|The Old Way|
The western democratic vision is a surprisingly fragile flower. The English Bard once served up a lovely adage in Romeo and Juliet that "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," whereby we are made mindful that whether Montague or Capulet, Juliet is still sweet Juliet. To translate by way of transposition, it is no longer so clear that a democracy by any other name…. –because despite sharing the same name, the principles of America democracy are not necessarily the same principles as those that frame the democracy of the Germans, or of the English, or of the French, although American democracy shares perhaps more commonality with French democracy than with other European democracies.
As a form of governance, the democratic model differs from most other political models in that power of agency is not ‘seated’ in one specific place, as it is in authoritarian or totalitarian models of governance. Instead, it is fragmented into as many pieces as there are participants. Now in order for such a fragmenting model to work, there are certain essential values that must remain intact in order to keep power from coalescing in smaller places, thereby transforming the democratic model into a plutocracy, or autocracy, or oligarchy.
The model for the democratic vision, of course, is European enlightenment, and flows organically from the beheading of the idea of the divine right of kings. When the one king is dead, then ‘We the People’ is assigned the burden of kingship – each one his own little bit. Upon reflection, though, in the democratic model how does one so tie the power of state to the individual, both philosophically and functionally, that the state is ensured a long, even if complex life? Historically speaking, the model of democracy in the west, inspired by the ideas of enlightenment, began life moored to several fundamental principles: participation in the vote; freedom of expression; separation of religious interference from the function and power of the state; and a press that badgers those holding office in order to inhibit the easy spread of corruption.
On January 7 at about 11:30 Paris local time, heavily armed masked men entered into the offices of a newspaper in Paris and tried to put to death a principle by the assassination of 12 journalists, 12 talking heads, 12 civilian individuals. Certainly the choice of weapons in this war has been set, as well as the tone. Civilian pens and images oppose selective-firing military assault rifles and summary execution; intangible ideas stand up against very tangible ordnance. Unfortunately, though, the very clear imbalance of power between warriors of the pen and militarily armed terrorists, wreaks havoc in the midst of civil society. As one writer has summarized this imbalance of power:
“Terrorist groups are very difficult to fight for the simple reason that they draw strength from basic “flaws” in Western democracies that are very difficult to address. Among citizens, terrorism provokes a natural reaction: fear coupled with an overwhelming desire for security.”
So the Charlie Hebdo attack in fact revealed a very real ‘weakness’, perhaps even a fatal flaw, in the philosophical framing of the contemporary democratic model.
Most of the initial commentaries on the Charlie Hebdo attack focused on the idea of the freedom of expression and freedom of the press; then came those who turned their reflections upon freedom of religion. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, there is not philosophical or legal agreement, no consensus, among western democracies about the precise value of these two principles of freedom. A writer from The Atlantic expresses it well:
“We are all one” was indeed a powerful message, but what did it really mean, underneath the noble sentiment and the liberal faith that all people are essentially good and want the same things, regardless of religion or culture? Even if the scope is limited to Western liberals, the aftermath of the assaults in Paris on Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket has revealed a striking lack of consensus on a whole host of issues, including the limits of free speech, the treatment of religions versus racial groups, and the centrality of secularism to the liberal idea. Turns out, we are not all one.”
FREEDOMS – OF EXPRESSION and RELIGION. There is much rhetoric in the west about Freedom of Speech, and that it is a cornerstone of a free society. Yet one also is quick to discover that this “freedom” is not an absolute concept in most western countries, but that it is circumscribed by any number of definitions, rules, and regulations concerning provocative speech, hate speech, ‘incitement’ speech, respect for religion, etc. Ours is a democratic society in which the phrase, Freedom of Expression or of Speech, is actually a misnomer—there is no such freedom. Rather, there is the Right to Constrained Speech, or speech that is hemmed in on each side by some constraining interest or another – e.g., hatred, race, religion, fill in the blank according to culture, time, and place. Of late, especially since the Charlie Hebdo attack, it seems that much of the conversation about the freedom of constrained speech is linked to religious culture.
A journalist from New York Magazine expressed the situation in this way: “Every free society, facing the challenge of balancing freedom of expression against other values such as societal cohesion and tolerance, creates its own imperfect solution.”
Possibly the most common myth associated with western style democracy is the notion of secularism, or freedom of religion; and yet even this “freedom,” perhaps especially this freedom, is dangerously absent from western democratic experience. The English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who greatly influenced early Americans in their thinking and framing of the best form of governance for a people to adopt, made an excellent case in his 1689 Letter concerning Toleration for the complete separation of church authority from civil authority. To put Locke’s argument succinctly: how can a civil judge make competent distinctions between competing religious authorities with competing claims? The question is rhetorical, of course, because a civil magistrate cannot intelligently choose between one religious interest and another, not only because any such choice would reek of bias and therefore be subject to criticism as an injustice, but also because a civil magistrate is not formally knowledgeable in how to assess the value or validity of one religious claim over another—how, for example, does a magistrate decide that Methodism is more valid as a religion than Anglicanism? It is therefore more than reasonable, and a reflection of right and just thinking, for Locke to conclude that the separation of church or religious interests from the state or civil interests must be established as an absolute basis for a free democratic society. This is also the normative wiki-definition for secularism, which is “the principle of the separation of government institutions and persons mandated to represent the state from religious institutions and religious dignitaries.”
Now, this type of freedom may be the theoretical case in the philosophy of democracy, but it is certainly not the de facto case of religious thinking or of the influence of religion in democracy. A writer from The Atlantic, for example, assumes that at least one of the goals of democracy [in France] is religious pluralism – “If the goal is religious pluralism—and in a country with about 5 million Muslims, it should be—then laïcité, by definition, is doomed to fail. It effectively forces observant French Muslims to choose between their religious practice and their French identity.” The obvious challenge in this line of thinking, however, is that the democratic vision of a John Locke and a Thomas Jefferson, grounded in the absolute separation of private religion from the public sphere, never included the idea of creating a space for private religion. A goal and purpose of the democratic society was never to create pluralism, but only to allow it to breathe and to co-exist, as long as everyone plays by the rules of the democratic environment – thereby ensuring the freedom of expression and religious liberty for all of We the People.
In the United States the First Amendment to the Constitution bans Congress from passing any law respecting the establishment of religion and from prohibiting people from freely exercising their religion. In 1981 the United Nations General Assembly passed a "Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief," which recognizes Freedom of Religion as a fundamental human right. In the Preamble one finds expressed these classic democratic and secular sentiments:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
This formulation is not a fluke, because it is expressly reiterated in Article 18 of the same U.N. document: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” And yet, it would seem that this very guarantee is being regularly violated internationally, with impunity, if we are to believe Huffington Post headlines such as, “The Charlie Hebdo Murders: An Attack on Religious Liberty, Not Free Expression” (Doug Bandow; Cato Institute; 1/28/2015).
So, in the present state of western democracy it is certainly beginning to seem like the civic freedoms of Expression and Religion, which have historically been the philosophical pillars of enlightened democracy, are crumbling under the onslaught of world-wide religious authoritarianism.
BLASPHEMY LAWS & THE QUESTION OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION. The diverse western democracies have negotiated diversely the troubled waters that stand between private religion and the public domain. In some democracies the relationship between the private religious and the civic is friendly. In Germany, for example, as in the U.K. and the Netherlands, there seems to be relatively peaceful cohabitation between the church and the state. In other civil societies, however, that relationship is somewhat more tenuous and hostile. Such is the case in France, Mexico, India, Spain, and in the U.S. In these latter societies, where the separation between church and state is more clearly defined and codified in legislation, where the society is formally ‘open’, one might also expect to see a consistent commitment to secular or non-religious civil social institutions. In societies where the church and the state have a closer co-existence, on the other hand, one might expect to find the growth of stronger and more stable ‘closed’ institutions and structures, by means of which ‘open’ societies remain bound to inherently authoritarian or religious world-views.
But even the more radical separation of the church from the state in democracy does not guarantee the state’s safety from the inherently colonizing project (proselytism) of religious thinking. The Americans still have the formal theoretical idea of the absolute separation of church and state, and yet their political landscape is infested by the unruly sprouting of Christianized politicians who patiently seek to bring about the velvet coup d’état of transforming civil society into Christian theocracy. Religious America, imitating Moses’ long march through the Sinai, seems to be paving the way for a modern exodus out of state secularism and into a new-world theocracy. But democracy, where political authority has been squarely placed on the shoulders of the individual, is philosophically incompatible with the authoritarianism inherent to a theocratically defined state. At least philosophically, a velvet revolution is indeed afoot in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Generally speaking, one tends to find blasphemy laws more strongly rooted in those countries that have a close relationship to specific religious traditions. This is predictable in the sense that a blasphemy is, by definition, an insult of or contempt for the sacred; at heart, blasphemy is a religious notion. In countries having a weaker affiliation with formal religion, the notion of the sacred has simply been transferred to the public dimension through the language of hate speech, etc.; but the reality of blasphemy continues to thrive through the various euphemisms of secular thought—this is just a secular expression of the velvet coup d’état designed to move We the People away from the messiness and tension of secularized democracy working itself out through the lives of individuals, and closer to a religious authoritarianism.
In March 2014, in a Policy Brief entitled Prisoners of Belief, The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom articulated essentially the same philosophy toward religion, as did John Locke in his 1689 Letter concerning Toleration—which just goes to show how difficult it is to kill a good idea.
“Blasphemy laws inappropriately position governments as arbiters of truth or religious rightness, as they empower officials to enforce particular religious views against individuals, minorities, and dissenters. [… because] In contexts where an authoritarian government supports an established religious creed, blasphemy accusations are frequently used to silence critics or democratic rivals under the guise of enforcing religious piety.”
The Commission’s brief continues:
“Blasphemy laws are incompatible with international human rights standards, as they protect beliefs over individuals, and they often result in violations of the freedoms of religion and expression, especially when persons are jailed. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the individual right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to manifest this belief through various acts, such as worship, observance, practice and teaching. Limitations on this right are narrow, and are only permitted as necessary to protect “public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” Article 19 of the ICCPR protects the individual right to freedom of expression, which may only be limited to protect the rights or reputations of others, national security, public order, or public health or morals. And in terms of the protection of morals, the UN Human Rights Committee has observed that limitations on this ground “must be based on principles not deriving exclusively from a single [social, philosophical, or religious] tradition.””
The conclusion of this Commission is democratic and secular in the highest degree:
“International law experts have repeatedly deemed blasphemy-type laws incompatible with human rights commitments. For example, the UN Human Rights Committee has stated that “[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [ICCPR].” In addition, an international group of experts convened by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently recommended that “[s]tates that have blasphemy laws should repeal the[m] as such laws have a stifling impact on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief and healthy dialogue and debate about religion.” Furthermore, these laws run counter to consensus UN resolutions recognizing that religious intolerance is best fought through positive measures, such as education, outreach, and counter-speech, and that criminalization is only appropriate for incitement to imminent violence.”
A similar philosophy motivates another “independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world,” Freedom House, which argues that, “Founded in 1941, Freedom House was the first American organization to champion the advancement of freedom globally.” On the question of blasphemy laws their conclusion was that:
"blasphemy laws foster an environment of intolerance and impunity, and lead to violations of a broad range of human rights, including the obvious rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion, as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to due process and a fair trial; freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and the right to life and security of the person."”
Among the various players of the democratic game, however, there still remains no especial consensus about the distance, far or near, that is to define religion’s relationship to the civil state. So, if there is still no philosophical agreement about how religion might best coexist within and with the civil state, perhaps it might be possible to find a single unifying concept that could historically bind together the various democracies of the west.
THE DIVINE RIGHT OF KINGS, or RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY and CIVIL SOCIETY. Historically speaking, the birth of the modern democratic principle: We the People, flows from a decline in the idea that kings are innately endowed, from Heaven, with special authority to rule over societies. There are many reasons for the decline in this latter idea, including the perception that kings were not neutral in the distribution of their favors, and that kings could not be held accountable for excesses and corruption. Philosophers, such as Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, and other interested parties argued for an alternative view of governance for the civil society, which was grounded in the notion of the ‘consent of the governed’… and, following a series of revolutions and beheadings, the social contract was acclaimed and proclaimed, at the heart of which was very firmly embedded the core idea of We the People.
This was a moment in western history when it became philosophically clear that authoritarianisms seem just naturally to want to accumulate social and political and financial and religious power among a select few insiders, and that the only practical way to avoid that trap was to fragment and to disperse all social power among the real builders and players of civil society – individuals, who would become in that instant of history ‘We the People’.
Now, even though the various democracies of the world do not necessarily agree on the limitations of speech and religion, it would still seem reasonable that all states which claim their philosophical heritage from the western principle of We the People, should continue to resist the principle of authoritarianism in all of its diverse incarnations; and this must include our resistance to any private Religious Thought trying to impose its values and its worldview in the public space on free hearts and free men.
The principle of the divine right of kings is resurrected again in the democratic west only when and where democratic countries allow religious thought, of any ilk, to hold public sway within their borders. And so democracy dies, not with a whimper but with a bang, unless citizenry discovers in itself courage sufficient to stand the ground of its ideas, and commitment enough to the principle of truly free (i.e., unbridled) speech, and to absolute public neutrality on questions of religion. Yet it is unfortunately true, as has been said, that “Among citizens, terrorism provokes a natural reaction: fear coupled with an overwhelming desire for security.”
Who holds the real power of our lives in the democratic state? Philosophers will tell us that we do, as individuals. And yet free speech and free religion in the democratic state, to whatever degree We the People allow it, to whatever degree We the People censure ourselves out of fear, is largely controlled, de facto, by some of the following religious thinkers who have and are attempting to seize control of the free world of ideas, and speech, and religion, and choice, through their fatwas [compiled from various sources and Wikipedia]:
· L’imam afghan [Mir Faroq Husseini, un dignitaire religieux dans la province occidentale de Herat] qui a offert 400.000 dollars de récompense pour quiconque tuerait le producteur du film islamophobe ainsi que le dessinateur français Charb.
· Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses.
· In 2001, religious authorities in the United Arab Emirates issued a fatwā against the children's game Pokémon, after finding that it encouraged gambling, and was based on the theory of evolution, "a Jewish-Darwinist theory, that conflicts with the truth about humans and with Islamic principles".
· In 2001, Egypt's Grand Mufti issued a fatwā stating that the show "Who will Win the Million?" (modelled on the British show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) was un-Islamic. The Sheikh of Cairo's Al-Azhar University later rejected the fatwā, finding that there was no objection to such shows since they spread general knowledge.
· In Syria, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badruddin Hassoun issued a fatwa prohibiting every type of smoking, including cigarettes and narghile, as well as the selling and buying of tobacco and any affiliation with tobacco distribution (see also Smoking in Syria).
· Yusuf al-Qaradawi released a fatwā on April 14, 2004, stating that the boycott of American and Israeli products was an obligation for all who are able.
· Sheik Sadeq Abdallah bin Al-Majed, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, issued a fatwā that prohibits vaccination of children claiming it is a conspiracy of the Jews and Freemasons.
· Indian Muslim scholars issued a fatwā of death against Taslima Nasreen, an exiled controversial Bangladeshi writer. Majidulla Khan Farhad of Hyderabad-based Majlis Bachao Tehriq issued the fatwā at the Tipu Sultan mosque in Kolkata after Juma prayers as saying Taslima has defamed Islam and announced an “unlimited financial reward” to anybody who would kill her.
· In 1998, Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq, issued a fatwā prohibiting University of Virginia professor Abdulaziz Sachedina from ever again teaching Islam due in part to Sachedina's writings encouraging acceptance of religious pluralism in the Muslim world.
· In June 1992, Egyptian writer Farag Foda was assassinated following a fatwa issued by ulamas from Al-Azhar who had adopted a previous fatwa by Sheikh al-Azhar, Jadd al-Haqq, accusing secularist writers such as Foda of being "enemies of Islam". The jihadist group Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya claimed responsibility for the murder.
· In 1951 Egypt issued a fatwa on Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola citing it was safe for Muslims to drink both beverages since "they do not contain narcotic or alcoholic substances, nor do these analyses show the presence of pepsin. From the bacteriological point of view the beverages are free of microbes harmful to health."
· Osama bin Laden issued two fatwās—in 1996 and then again in 1998—that Muslims should kill civilians and military personnel from the United States and allied countries until they withdraw support for Israel and withdraw military forces from Islamic countries.
· Earlier this month a video was release showing another AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] leader, Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi, claiming responsibility for the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which claimed 12 lives. According to reports from RFI (Radio France Internationale), "We, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, claim responsibility for this operation as vengeance for the messenger of Allah," one of the group's leaders, Nasser al-Ansi, said in reference to the magazine's publications of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.”
In memoriam, not just to these executed individuals from Charlie Hebdo, who are only the most recent victims to the divine right of kings, but also to the very idea of secular democracy—unless the west continues to ensure that the voices of divinely inspired “kings” are given no hearing in civil society.
[#CharlieHebdo : la vidéo hommage de France Télévisions ; #NousSommesCharlie]
Further reading: Profane. Sacrilegious Expression in a Multicultural Age, edited by Grenda, Beneke, and Nash. University of California Press, 2014.
Further reading: Profane. Sacrilegious Expression in a Multicultural Age, edited by Grenda, Beneke, and Nash. University of California Press, 2014.