We must offend religion more: Islam, Christianity and our tolerance for ancient myths, harmful ideas

Our enduring deference to religion, despite its toxicity and phony explanations for the cosmos, lets it survive

Published February 22, 2015 11:59AM (EST)

“Yes, it is freedom of speech, but,” said Inna Shevchenko, the 24-year-old leader of the topless, fiercely atheist activist group Femen in France.  On Feb. 14 she was addressing the conference on art, blasphemy and freedom of expression held at the Krudttønden, a café and cultural center in Copenhagen.  She continued.  “Why do we still say 'but' when we..."

A sustained barrage of automatic gunfire interrupted her.  She, the Swedish cartoonist with her onstage, Lars Vilks (famous for his 2007 drawings of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked deadly riots in the Islamic world), and much of the audience hurled themselves to the floor before escaping through the building’s rear exit.  The hooded terrorist assailant, a 22-year-old Danish citizen of Arab descent, ended up killing a Danish filmmaker, Finn Noergaard, and wounding five others.  Police later felled the assassin after he had opened fire on a synagogue, murdering one.

The attacker’s primary target was probably Vilks, but he would have rejoiced at the chance to get Shevchenko, too.  After all, Femen has pronounced religion – in particular, Islam -- a bane on women’s rights and has carried out a number of widely publicized, bare-breasted protests against it, burning the Salafist flag in front of the Great Mosque in Paris and chanting, "Fuck Your Morals!" and "Women's Spring is Coming!" to a furious crowd outside Tunisia's Ministry of Justice, disrupting a Catholic march against same-sex marriage (also in Paris) and disturbing the pope’s weekly address at the Vatican, and ambushing the Russian Orthodox patriarch as he stepped out of his plane in Kiev, greeting the potentate with cries (in Russian) of “Out, out, Devil!”  (By no means is this list complete.)  Shevchenko herself was forced into exile in 2012 after chainsawing, in support of Pussy Riot activists imprisoned in Russia, a giant wooden cross on Kiev’s central Independence Square.

The morning after the Copenhagen assault I spoke with Shevchenko by Skype.  Still in the Danish capital, she had spent much of the night at the police station, and had slept poorly after returning to her hotel.  Yet she was calm and lucid, determined to continue with Femen’s fight against religion.  This fight had turned extremely personal for her even before Copenhagen: She lost 12 friends in the Charlie Hebdo massacre last month in Paris, where she lives as a political refugee.  (Femen had figured prominently on the satirical magazine’s pages and had even guest-edited an issue.)  Had the Krudttønden organizers held the conference in the café’s front room (with its large windows), and not in the walled-off rear auditorium, she told me, she might not be alive today.

“What were you going to say just before the shooting began?”

“I was going to say that we can’t begin self-censoring, or we end up with just the illusion of free speech.  If we have free speech only up to where we might hurt someone’s feelings, then it isn’t free.  ‘You have freedom of speech, just don’t offend,’ people tell me.  Those who say this are only trying to shut down our freedoms.  If we cede to this, we play their game.  Now that offends me.”

In the month between the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the attack in Copenhagen, I both read and heard a number of arguments that in essence blame the artists for their own deaths.  Most, in fact, start with “I believe in freedom of speech, but  . . .”

Here is a brief summary of what follows the telltale cop-out but:

“It makes no sense to offend people needlessly.  Muslims find depiction of the Prophet Muhammad offensive.  Best just to avoid publishing such cartoons.”

“Europeans have to realize they have large Muslim communities in their midst.  Europeans need to adapt to them, for the sake of social harmony.  Best just to avoid publishing such cartoons.”

“Westerners are increasingly secular and have forgotten how important religion is in much of the world.  In particular, religion is an extremely sensitive subject for the Muslim immigrant community in Europe.  Best not to publish such cartoons.”

“Did you actually see those cartoons?  They really were offensive.  It would have been better not to publish them.”

Let’s dispense straightaway with the juvenile argument of “offense” (to religious sentiment) as grounds for declining to publish or say anything.  No Western constitution or legal code guarantees citizens the right to go about life free from offense.  Laws provide for freedom of expression (with some restrictions, especially regarding state security, hate crime and incitement to violence), but they cannot forbid potentially offensive expression without destroying the very right they are meant to protect.  (French law forbids denying the Holocaust, which does create contradictions and harm free speech, but that is another matter.)

If we decided to recognize such offense as an actionable private wrong, how would we, in any case, measure it, or determine what is de jure offensive?  To devout Muslims, the sight of uncovered women and the serving of pork and alcoholic beverages cause offense.  Devout Hindus would certainly find beef offensive.  Devout Catholics could draw up their own list, and Jews, another.  In short, a lot of things might offend a great number of people all over the place.  In a world ever more connected by the Internet – the means by which “offensive” Muhammad cartoons reached Muslim-majority countries as distant from Europe as Indonesia – there is no way to guard against offending someone, somewhere.  We should not be obligated to take into account a work’s potential for inciting murderous mass tantrums in faraway lands or slaughter at home when evaluating it for publication.

The upshot: the offense argument constitutes no basis for meddling in what artists produce or distribute.  In fact, it is no argument at all, and can easily be turned against the one advancing it.  “Drawings of the Prophet Muhammad offend you?  Well, I’m offended by” – take your pick from the aforementioned issues, or add your own.  Personally, I find it offensive that anyone can be taken seriously deploying the offense argument to limit free speech about a vital matter like Islam, as Palestinian-Italian journalist Rula Jebreal did last year on Bill Maher’s show "Real Time."

The question of whether Western countries should adapt to Muslim newcomers for the sake of social harmony confronts us with a formidable dilemma, which is, nonetheless, eminently solvable.  Steadfast belief in the inerrancy of religious dogma, coupled with (at times fanatically held) convictions that the dogma’s many mandates are meant to apply to all humanity, clash with principles of secular governance and Enlightenment-era precepts that oblige us, at least ideally, to sort out our problems relying on reason, consensus and law.  (Yes, blasphemy laws still stain legal codes in several Western countries, but for a long time now they have rarely been applied.)  Though many Westerners wish to show tolerance to Muslims they consider disadvantaged in their new homelands, we cannot “adapt” here, especially under threat of violence.  We must unabashedly stand by reason, the rule of law, and secularism.

Those arguing in favor of exercising “restraint” are really advocating (cowardly) self-censorship.  We do enough of this already.  When some “offensive” cartoons are published in Europe and riots break out in the Middle East, the newsworthy images, no matter how relevant, are seldom reproduced in the reporting that follows.  And lest anyone forget, neither the artists of Charlie Hebdo nor Lars Vilks entered local Muslim communities waving around their Muhammad cartoons, bent on stirring up trouble.  They were exercising their professions in their offices, with every legal right to do so.

Should we admit how touchy a subject faith is for Muslims and just leave it alone?  Well, religion is a (far too) sensitive topic for many people, and not only Muslims.  Our enduring deference to all religions, despite their verifiably phony explanations for the origins of the cosmos and our species, to say nothing of their toxic preachments, only furthers their survival.  We need not less but more frank talk about faith.

Whether the Charlie Hebdo or Lars Vilks cartoons were in good taste was a matter for the artists, their editors and their audiences to decide.  Don’t like the drawings?  Turn away.  No one forces you to look.

Concepts of freedom of expression and the laws designed to protect it were born in Europe’s blood-soaked history of interfaith warfare, mostly between Catholics and Protestants.  The (atheistic) French Revolution aimed to “de-Christianize” France in order to smash the (temporal, wealth-based) stranglehold the Catholic Church had on the country.  The Founding Fathers well knew how the state could use religion against the people; hence, the First Amendment safeguards both freedom of speech and freedom of religion by forbidding Congress to enact laws abridging the exercise of either.  The Abrahamic faiths have never been simply matters of conscience; they have always served as weapons to impose control, especially over women and their bodies, sexual minorities and education.  Weapons need to be kept under lock and key, or better yet, eliminated.

A surfeit of slipshod thinking and befuddled verbiage has complicated our discourse about both the Charlie Hebdo and Lars Vilks affairs.  Notwithstanding logic and the damage done to our prospects for self-preservation, we avoid frank talk about Islam – the main faith today inspiring terrorism.  It helps no one to hurl poppycock slurs such as “Islamophobe” or Islamophobic” at those who talk forthrightly about this.  And remember, unless you solemnly believe in the Quran, there is nothing – absolutely nothing -- in it to “respect.”  (The same goes for the Bible and the Torah, of course.)  Attempts to shield religions from censure in the face of overwhelming evidence – President Obama leads the pack of invertebrate Western politicians doing this -- amount to nothing more than pandering acceptance of ancient myths, harmful ideas and the increasingly gruesome violence to which they often lead.  Ideologies merit no a priori respect; people do.

Or, as Shevchenko put it succinctly to me later in our talk, “We [progressives] surrendered when we accepted the word ‘Islamophobia.’”  She paused.  “People hurt my feelings every day.  But there’s no such thing as the word ‘feministophobe.’”

We have, in fact, begun surrendering in the West, and not just by buying into the notion that criticizing Islam is tantamount to attacking Muslims as people.  We should shiver with revulsion at the example of multicultural “tolerance” with which the United Kingdom has furnished us.  There, for Muslims who turn to them (for women, this is not necessarily a voluntary move), 85 Shariah councils dispense “justice” in “family matters” – marriage and divorce, inheritance and domestic violence.  That is, in matters in which girls and women are most vulnerable.  (A campaign is underway to abolish the councils.)  In pursuing this path of “tolerance” the United Kingdom has traduced Muslim women hoping for a decent life in a “developed” country, including those who just want to keep their clitorises safe from the savage ritual of female genital mutilation.  The U.K. outlawed this in 1985, but families often send their young daughters back to the home country for a “vacation,” during which local butchers set to work slicing off their clitorises and sowing up their vaginas – at times without anesthesia.  A 2003 law would throw parents in jail for 14 years for forcing such a “holiday” on their daughters, but so far, no one has been convicted.  The practice continues.

Who came up with the idea of establishing Shariah courts in the land of Shakespeare and Byron?  Not Muslims angry at being discriminated against.  No, none other than a good Christian “man of the cloth” – the bland sobriquet should really be one of foul opprobrium -- the former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams.  In 2008 Williams declared that such a sickening “beau geste” toward (radical and not so radical) imams would lead to better “community relations.”  This is the sort of “multicultural tolerance” beloved by all those “men of faith” (of whatever sect, and I do mean men) who slyly scheme or openly militate for the second-class status of women, for interference with a woman’s right to do as she pleases with her body, for the stigmatization (or worse) of sexual minorities, for a culture of shame attaching to sex, and for the child-abuse teaching in schools of ludicrous explanations about our entirely non-celestial origins.  With bishops like Williams, who needs imams for enemies?

Like it or not, we are engaged in a struggle for the soul of our Enlightenment civilization.  Shevchenko said as much.

“First it was a war of ideas,” she told me.  “Now it’s an actual war, with people losing their lives for these ideas.  There is no longer such a thing as a ‘safe Europe.’”

To continue accepting quisling pseudo-justifications for -- or sophistic, à la Reza Aslan, misdiagnoses of -- the role of Islam in motivating terrorism throughout the world presages one thing: We will lose.

Shevchenko went on to tell me of the security precautions she would now have to take in what she understatedly called her “new conditions for activism.”  I fear for her: Her face is one of the most recognizable in France, both on account of her Femen protests, and because in 2013 an artist chose her as the inspiration for the face of Marianne (the legendary topless heroine of the French Revolution) that graces France’s postage stamps.  She has always received death threats, but now, she said, they are growing in number, mostly Islam-related, and delivered with credible calm.

“At any movement someone could hit me with a hail of bullets,” she told me.  But she was not cowed.  “We cannot allow fear to govern our ideas or take over our feelings.  I worry people will stop attending things like this blasphemy conference, saying ‘I’d like to go but I’m afraid to.’  That will makes those who go targets because they are so few.  In fact, Femen, Charlie Hebdo and Lars are targets because we’re so few.”  She proposed the only surefire solution: that “everyone publish [the controversial cartoons].”  The plethora of targets would stymie the terrorists, and, by showing resolve, prove the futility of attacks.

“Now,” she added, “it’s us or them.  I want us to win.”

So do I.  And if you’re honest with yourself, so do you.

In this war, the best weapon, by far, is the truth.  Now more than ever, telling the truth counts.  So please, do it.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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