Insulting the prophet

Presumed Muslim militants (remember, they could very well be provocateurs) have attacked a satirical paper in Paris killing 12 people, including legendary cartoonist Wolinski. How is the West supposed to react? Tolerating these rare events is an option. But if we think there’s a problem to solve, what is the right thing to do?

There are only two ways. One is to convince the overwhelming majority of Muslims that insulting Muhammad is OK. Convince them that no harm is done, or that whatever non-Muslims say in their societies is not worth taking a life over. If the overwhelming majority of spiritual leaders accept that, then you treat a fatwa as an act of war from the few who don’t. It’s a small act of war so you don’t snd the bombs in, but an act of war nonetheless. That was the stance taken by Margaret Thatcher on the Salman Rushdie fatwa, without so much emphasis on the soft convincing part. Typically the West tells Muslims: These are our principles, press freedom first, respect to you on your terms a very distant second or not something we entertain.

The alternative is for the West to censor depicting and insulting Muhammad and treating deviations as hate speech. It’s a revolutionary idea, but perhaps we could agree that antagonising 1.6 billion people is counterproductive. The West does not have sacrosanct freedom of speech. There’s plenty of precedent for censorship, some to protect minorities, most to support government and corporate agendas including copyright. A specific ban on depicting and insulting the prophet is not a slippery slope and certainly falls at the benign end of the spectrum, unless we dislike Muslims or think they’re crazy to take offence. Neither do we have to really eradicate the offending satire. The West just has to say we respect Islam, we make this illegal and will prosecute offenders.

I’m a humanist, mostly utilitarian atheist. To me respect and censorship looks like the option that reduces harm.

It depends if you think Muslim anger is genuine and widespread or the work or oppressors and agitators. Also whether you consider the question open or closed. Free speech exists to resolve open questions. When society reaches a consensus the question is closed, until the consensus is no longer current and it is reopened. The West wants to open a question that Muslims may want closed.

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