Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Prophets and Death Threats

This was supposed to have been a quick piece about South Park being squelched on Comedy Central over the Prophet Muhammad but I've taken more than a few hours to write this so I guess it's not so quick anymore.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali provides the synopsis:

Last week, Zachary Adam Chesser—a 20-year-old Muslim convert who now goes by the name Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee—posted a warning on the Web site RevolutionMuslim.com following the 200th episode of the show on Comedy Central. The episode, which trotted out many celebrities the show has previously satirized, also "featured" the Prophet Muhammad: He was heard once from within a U-Haul truck and a second time from inside a bear costume.

For this apparent blasphemy, Mr. Amrikee warned that co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone "will probably end up" like Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh, readers will remember, was the Dutch filmmaker who was brutally murdered in 2004 on the streets of Amsterdam. He was killed for producing "Submission," a film that criticized the subordinate role of women in Islam, with me.

Later in the article, Ali suggests "spreading the risk":

Another idea is to do stories of Muhammad where his image is shown as much as possible. These stories do not have to be negative or insulting, they just need to spread the risk. The aim is to confront hypersensitive Muslims with more targets than they can possibly contend with. 

This idea was previously presented and implemented by Dan Savage.  I think it's well meaning but I can't help but feel annoyed that I have to even think about this at all.  But it has to be discussed.

So I began by contemplating the creation of such a cartoon, which led to me asking this question about the cartoon campaign: In the process of spreading the risk and relieving your own stress, might you also be pandering to irrationality?  I don't think it's enough of a solution to give these people more targets.  Clearly, the most extreme among them have no qualms about orchestrating elaborate schemes to kill thousands in a single blow.

What we are dealing with here are thugs who are hiding behind the protection of religion.  Why do I say that?  Well... first of all, they decide that someone has broken some kind of moral law and they take the law into their own hands.  Regardless of the mental gymnastics that precede action, they decide that positive action to enact murder or injury is justified.  No trial, no jury, no rule of law.  This is the equivalent of gang "justice" on every level.

In a civilized society, the right to use physical force is the exclusive domain of the government.  The principle behind such a right is an individual's right to life and thus to retaliate against someone who initiates force against you.  It is delegated to the government for the sake of removing force from irrational whim and instead implementing an objective framework of laws which determine when it may be used.

You might say that examples of such violence are merely the actions of an extremist few.  But the whole process sounds systemic.  Some leader utters a few veiled threats and then waits for the lunatic fringe of their community to spring into action.

You've recently heard outspoken clerics tell the world that women cause earthquakes.  Where are the Muslim leaders who should be denouncing this lunatic fringe vocally and publicly?  Why don't they shame their lunatic fringe for their words and actions?

Moreover, do they have the moral standing to do so?  Maybe not.  According to Ali's article, murder would seem to be considered just so long as the killers are "commanding right and forbidding wrong".  And ultimately, I suspect that this is the root of the problem.

Faith is inherently non-rational.  It is the acceptance of beliefs and allegations which cannot be integrated from sensory evidence.  This isn't in itself a license to murder but you throw into the mix the right and duty to enforce your morals on others and you can no longer call your religion peaceful.  You may claim that they are misinterpreting it but articles of faith tend to be broadly interpretable and ultimately can be anything you want them to be - even if that means you get to be a killer and maybe a martyr.

I don't think it fights this system in any meaningful way to draw more comics starring the prophet muhammad.  This entire problem is the culmination of a long line of bad ideas.  Fundamentally, force must be answered in force.  However, for private citizens, action is also possible to to isolate the exponents of these ideas and to oppose them.

Can we enact sanctions against its organizations?  In the least, we should petition the government to withdraw tax exempt status for religious organizations of any kind, but since I don't expect tax laws to change overnight, we should start with cutting of any organizations that openly tolerate incitement to murder.  Further, I think that the company which provides name resolution and webhosting services should cut off and refuse to provide further services to groups such as RevolutionMuslim.com if they wish to live their lives free of death threats whenever they encounter disagreement.

I also don't want to rule out change from within the Muslim community.  If you consider yourself to be a peaceful Muslim American, I call on you to denounce violence and murder (and incitement to the same) as vocally and publicly as you can, wherever and however it is suggested.  These killers are hijacking the ideas that you hold dear.  They must be opposed and cut off from your support - both moral and material.  Do not financially support any organization who would approve of or be silent about any kind of violent action.

Ultimately, we are Americans.  And as Americans, or anyone living in a free society, we should hold sacred our right to hold an idea, speak on it, and disagree.  People should be angry about any kind of gang justice that goes on in their own back yard - religious or not.  Force must be answered with force.  If not, the ideas underlying our our country are already a faint memory.