Review of “Taxi” by Khaled Alkhamissi
The accreditation on the front cover that this is ‘the novel that predicted the [Arab] uprising’ is an accurate one. Alkhamissi depicts an Egyptian society, disparate, but more or less unified in its frustration for Hosni Mubarak’s 25-year-long state monopoly before his downfall in 2011. It is a recording from the backseats of Cairo’s taxis of the whispers of a nascent revolution – the moment that Egypt’s cynicism began to turn much more visceral.
But the novel is prescient not only for revealing signs of the imminent democratic uprising (the ‘Arab Spring’) but also of the ‘Islamist Winter’ that would follow.
A number of the 58 fictitious monologues that comprise Alkhamissi’s novel suggest varyingly a resonant public sympathy in Egypt towards a greater role for Islam in governance, bolstered with Islamic/ Islamist prescriptions from a cross-section of Cairo’s Muslim cab drivers to a variety of problems.
“There would be no bribery or corruption” says one, “if everyone in the country sat and looked at the surface of the Nile and read the word of God.” “We’ve tried everything else” says another – monarchy, socialism, military dictatorship, capitalism, and “it’s still no good”. “Why don’t we try the Brotherhood and maybe they will work out, who knows?”
Although Alkhamissi does not explicitly state his own position on these prescriptions, the picture he paints of Egypt – a richly diverse society with wide ranging identities, ideologies and interests – is such to suggest it would be much ill-disposed to the establishment of the Salafi-sympathasing Islamist theocracy that eventuated after the uprising. It is unlikely that many of the eventual harbingers of this theocracy, the Muslim Brotherhood, had read Alkhamissi’s rich ethnography before assuming office, but it is fair to suppose that even without doing so they would have had an understanding of Egypt’s complex socio-religious makeup – before ultimately deciding to trample on it.
Liberal secularist, Baha’ais and Coptic Christians feature in Alkhamissi’s tribute to Egypt’s people but were all absent in the making of Egypt’s future. Morsi and the Brotherhood decided instead to pack the committee charged with drafting the constitution with the ultra-conservative Salafis and patsy Islamist legislators.
Though Morsi and the Brotherhood – having won presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively – had democratic (electoral) sanction, what they had done, ultimately, was turn Egypt’s popular revolution into a tyranny of the majority, invoking thinly veiled democratic justifications to impede real democratic consolidation – smothering a civil society that had only just found its voice from the dark days of Mubarak..
Unfortunately for Egypt, and the future of civilisation, the picture is much bleaker today. If Alkhamissi was to write a second edition of ‘Taxi’, he would now find his Cairo host to many new troubled faces – including an increasingly large population of Syrian and Iraqis heading in to flee the same jihadist battle cry that many young and disillusioned Egyptians now clamour to go and join.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima – The (Mostly) True Story of a Budding Buddhist Pyromaniac
The protagonist Mizoguchi – an ugly, troubled boy with a horrendous stammer – is a Zen Buddhist acolyte at the much-enamoured Golden Temple in Kyoto after the war. Growing up with such terrible afflictions, he comes to both love and hate the Golden Temple – the perfect conception of Beauty and the source of his torment. Though a seemingly amoral character, Mizoguchi tries to rationalise the hatred he begins to feel for the Golden Temple, ultimately leading him to burn it down. He does this using Zen aphorisms – the Koan.
The following passage in the Rinsairokyu is used three times throughout the book and is repeated right before Mizoguchi does the terrible deed:
“When ye meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha! When ye meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! When ye meet a disciple of Buddha, kill the disciple! When ye meet your father and mother, kill your father and mother! When ye meet your kin, kill your kin! Only thus will ye attain deliverance. Only thus will ye escape the trammels of material things and become free”.
He explains his abject hatred for the material world also when he talks of Tsukumogami-ki and opening “the eyes of men” to the spiritless nature of objects and material things. He implies that objectifying beauty in the Golden Temple only deceives the “hearts of men”, and in order to free men from their attachments to the material world, the Golden Temple must to be destroyed.
Contrary to the suggestion of Nancy Wilson Ross in the introduction, this is not simply the fault of “dogmatic teaching methods” or “modern conventions” in Zen Buddhism, because it is grounded in the doctrinal core of the “self-enlightenment” project and the contempt for the material world embodied within. I commend Mishima and Mizoguchi for shining a light and a fire on this apocalyptic nihilism and its Buddhist underpinnings.
Both Mishima and his translator, Ivan Morris, manage to pull off some brilliant description in the book. That said, I know not Morris, but Mishima is to blame for some of the drawn-out superfluous description in parts, particularly at the climax where Mishima dedicates nearly a whole page to the non-sequitur issue of a faulty alarm bell and the Deacon’s attempts to arrange for a competent repairman to fix it. It rather slowed everything down a little, I thought.
Of course there are discrepancies in how religion is promulgated and enforced across the world because religion is man-made (and masculine-made). A woman can legally vote in Iran, but not even drive in Saudi Arabia. But this relative diversity does not negate the fact that traditional ideas in Islam about martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, apostasy, and the status of women and so on are there, plain to see, in scripture for any Muslim to exploit. Any fair-minded Muslim can denounce literalist creeds of these ideas on whatever basis (usually secular), but one thing they cannot say is that fundamentalists are not “true” Muslims or, what Obama has said, that “no faith teaches” what ISIS does. Aslan is an apologist in this regard. He preaches non-judgment when it is a matter of empirical fact that literalist interpretations of scripture are more prevalent and politicised in Islam at present than any other monotheism. Is it bigotry to point that out? No. Intolerance of religious dogma is important whenever it arises, whether in Islam, Christianity or whatever. If 500 years ago during the colonisation of the Americas, a larger proportion churches and its Christians had said as Columbus did – “let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold” (drawing on mandates for slavery in the Bible – Leviticus 44-46; Parabols, Luke 12:47), then we’d be saying, rightly, that Christianity promotes violence.
To anyone who says this war is a “distortion” or “politicisation” of religion, think on. It’s the revival of it.
(Old Testament) Exodus 23:31-32
“I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods.”
(Hadith – quoted in the Hamas Charter) Book 041, Number 6985:
“Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The last hour would not come unless the Muslims will fight against the Jews and the Muslims would kill them until the Jews would hide themselves behind a stone or a tree and a stone or a tree would say: Muslim, or the servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him; but the tree Gharqad would not say, for it is the tree of the Jews.”
LAST MONTH, AOI YOSHIDA, a 21-month-old girl with dilated cardiomyopathy, exceeded the ¥165 million target (approx. $1,840,000) needed for her to travel to America and get the heart transplant that would save her life. No, that’s not a typo. In fact, she finally received roughly $2 million worth of donations, mainly from charitable organizations and philanthropists in Japan. The leftover money that was donated will probably not be returned to sender, but be passed on to other children in Japan who, like Aoi, must rely on foreign organs to get even a slim chance at life.
With the 2010 abolition of laws that disqualified children under 15 from becoming organ donors, there is admittedly more hope for Japanese children now than there was previously. But in the 2 years since the change in law, only 2 children in Japan have received organ transplants domestically. In reality, organ transplants remain limited to those Japanese families who can afford to cut in line overseas, or those who can arouse enough public sympathy to win massive donations.
Japan’s 2012 figure of 303 total organ transplants is an improvement, but is tiny in comparison to other developed countries, like the 3,960 transplants during 2011-12 in the UK. In Japan, only 115,377 people are registered as organ donors, compared to over 18.5 million in the UK.
It’s not for lack of demand – there are estimated to be over 13,700 people currently on the transplant waiting list in Japan. Of course, most countries struggle with their own lack of supply for organ transplants, but the scale of Japan’s deficit and the relative lack of awareness on the issue is something very peculiar to Japan.
At the core of the skepticism felt in Japan towards the practice is a discomfort with the diagnosis of ‘brain death’ (death due to the irreversible loss of brain stem function) or death even though the body is kept warm and the heart is sustained by mechanical support. This diagnosis is critical for organ transplants because most organs, including the heart and liver, start to deteriorate after the heart stops beating, reducing the chances of an organ surviving a transplant.
Biomedical ethicists in Japan, Atsushi Asai et al, have written of how culturally unacceptable the brain death diagnosis is for Japan. He cites Shinto conceptions of life and death, and the animistic belief that gods reside in all things. For many Japanese, he claims, the possibility that a soul might be located in an “alive” body (even if artificially alive) is reason enough to deny the diagnosis of a legal death and the subsequent harvesting of that patient’s organs.
In their Arguments Against Promoting Organ Transplants from Brain Dead Donors, Atsushi et al point out that the Japanese tradition of ‘Mogari’ prohibits transplants and subsequent autopsies, even if cardiac death occurs, because ‘it is necessary to observe the corpse for a period of time to confirm the complete departure of the soul’.
Such ritualizing of death in Japan can been seen at its most rigorous in the 2009 Oscar award-winning Japanese film, Departures – about a man who returns to his rural hometown in Yamagata and gets a job dressing up the dead for the so-called “gate to the next stage”.
Some of these rituals, although more prominent in rural areas, are still prevalent in Japan today. But as comes with the all-inclusive nature of Shinto and Buddhism, there is no telling whether the Japanese follow these rituals merely out of deference to tradition, or because they really wish to make offerings to gods seemingly more preoccupied by the purity of souls than the plight of the living.
Of course, discussions on the soul are murky business at the best of times. Beliefs in animism, such that can be found in Japan, claim the existence of souls in animals and even inanimate objects – which would pose its own problems for dieticians and mechanics alike.
Religious speculations aside, the brain death criteria can still be hard to take for many. Any grieving family would naturally resist being told to give up on a loved one that looked alive. They would see the beating heart and not the machine pumping it. Of course, this is true anywhere, and does not, on its own, offer an explanation for Japan’s particular resistance to brain death criteria.
The public backlash against the first (and most notorious) heart transplant in Japan in 1968 might explain something though. After Dr. Juro Wada diagnosed a patient as brain dead, he ended up in a murder trial, accused of cutting short medical care in order to harvest organs. The case was eventually dismissed on the basis of medical experts’ opinion and due to inadequate medical records, but what followed was a 30-year moratorium on cadaveric organ transplants and a clear expression of distaste at the whole procedure.
Since permitting the brain death diagnosis and extending it to children (in 1997 and 2010 respectively), it seems Japan is moving in the right direction, albeit at a typically glacial pace. Cases such as Aoi Yoshida’s must surely do more than open up Japanese wallets. There are thousands of people worldwide on the waiting list for organ transplants, and it is becoming increasingly urgent that people everywhere make a decision regarding the future of their organs after they have passed. Whatever your belief system may be, know that this is a real and invaluable chance to save a human life.
*An old friend and Christian ethicist posted the below quotation, to which I couldn’t help but respond. What followed was a debate mainly between NR & ART and myself (HW), on Revelation and on the question of whether humans would be worse off morally without a god. Feel free to carry on the debate with any comments of your own.
NR – “I have the impression that many of the debates within the Church around such issues as the papacy, the ordination of women, the marriage of priests, homosexuality, birth control, abortion and euthanasia take place on a primarily moral level. On that level, different parties battle about right and wrong. But that battle is often removed from the experience of God’s first love which lies at the base of all human relationships. Words like right-wing, reactionary, conservative, liberal, and left-wing are used to describe people’s opinions, and many discussions then seem more like political battles for power than spiritual searches for the truth.”
(Henri J. M. Nouwen)
HW – Isn’t the problem in the first place the notion of looking for the truth through revelation? Religious debates around these issues are centred around the premise that an imperfectly evolved human can understand the mind of God – how God wants us to live, what food God wants us to eat, who God wants us to sleep with, and so on. These are things that are simply unknowable, and therefore any attempts to settle them under the rubric of revealed truth ultimately leads to deadlock or worse.
NR – Henry, I take your point, but even if I agreed entirely, I wouldn’t say this puts theologians any worse off than folks in any other field of study. Historians seek to find out what happened in the past but studying evidence people left behind, physical science seeks to find things out about the physical world by studying it. All of their conclusions are in a state of constant revision. The key is to be able to admit honestly when you aren’t sure of something. Theologians are sometimes bad at doing this, but again, I don’t think worse than folks in any other field of study.
HW – I have to say that I do think that theologians are worse off than other folks, simply by virtue of the fact that theologians are not only attempting to provide answers about the metaphysical, they’re looking to the metaphysical for moral guidance. Theologians set themselves the impossible task of trying to find moral truth in things that are unprovable or unfalsifiable. It is therefore very difficult to have a productive political discussion on birth control with one who claims to know that God is on their side. A scientist or historian on the other hand, has an abundance of physical stuff with which to experiment on and draw conclusions from. They are surely far better off in their claims.
J – Frankly I feel much more thoroughly brainwashed than theologians and there are quite a few of “folks” like me so no problem there….. Also, ethicists provide answers to the moral issues… Just thought I would point that out
HW – But at least ethicists make deductions that are grounded in the material world. Utilitarians make mathematical equations. Kantians respect other humans because they are rational beings. Metaphysical guess work is not required to cast moral judgement.
NR – J: I agree … ethicists do provide answers to moral issues. All Nouwen is saying is that, when looking for those answers, we must be animated by a genuine love of truth, and not by a political desire to see “our side” win the argument. I don’t see the problem with that …
Henry: You seem to assume that most Christian ethicists just make moral judgments based purely on metaphysical claims about revelation, without dealing with the material world. They don’t.
Also, all forms of ethics have metaphysical presuppositions. As David Hume pointed out, it’s almost impossible to move from material data about the world to the act of making a moral judgment (the famous is-ought problem), without some metaphysical framework that gives that material data meaning and significance. Otherwise, your material data is just that: material data, with no moral significance. Utilitarians and Kantians make metaphysical assumptions just the same as Christian ethicists.
ART – NR, top man. I think in principle, theology suffers from the same problems as other forms of metaphysical inquiry.
HW – Sorry to get stuck in like this, but it’s helpful and instructive for me as I hope it is for you.
I’m not clear on the metaphysical assumptions of utilitarians. But I wouldn’t take their arguments seriously without some sort of material basis. The religious principles I respect – The Golden Rule for example, contain absolutely no posturing of the metaphysical kind. The Golden Rule by the way can also be found in The Analects of Confucius. It has a biological explanation, based on empathy and reason. I require the same standards of the is-ought problem. If I make a promise to someone, I know I ought to do whatever was promised, not because God ordained it, but because I have respect for a fellow rational being and because society can only function on such order. I think this sort of humanism is innate in everyone.
The reason I will not take metaphysical justifications seriously is because, as ART alluded to, metaphysical inquiry across the board suffers from the same problems. It’s irrefutable. That’s not to say it’s unimportant. On the contrary, it’s an absolute imperative. But problems inevitably arise when we start to use flimsy metaphysical assumptions to argue one way or another on the above issues i.e. a woman should be stoned for adultery because God said so.
ART – Henry, I’ve no time to reply now in full, I would say briefly that I don’t agree with this idea that one’s ethical code is weakened necessarily through belief in god as justification or a premise for good action. I just don’t see this dichotomy between rational belief systems and faith-based. I think that ultimately it takes a leap of faith to believe that one ‘ought’ to do good to other humans. There are plenty of rational reasons why one ‘ought’ not in many cases. The argument surrounding abortion is a case in point. Indeed, reason can lead me towards both pro-life positions and pro-choice. Wdyt?
NR – Henry … I agree completely re: people getting stoned for adultery just because someone thinks God said so, or that they should keep promises *just* because God ordained it that way. But as I pointed out above (and you seemed to gloss over this point), this isn’t how Christian ethicists actually reason things out! You seem to be assuming that a few crazy fundamentalists are somehow representative of the entirety of Christianity.
In other words, I agree that you can’t base a position on one of the above issues *purely* on metaphysical assumptions about God’s will, for example.
As for the the Golden Rule, it has a significant metaphysical assumption, which is that all human beings are equal, and must therefore be treated with equal dignity. This is not at all obvious if you are just looking at the material. In fact, if you just look at human beings materially, then you’d have to conclude we are NOT equal.
ART – By the way, Henry, if you’d like an original all-be-it slightly outlandish critique of humanism then I suggest John Gray. Also Alasdair Macintyre’s ‘After Virtue’ I recommend most highly. Good day to you all!
HW – Thanks for the recommendations! Alasdair Macintyre’s work certainly looks interesting. I’m somewhat familiar with John Gray. He’s an almighty pessimist from what I gather. I’ve read one of his called “Enlightenment’s Wake”, but his other work is certainly on the shopping list.
Sorry I glossed over the earlier point regarding the maturer realms of Christian ethics. Needless to say, I welcome such things, i.e the embrace of Occam’s razor – selecting the hypothesis that makes the least assumptions.
On the latter point. I’m not entirely convinced of the metaphysical significance you attach to the Golden Rule. Allow me to pose a hypothetical scenario for a moment: Supposing that by some wild chance, we stumbled upon evidence that categorically disproved the existence of God (or disproved that God even intervenes in human affairs), would one think that our responsibilities to one another suddenly evaporated along with it? I’d wager not. I’d wager in fact, that we’d lean on that which is, and has always been, innate within us. The idea that we wouldn’t know right from wrong without divine permission, I find somewhat degrading.
The Israelites would surely not have been able to make it to the foot of Mount Sinai, if they hadn’t already known that murder was wrong.
NR – The impression I get from reading your comments is that you think all religious ethics are just different forms of divine command theory. This isn’t the case, especially not in Catholicism (since Nouwen was Catholic) — I know of no respected Catholic ethicist who put forward a version of divine command theory for at least 500 years. The last well-known theologian (i.e. that most people might have heard of) who held this idea was William of Ockham, who died in 1347. To use Euthyphro’s dilemma, most Catholic ethicists would say God forbids X because it is wrong, not that X is wrong because God forbids it. All I can encourage you to do is to read what you call the “maturer realms of Christian ethics”, because this IS real Christian ethics.
When Nouwen — or any other Christian — says that our search for answers to difficult moral questions should be “spiritual searches for the truth”, he doesn’t just mean you just open a Bible and expect to get all the answers. You can’t separate what he says here from the general Christian belief in God as Creator of the entire material universe. So a Christian ethicist who was conducting an honest search for the truth would look at material data, human biology, and all of the same things secular ethicists would look at, in addition to Revelation (and even then, an intelligent Christian is obviously going to interpret Revelation itself only in accordance with what we know is true about the physical world).
But thank you for your thoughts, you raise interesting questions.
ART – Henry, you say that we know innately that murder is wrong but is this indeed the case, or should I ask, has this always been so in every case? The answer is clearly no. Indeed the ethics of killing differ greatly in different civilizations and time. The Old Testament’s emphasizes revenge as justifible (eye for an eye) whilst Ancient Greeks considered it perfectly okay to kill a barbarian (a non-Greek) if deemed in the interests of the polis. Sumerians, Aryans, Persians, cave-dwellers; all of them have extremely different attitudes towards murder than we do. For one thing, such ethics are very far from the ”Golden Rule’ as you would have it
HW – NR: I raised the hypothetical scenario in response to your comments on the Golden Rule. Previously you inferred that the rule wouldn’t apply (or would become weaker) without the metaphysical assumptions that give it significance. The point I was making is that if you remove these assumptions, the rule still applies, our morals don’t evaporate, or arguably even falter.
Using your comments on Euthyphro’s dilemma and Nouwen, we seem to have reached a stage where the commands of God can simply be made to follow our own human-based, socially constructed codes of ethics. It seems therefore that invoking God has become an add-on, secondary, and principally only used only for politically expedient purposes, i.e. commanding authority. (It recalls to me a story I heard of the Catholic Belgian Physicist, Georges Lamaitre, who first came up with the Big Bang theory. After making his discovery, he went to show his findings to Pope Puis XII, who is reputed to have said “if you like, I’ll make it dogma”, which needless to say, is besides the point).
You are right however, I am not nearly as well-read on Christian ethics as I should be. Which is probably why I find your comments so absorbing.
Alexander, The Old Testament ALSO sanctions the killing of barbarians – the extermination of the Amalekites for example. But from your list of civilisations, I am struck by how malleable and man-made our gods and divine injunctions have been. Which is a rather different story from what was said earlier, that God hardens our morals, and gives us reason not to kill one another.
We have plenty of humanist reasons not to kill. Socrates called it the inner Daemon, Adam Smith – the internal witness. C.S Lewis decided to call it ‘conscience’ and attribute it to the divine. But I think it’s fair to say that this inner critic would go on functioning even in the above mentioned hypothetical. Would it not?
HW – I suppose I should be more concise. I’ll just put it into one last question. NR made this comment earlier – “it [the Golden Rule] has a significant metaphysical assumption… if you just look at human beings materially, then you’d have to conclude we are NOT equal”. Does this fall under Divine Command Theory?
NR – No, I don’t think the Golden Rule is a Divine Command, as such. I think it follows logically once you accept two things, 1) human beings are equal, and 2) there is something special about humanity which requires that humans be treated in a dignified way (otherwise we could just treat one another equally badly!). But I don’t think either of these things can just be derived purely from nature, especially not 2).
In his book “The Idea of Human Rights” Michael Perry has an essay (the first one I think) in which he argues that there is no coherent secular justification for human rights. Ultimately, he says, the only intelligible idea of human rights ends up grounding itself in religious ideas about human life being “sacred”. And Perry is a Professor of Law, not a theologian, so he doesn’t have a particular theological axe to grind. The link is here if you are interested:
So its not, as you say, that God would therefore just be an “add-on” to our socially constructed codes of ethics. More like the other way around — God grounds the whole enterprise of ethics in the first place by creating humanity with a social and rational nature that necessitates the construction of ethical codes. The concept of “Divine Command” shouldn’t be thought of like God is saying, “do this, do that”. It is the will of God that gives the force of obligation to natural goodness, allowing us to make the leap from the “is” of nature to the “ought” of morality. Insofar as Revelation has an ethical role, it is more to remind us of things that we could know by our powers of reason, but which tend become obscured by the effects of sin/weakness/ignorance/force of bad habit/lack of education/you name it.
Ultimately I agree with you that there are plenty of humanist reasons that can be given not to kill, for example, and that people who do not explicitly profess faith in God can lead ethical lives. But the real question is whether there are compelling reasons (apart from naked self-interest) to be a humanist in the first place, if there is no God.
ART – Ha ha, Henry I just found out where you got that thing about CS Lewis, Socrates and Adam Smith; a certain Mr Hitchens! I must say the more I read about the dear Christopher, the more I think there is a great deal to enjoy, applaud and be inspired by. I personally think his repudiation of religion went too far, but this can be said even more strongly of other modern anti-theists. Ultimately, his arguments break down where all positivistic atheist arguments break down, and this is when they try to assert that atheism is anything more than scepticism. In the final analysis, this argument breaks down because of the following; we have no way of conceiving what God is and thus we have absolutely no way of evaluating the evidence one way or another. Of course the same argument can be used for any organized religion which is why I am of no faith. I like to think this was the position of Socrates too and explains his Apology. Ciao
HW – Haha yes. I’d have referenced it if this was an academic paper (seems to be turning into one!). Having said that, I don’t intend on being a mouthpiece for the late Hitchens, if you were hoping for such a thing. I do on the other hand wish to support secularism and Enlightenment principles, which is why I can’t get behind an argument that claims human rights are indefensible by themselves, and therefore need to be sanctified for our convenience through some shopping in the market of metaphysics.
NR, I’m sure I’d get all the nourishment I need in a conversation with you.
As far as I can see, your comments are a more refined version of divine command theory; one that pays less attention to divine injunctions, but instead posits that God is the author and proprietor of human rationality (although I’m sure many religious people end up honouring the injunctions as a sort of repayment for the percieved endowment of their rational minds). Of course, there is no way that I (or anyone else, for that matter) could possibly know whether we are indeed the property of God. But either way, it’s undeniably that we can devise laws and make moral decisions in a way that is independent of God. If we can decide by ourselves for example, that slavery is wrong (which the bible fails to mention), then we can get by without the assumption there is a God. Humans rights can be sacrosanct without being sacred.
I don’t know if we’ll come to agree on this, but I enjoy the intellectual stimulation all the same!
NR – Thanks Henry. Its been an interesting discussion.
I think you understood what I was arguing quite well, although we would probably disagree about whether it is possible to rationally know that some kind of Divine Being exists. I do agree with you that to a certain extent it is possible for people to live ethically without Divine Revelation. But I don’t think this is the same as saying people have no need for God. That would be to assume that the function of God is just to tell us what to do, and therefore if we already know how to live ethically, we don’t need him. Insofar as religion has a primary “function”, I would say it consists not in telling us how to live, but in loving God and being loved by him.
The eruption of riots across the Muslim world after the circulation of the “Innocence of Muslims” is the most recent example in a long history of pious and overly sensitive fanatics trying to quash one of our greatest Enlightenment privileges – free speech. Lets not forget others who have dared to think and speak for themselves and who have suffered for it; novelist Salman Rushdie, Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s cartoonists, Mauritian atheists Mohammed Nazim and Ismail Mohammed Didi.
Not only are our privileges under threat from street-rousing Muslim mobs, but also from sneaking so-called moderates who demand sensitivity and self-censorship in response to tyranny. It’s shameful but necessary to have to point out that not all criticisms of faith qualify as incitement to religious hatred, “Islamophobia”, or any other such misplaced labels. Our principles won’t defend themselves. And, dispensing with them so that we may accommodate the parochial demands of crazed theocrats is to capitulate to unreason and intolerance. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said “the barbarians never take a city unless someone inside holds open a door for them”.
I’m told I must not distract myself with the riotous, fundamentalist rabble that represent only a minority in Islam, and that it is the moderate and mainstream Muslims that are the true Muslims. (Of course, the idea that someone could even claim to be a “true muslim” is the problem in the first place). However, in considering the middle ground of Islam, I find that it is they who spend the most time holding the door open for the fanatics. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the largest international organisation outside of the U.N (with a growing lobby inside the U.N), responded to the “Innocence of Muslims” and the subsequent violence with the following:
“The Group calls on the political and religious leaders across the world and all stakeholders to take a united stand against fanatics and radicals who are destabilizing global peace and security by fanning religious intolerance”
This statement should have been exactly four words shorter. If it were, it might actually look like a much-needed, positive denouncement of Muslim crimes. Instead, the OIC claim that the “fanatics and radicals” are not the Muslim rioters and murderers of the U.S ambassador to Libya, but are in fact the makers of an entirely lawful film, supposedly for “fanning religious intolerance”. (If it is “intolerance” that the OIC abhors then they might do well to reconsider their own intolerance of criticism of the Prophet). Recent demands expressed by the OIC are as alarming as it gets. They have proposed “measures for implementing resolutions against stigmatizing religions” and have asked the UN to condemn “defamation” of religious ideas as a human rights violation. In other words, they require that their religion be granted the right to censor. Their priorities lie in the aggrandizement of Islam, not in liberal free society. For the second largest international organisation in the world; one that describes itself as “the voice of the Muslim world”, this is not really good enough.
Meanwhile, The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was attempting to denounce the whole affair:
“We hope that others will join us in condemning both the violence in Egypt and Libya, and the irresponsible actions of the film’s producer”.
This is an improvement, but it’s still hopelessly feeble and reluctant. Nowhere in their lengthy statement did the MCB mention anything of an Islamic commitment to free speech, preferring instead to condemn both the film and the violent response to it on equal terms. At a time when muslim authorities as a whole should be stressing free speech and advancing liberal principles, instead we’re getting ambivalence and hesitancy.