February 12, 2006


Our Faith in Letting It All Hang Out (STANLEY FISH, 2/12/06, NY Times)

The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously. This is managed by the familiar distinction — implied in the First Amendment's religion clause — between the public and private spheres. It is in the private sphere — the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship — that one's religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.

But in the public sphere, the argument goes, one's religious views must be put forward with diffidence and circumspection. You can still have them and express them — that's what separates us from theocracies and tyrannies — but they should be worn lightly. Not only must there be no effort to make them into the laws of the land, but they should not be urged on others in ways that make them uncomfortable. What religious beliefs are owed — and this is a word that appears again and again in the recent debate — is "respect"; nothing less, nothing more.

The thing about respect is that it doesn't cost you anything; its generosity is barely skin-deep and is in fact a form of condescension: I respect you; now don't bother me. This was certainly the message conveyed by Rich Oppel, editor of The Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman, who explained his decision to reprint one of the cartoons thusly: "It is one thing to respect other people's faith and religion, but it goes beyond where I would go to accept their taboos."

Clearly, Mr. Oppel would think himself pressured to "accept" the taboos of the Muslim religion were he asked to alter his behavior in any way, say by refraining from publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet. Were he to do that, he would be in danger of crossing the line between "respecting" a taboo and taking it seriously, and he is not about to do that.

This is, increasingly, what happens to strongly held faiths in the liberal state. Such beliefs are equally and indifferently authorized as ideas people are perfectly free to believe, but they are equally and indifferently disallowed as ideas that might serve as a basis for action or public policy.

Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism's museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give — ask for deference rather than mere respect — it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.

One of those arguments goes this way: It is hypocritical for Muslims to protest cartoons caricaturing Muhammad when cartoons vilifying the symbols of Christianity and Judaism are found everywhere in the media of many Arab countries. After all, what's the difference? The difference is that those who draw and publish such cartoons in Arab countries believe in their content; they believe that Jews and Christians follow false religions and are proper objects of hatred and obloquy.

But I would bet that the editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision; they do it gratuitously, almost accidentally. Concerned only to stand up for an abstract principle — free speech — they seize on whatever content happens to come their way and use it as an example of what the principle should be protecting. The fact that for others the content may be life itself is beside their point.

This is itself a morality — the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.

Which is why Americans more closely resemble the protestors, not the editors.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 12, 2006 8:12 AM

But I would bet that the editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished.

That's not correct. They do believe that the Muslims are evil infidels. They do believe they must be converted. Thhey must be converted to liberal democracy. If they can't be converted to liberal democracy then they must be vanquished, because we cannot live among them if they don't.

This nonsense that freedom of speech is some kind of abstract faith while Christianity or Islam are concrete faiths is nonsense. Freedom of speech is a sacred tenet of liberal, pluralistic democracy, a faith founded on the very real and concrete failures of "faith based" governing schemes. It is more concrete, because it is a faith based on actual experience, as opposed to the supposed supernatural events of some long ago time.

Mr Fish shares a love of fervent faith for faith's sake, irrespective of the content of that faith, with Robert Duncan, the author of that essay that OJ linked to but has since removed from the blog. (I still have a link to Duncan's article at the DD).Duncan admired the protesters becaused they felt strongly about their faith. But they also felt strongly about killing infidels. So are we to just admire fervent faith irregardless of the content? Peter would call that "form over substance".

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 12, 2006 11:25 AM

strongly held faiths ... are equally and indifferently disallowed as ideas that might serve as a basis for action or public policy.

In other words, secular liberalism is to be the exclusive provider of ideas for action or public policy.

In taking this position, secular liberalism is no different than Muslims with their Sharia: the difference, if there is one, is in the lengths of violence to which they may go to enforce their privileged position.

Posted by: pj at February 12, 2006 12:11 PM

There is another way of looking at this.

Western civilization does, as a corporate whole, with very few individuals actually conceptualizing it, hold "Muslims to be evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished."

It is not enough to think that because Muslims believe in God they are the allies of Western believers against the left. If the Muslims believe in one God, they do well, the devils in Hell believe also, and tremble. Jas 2:19

There are pagans left in the West who abuse and exploit freedom to advance their counter-progress, but freedom of conscience and separation of church and state are still Western values and these put us at war with unconverted and unvanquished Muslims.

The difference lies in the belief-action dichotomy. It is about this that the Times essay is confused. Beliefs are private. Caesar does not care how we name God, or whether we use leavened or unleavened altar-breads. Beliefs may, however, affect our choices about actions such as baby-murder or slavery, but this does not, as the article implies, make baby-murder and slavery sacramental.

Islam, on the other hand, is still a spiritual jailhouse. Beliefs qua beliefs are rigidly suppressed. Missionaries and converts are persecuted, competing scriptures are proscribed, competing symbols destroyed.

This very controversy makes this clear. It is freedom of expression which is being attacked, and suppression of thought which is being attempted.

The article suggests this by telling us that the publication of the offending cartoons was done "gratuitiously, almost accidentally." What this means is that unconverted, unvanquished Islam is so alien to how we think and move and have our being as be a natural, unavoidable culture-enemy.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 12, 2006 12:23 PM

pj, that quote from the author is also nonsense. There is no disqualification of strongly held beliefs as a source for public policy in a liberal democracy. I can't imagine how you or the author think this is true. Freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are the very enablers for those strongly held beliefs to be included in the decision making process. Can you point to any instance where such strongly held beliefs were disallowed?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 12, 2006 12:28 PM


Yes, most editors think the same of Christianity, which is why they are the enemy, not the protestors. Speech is a means, not an end.

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2006 12:59 PM


The courts have banned prayer in public schools, imposed Darwinism as official orthodoxy, banned the pledge, imposed abortion and homosexuality, etc. The beliefs at the core of the Republic are under assault, though the tide has turned.

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2006 1:05 PM

OJ, the average American, choosing between newspapers publishing offensive cartoons and religious nuts rioting over them, will choose the former, no question. America is a largely religious nation, but we understand free speech and believe in non-violent protest. (Well, most of us do.)

Posted by: PapayaSF at February 12, 2006 9:13 PM


We'd stop the newspapers if they were offending us.

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2006 9:50 PM

A Muslim protestor (female) carried a sign today (I think from Indonesia) - "Freedom of expression is Western terrorism".

Setting aside that this crisis is a proxy war being fought by the Syrians, Iranians, and some portion of the Saudi oligarchy, how do we respond to such a sentiment?

We could laugh, and guess that the woman may not be able to read English, and didn't even know what her sign said. We could hyperventilate, like the Muslims (although most of us don't like being puppets). We could shrug, and say it is far away and doesn't matter. We could apologize to her, and hand her an American flag to burn. We could even say "if this be terrorism, then let's make the most of it" (the Ann Coulter position, as it were).

As the moralizing and self-abnegation continues, we must remember that like in Vietnam, there is no "perfect" position. But there is good, better, and much, much worse. To act like the mayor of London is to practically place the sword over our own throats. To act like Ann is to ignore the reality of the problem, and to really commit slander.

The radicals have much of Islam by the gonads, and we can't change that overnight. We can't "win" by being nice. But we can "lose" by being stupid. Many Europeans are frightened, and they are therefore doing stupid things. The State Dept. is so addled and sclerotic that it cannot do anything but stupid. The US media is caught between 'niceness', 'diversity' and its anti-American reflexes on one hand, and its clarion call of freedom of speech on the other. Plus, there is a measure of fear at work that the press hardly feels anywhere else.

Americans resemble the protestors only in the sense that we do not automatically shirk away from the obvious. The "elites" do that. The NYT won't publish any of the cartoons, but the school newspaper at the Univ. of Illinois did.

As many have noted, this whole episode points out the profound insecurity within Islam itself. That is something which cannot be resolved through discussion groups and ecumenical meetings, or through Western self-flagellation. Lou's remark about the spiritual jailhouse is right on.

And as long as there are millions of available 'puppets' ready to be frothed up, why shouldn't Iran and Syria take advantage of them? Not only can they stir up trouble in Europe, they make things difficult in Afghanistan (but seemingly not in Iraq).

OJ, I agree that there is something dismissive about the way the West is acting (as the article said). We can and should accord Islam neighborly respect. But the hijackers of Islam need to die. Perhaps that is why the President talked the way he did in the SOTU. It seems obvious things aren't going to happen from within, so our battle may have to shift to the (radical) mosque/madrassa itself. A dangerous road, but a proper one, I think. Your earlier post on Abu Hamza proves it, no?

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 12, 2006 10:36 PM

We've silenced Hamza. All Muslims want is the capacity to do the same to those who foment hatred of them.

Posted by: oj at February 12, 2006 10:40 PM

Orrin, all Muslims want is whatever you'll give them. That's not a prejudicial statement, no mass movement has ever behaved differently. Islam will advance until it's fought to a standstill just as did Christianity or Communism or liberalism. For you to think otherwise is basically idolatry -- you're worshipping a mob, endowing it with powers of reasonableness no mob has ever posessed. Get your head out of your ass.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 12, 2006 11:58 PM


Of course, that's all anyone wants. They will and should take Europe. That's a good thing.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 7:12 AM

oj said: "We'd stop the newspapers if they were offending us."

Newspapers have been offending me for a very long time, when we are going to get around to stopping them?

Posted by: erp at February 13, 2006 2:11 PM

The NYT republished "Piss Christ" last week. When does the shutdown commence?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 13, 2006 3:07 PM

We took mover the arts endowmnents because Piss Christ and similar trash offended us. The garbage in the Times doesn't offend us.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 3:47 PM