled or empowered to kill or take any reprisal against those doing the picturing. The closest we came to that was back in the 1970s, in one of the first intimations of a new Muslim militancy, when one group took hostages in a Washington D.C. hotel to protest the release of a Muhammad biopic, even though the film itself was so reticent that the Prophet was neither seen nor heard in it. For many liberals, the real question is not whether we should refrain from caricaturing sacred figures out of fear of violent death, but whether we should refrain out of sensitivity to other people's values and traditions. Distinctions may be drawn between criticisms of Islam and its history and mere gratuitous mockery that seems, to some observers, to have no purpose other than to challenge the devout to endure it.

Is anything sacred -- should anything be -- in a liberal society? Are there things of such intense and essential meaning that the harm done by mockery outweighs the benefit of it as proof of a free and healthy discourse? There certainly are "sacred cows" in any society, or among any group of people, but are those the same thing? Is it possible for a liberal society to rule that no good can come from gratuitous mockery -- my term presumes that cartoons like those in Charlie Hebdo have no actual critical content -- or is the hurt felt from such mockery too subjective, too easily determined by the eye of the beholder, to be recognized by law. For now, in the U.S. it's not even illegal to be a Nazi, and while there are informal taboos on the most blatantly derogatory portrayals of blacks, Jews and others in the media, these are not backed by the full force of law. Muslims note such taboos and cry double-standard, but however they feel about what the U.S. has done to their homelands, Americans simply don't feel that they owe Muslims the sensitivity that is arguably owed as minimal compensation for past offenses to blacks, Jews, Native Americans, etc.  There's no "infidel guilt" regarding Islam, so to speak, except among a left fringe that's really more sensitive to poverty and skin color than it is to religion. Where cultural guilt is felt, a need for protection is asserted, but that doesn't quite render sacred the "protected" groups or the things or people they revere, as black people will readily tell you. Muslims may feel entitled to similarly protective sensitivity, but what sensitivity exists is historically selective rather than a universal principle to which Muslims might appeal. Certain groups in this country feel insulted constantly (e.g. Catholics) yet the culture seems to owe them less sensitivity, if any. That's probably because Catholicism is still seen by many as an oppressive force, just as Islam is seen as an offensive force to which little if any sensitivity is owed. An ideal of mutual respect for otherness probably persists among liberals, but when respect appears to demand silence it comes into conflict with other liberal impulses, depending on the distinctions to be drawn between what can and what can't be criticized. It might be argued that something like identity can't be criticized the way an idea can be, but can only be insulted by seeming criticism -- but the idea that identity renders sacred things that otherwise might not be is one that can and should be tested by criticism. The idea that identity requires violence in defense of the sacred things that define it would seem to be beneath criticism, but is there really no criticism or caricature of their own defining ideas that liberals would want to fight over? Liberalism prides itself, presumably, on being able to stand any insult and take any criticism. But if someone says we -- the nation or the world -- need dictatorship, and the silencing of pluralism with it, and that somehow begins to catch on, will liberals remain content merely arguing against the trend? Maybe they will, and maybe that makes them better than Muslims and everyone else -- but who will still be here in the end?

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