Every once in a while, the faithful of one or another denomination collude to impose on us a spectacle ostensibly meant to be serious, but which turns out to be farcical. Pretty much all major evangelical gatherings or religious talk shows meet this description, hosted, as they inevitably are, by sanctimonious sermonizers who can be merely antiquated and ridiculous, if in a venomous sort of way (Pat Robertson comes to mind), or outright fraudsters (recall Jim Bakker), or even just plain old hypocrites (Ted Haggard). They reliably spout odious piffle, fleece their credulous flock and get off in most un-Christian ways. But for rationalists, at least, all this usually amounts to little more than something to be laughed at and quickly forgotten. Oh, the humorous ephemera of faith!
In the United Kingdom, however, a different situation obtains, and it is no laughing matter. For the past 30 years, church attendance has been plummeting; one can almost speak of the death throes of Christianity there. But Islam is decidedly in no need of a requiem. Since 1982, at least 85 Shariah councils have dispensed their peculiar form of “justice” to an unknown number of the country’s almost 3 million Muslims. Islam has even begun extending its tentacles into British law enforcement. A body called the National Association of Muslim Police has worked tirelessly, says its website, to promote the hiring and promotion of Muslim officers, “tackle Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crime,” and lastly, “assist with countering terrorism.” In theory, the keeping of law and order should be an objective, unbiased task; exactly how adding a confessional element will help the cause of justice in the U.K. remains to be seen.
But there’s more. The NAMP has, shockingly, urged British votaries of Islam to report crimes not to the police, but to another U.K. Muslim entity known as the Islamic Human Rights Commission. The IHRC, headquartered in London, professes “to campaign for justice for all peoples (italics mine) regardless of their racial, confessional or political background.” At the same time, it also proclaims its “inspiration derives from the Qur'anic injunctions that command believers to rise up in defence of the oppressed.” This would somehow seem to exclude, say, oppressed apostates, for whom the Islamic canon prescribes the death penalty. And what about Hindus? Don’t they fall into the reviled category of idolaters whom the Quran (2:190-193) orders Muslims to combat? Hardly “all peoples,” then, can count on the IHRC to rush to their aid in times of need.
The IHRC has, in fact, given me the subject of this week’s essay. The organization confers an “Islamophobe of the Year award” at a ceremony that, by my book, might better be called “Oscars for Rationalists.” (One wonders what the prize is: a pile of bejeweled rocks with which winners are to stone themselves to death? A gilt whip for them to administer lashes to their own backs?) If the 2014 event was anything to go by, these are cringeworthy, pathetically risible affairs of doggerel commentary and clumsy “tribute” songs performed before an almost mournful audience.
This year the IHRC saw fit to offend not just good taste, however, but the very notion of human decency. Just a month after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the IHRC gave the aggrieved survivors of the satirical magazine’s staff their “Islamophobe of the Year” award for 2015. Four thousand votes were cast to determine the “winner.” Even by the standards of the faith-addled, this was repugnant.
IHRC Chairman Massoud Shadjareh apparently suffered a bout of aphasia as he sputtered out a justification for the selection. Try to parse this: "If you are saying that satire should be disassociated from Islamphobic attacks, then surely satire can also be disassociated from the attacks [on Hebdo]." Without a hint of irony, but a little more comprehensibly, if disingenuously, Shadjareh added that "The reality is that this is a satirical thing and if people think Muslims should be on the receiving end of satire, then why cannot Muslims give it, too? The point made against Muslims regularly is that they do not have a sense of honour; they are portrayed as being dry and angry, but we have a sense of humour and we can give it back." Though he called the Paris massacre “barbaric,” he also held the magazine accountable for the lethal violence erupting during the anti-cartoon protest marches in the Islamic world. The award, said the IHRC, was intended to be understood as “tongue in cheek.”
There is nothing, it goes without saying, “satirical” about presenting an award. Anyone can do that. Nor, obviously, does Western law provide for the death penalty for Muslims or anyone else mocking popes or pastors, priests or rabbis. There was, thus, no equivalency to be drawn. Shadjareh’s was little more than nah-nah-nah “reasoning” that presumably owes much to the smarting indignities Britain’s Islamic community believes it is unjustly suffering while dwelling amidst hordes of infidels on the “sceptred isle.” Shadjareh no doubt knows full well that, if anything, non-Muslims attribute an excess of a “honour” to Muslims. We are only too aware of the honor killings that often take place in Muslim communities in Europe and beyond. No generalizations need be made about a Muslim sense of humor, but that the IHRC chose Charlie Hebdo for its award does demonstrate an utter failure to understand the function of satire in the West: to desacralize hallowed ideologies of control (which both Islam and Christianity are) and institutions of power, along with their representatives.
France in particular has a glorious tradition of searing religious and political satire that predates even the French Revolution; Charlie Hebdo is that tradition’s heir. The IHRC would have done well to research this, but even if it had, it could not have reconciled Charlie Hebdo’s satire with Islam’s lethal prohibition on insulting the Prophet. In other words, religion and freedom cannot coexist, unless religion is stripped of power, as in a secular society. This France is, if Britain, with its monarch both head of state and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, is not.
In other Salon essays (see here, for example), I’ve denounced the semantic mud pie to which the noun “Islamophobia” amounts. The vogue term, with its echoes of mental illness and shame, should really be placed in quotation marks whenever used, or, far better, discarded as deleterious to rational discourse. In free societies, those who object to canonical Islam – to its universalist claims, to its explicit injunctions to commit violence against unbelievers, to its inherent misogyny – must have every right to air their opinions without fear of reprisal in the public square. (I am not suggesting by any means that all Muslims are prone to violence, but the extremists are determining the conversation.) Such opinions may, yes, cause offense to some Muslims (and to quite a few progressives beholden not to honest debate, but to PC speech codes), but so be it. Our right to discuss one of the most critical issues of our time has to trump the tender sensibilities of one or another group. There can be no compromise here, especially under threat of violence.
Nonetheless, the term Islamophobia is accepted, no doubt on account of the misguided postmodernists and post-structuralists who generally lead the media’s debate about religion. By holding that texts don’t mean what they mean, but are to be interpreted as mirrors for gender, race, age and power biases, plus, of course, our own needs of the moment, we lose the ability to comprehend them. The vast majority of Muslims in the rest of the world, however, remain untainted by postmodernism and accept the Quran as the word of God, and believe that it should be taken literally. ISIS assassins citing the Quran’s verses 8:12 or 47:4 as they behead their hostages are acting with scriptural sanction. Quoting Derrida or Foucault to an Islamist guerrilla wielding a sword above your head would be as ineffective as it would be presumptuous. Who are we to tell an ISIS executioner following commands inscribed in the Quran that he is “distorting” his religion? On what canonical grounds? If people are explicitly stating their motives, best to take them at their word. Otherwise, we risk becoming their apologists – and losing our heads, literally.
Ironically, the use of the noun “Islamophobia” jibes perfectly with the Islamic tradition of dividing the world into Dar al-Harb (the abode of war, where Muslims are to battle infidels) and Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam, where all is well). “Islamophobia” conflates (impermanent) faith with (permanent) race, making criticism of one prejudice against both. Those who hold that a believer’s faith is as immutable as his or her race fail to see that the believers of today can become, with a bit of well-crafted free speech, the atheists of tomorrow. This is why free speech is and will always be the enemy of Islam – and all “revealed” religion.
But back to the IHRC and its Islamophobia award. I’m not contesting the IHRC’s prerogative to avail itself of its right to free speech and insult Charlie Hebdo staff members. On the contrary, I’m happy the IHRC expressed itself freely and chose the magazine for the award. In doing so, it handily hoisted itself by its own petard. It exposed itself as heartless to the grief-stricken, heedless to the suffering and all-out mean-spirited.
This is, in fact, just how free speech is meant to work. (Those wishing to learn more about this might consult John Stuart Mill’s essay "On Liberty.") The IHRC, in bequeathing Charlie Hebdo its award, besmirched its own reputation and further ennobled, and possibly even helped enrich, the talented cartoonists, who have already been blessed by the hundreds of thousands of new subscriptions resulting from the publicity and widespread sympathy the terrorist attack against them evoked.
It should come as no surprise that the IHRC counts as one of its chief supporters the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams – he who thought installing Shariah councils in the Land of Shakespeare a smashing idea. Such an alliance tells us not only that much is not right in the U.K., but that all “men of the cloth” are, yes, cut from the same cloth. Bonded by irrationality and, at least in the West, threatened by rising atheism, the faithful of one confession aid and abet the faithful of another, to the detriment of the common good. They jointly threaten to lead us back into darkness, or at the very least into what the French call communautarisme (ethnic or religious separatism), which will jeopardize, in the long run, constitutional guarantees of equal rights for all citizens, regardless of their faith or lack of one.
Rest assured, IHRC members, in granting Charlie Hebdo your award, you have proven the inestimable value of free speech – by shaming yourselves.