Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Lampooning Islam is not “punching down”

My last post about Charlie Hebdo responded to quite a few loosely affiliated critiques of the magazine at the same time. Today I’d like to address a more specific accusation: that ridiculing and caricaturizing Islam, or even radicalized subsets of Islam, amounts to “punching down”: the allegedly immoral practice of leveraging one’s dominant social position to make jokes at the expense of powerless and oppressed peoples (I have more to say about the entire concept of “punching down” in a future post, but for now, let’s assume that punching down really is a universal wrong). The most prominent version of this accusation came from Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau in his acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award. Among other things, he said:

"The idea behind the original drawings [in Denmark] was not to entertain or to enlighten or to challenge authority—her charge to the cartoonists was specifically to provoke, and in that they were exceedingly successful. Not only was one cartoonist gunned down, but riots erupted around the world, resulting in the deaths of scores. No one could say toward what positive social end, yet free speech absolutists were unchastened...

This is a bitter harvest. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.


By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech, which in France is only illegal if it directly incites violence. Well, voila—the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which ten people died.

Freedom should always be discussed within the context of responsibility. At some point free expression absolutism becomes childish and unserious. It becomes its own kind of fanaticism.

I think these comments get it exactly wrong. Among the many problems with them is the idea that drawing Mohammad or criticizing Islam more generally only “provokes,” without “challenging authority.” Very often, those two things are one and the same, and especially so when the authorities are the ones being provoked. To Muslims, Mohammad is an authority figure. So too are the Imams and religious leaders who claim to speak on behalf of Mohammad. Deliberately defying their orders not to draw Mohammad most certainly "challenges" their authority!

My favorite free speech ally Eugene Volokh agrees with me. He responded to Trudeau’s remarks in a blog entry titled, “Adherents of Islam, Second Largest Religion in the World, are a ‘powerless, disenfranchised minority”?:


Whatever the status of Muslims might be in France, Charlie Hebdo’s famous cartoons weren’t commenting on French Muslims as such — they were commenting on Islam generally, and particularly at the more traditionalist strands of Islam.

Islam has an estimated 1.6 billion adherents, and is the most powerful religion in many important countries. Being powerful, it has been doing plenty of its own “punching downward” lately, and not just by means of satire. It has plenty of “the self-satisfied and hypocritical” within it. Much within Islam — like much within many religions — merits some “afflicting” through criticism and even ridicule.

Islam is clearly not powerless. Expressly Islamic governments rule some 1/3rd of the earth. In those parts they do govern, they oppress many “disenfranchised minorities”. As I type, ISIS is raping and pillaging its way through the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of truly powerless people are cowering before their murderous theocracy, pretending to believe things they don’t, lest they be accused of blasphemy and executed. This is a “bitter harvest.”

ISIS is not an outlier. In 13 countries, atheism is punishable by death. Homosexuals risk the same fate. These people are not oppressed by edgy white dudes in France – they are oppressed by Islamists, who bastardize the teachings of Mohammad to justify their racist, homophobic, intolerant, ass-backwards Medieval belief systems. To criticize radical Islam, even to blaspheme it, is to stand up for these oppressed persons – not to punch them. It is to heroically defy the entrenched systems of power that exist outside the West, just as certainly as other systems of power exist here.

Inversely, to shield Islam’s modern excesses from Western reproach for fear it will cause offense, inflict pain or spark defensiveness is to retard the progress of these Islamic societies. It is perverse and illiberal to overlook the most direct victims of what happened in Paris, and sympathize with the murderers instead of the satirists because of the color of their skin.

Jeffrey Goldberg also agrees with me. He wrote the following in his own Atlantic article:

No fundamentalist interpretation of any religion deserves the protection and sympathy of progressives. Islamists—adherents of a politicized, radical strain of Islam—are misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-enlightenment, and possess no tolerance at all for members of religious groups whose beliefs conflict with their own. These are traits one traditionally associates with the far-right, but some on the left are happy to support Islamists—even Islamist terror groups—simply because they stand in opposition to the West. (Judith Butler, the Berkeley comparative-literature professor, famously described Hamas and Hezbollah as "social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left.")

So does Nick Cohen from The Spectator:
Prose, Carey, the London Review of Books and so many others agree with Islamists first demand that the world should have a de facto blasphemy law enforced at gunpoint. Break it and you have only yourself to blame if the assassins you provoked kill you 
They not only go along with the terrorists from the religious ultra-right but with every state that uses Islam to maintain its power. They can show no solidarity with gays in Iran, bloggers in Saudi Arabia and persecuted women and religious minorities across the Middle East, who must fight theocracy. They have no understanding that enemies of Charlie Hebdo are also the enemies of liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West. In the battle between the two, they have in their stupidity and malice allied with the wrong side. 
Most glaringly they have failed to understand power. It is not fixed but fluid. It depends on where you stand. The unemployed terrorist with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian cartoonist cowering underneath his desk. The marginal cleric may well face racism and hatred – as my most liberal British Muslim friends do – but when he sits in a Sharia court imposing misogynist rules on Muslim women in the West, he is no longer a victim or potential victim but a man to be feared. 
While this Hebdo critic is technically correct that “condemning the Paris killings and affirming the right to blaspheme are not two sides of the same coin,” they should both be no-brainer positions for an educated progressive of any religion. That many European Muslims have yet to come to these conclusions does not change their correctness. If you do not believe we have a right to blaspheme, you are not so bad as the people who killed Charlie Hebdo staffers – but you are still very, very wrong, and should still be called out for that independently. Censors are never progressive.

In addition to opposing the legality of blasphemy, the article notes that an incredible 0% of British Muslims believe homosexuality is morally acceptable. Progressives should not be defending these very bad ideas from criticism just because their proponents are brown, anti-Western, or a minority in Europe. I get that colonialism was a horrible injustice, but blaming white people does not suffice as a comprehensive moral worldview for all situations. On the contrary, it only serves to strip the non-privileged of their agency in a rather belittling way.

A much more appropriate response is the one Norway followed in the wake of the massacre, by repealing their own blasphemy restrictions. This is not the same as condoning or agreeing with everything Charlie Hebdo ever published (I couldn’t laugh at the “Boko Haram welfare queens” joke either). But making fun of Islam more generally absolutely cannot be off limits.

PS - You don’t need to feel guilty for laughing at this, for instance. He sure isn’t ridiculing Baptists.

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