Dear Muslim World,
Whether Sunni or Shia, conservative or progressive, it seems there are several things that we, in the West, need to get straight with you. Recently, a film called Innocence of Muslims was released, in which the prophet of Islam may or may not have been mocked and denigrated. In a trailer for the film, which was made available on YouTube with Arabic subtitles, sections were overdubbed which were deliberately intended to offend Muslims. This led to widespread violence, mob behaviour, the murder of a US diplomat in Libya, the attempted murder of Prince Harry in Afghanistan and, for some bizarre reason, the arson of a KFC in Lebanon..
It seems we had better sit down and have a wee chat about our values, our beliefs and our future together. Things just haven’t been gelling for us lately, and I feel that our differences are beginning to come between us. The first thing we need to get straight is this:
1. We don’t care.
This may come as a shock to you, and you may think it terribly insensitive of us, but most secular Western folk just don’t care if a film insults Muslims or Jews or Atheists or Buddhists. Indeed, it happens all the time in our neck of the woods and what’s more we think it’s a good thing! We love it! We don’t take any heed to ensure that information is disseminated in an inoffensive way because we believe that through open argument and debate, which includes hurting each other’s feelings, the truth can be brought to light. We also believe that the silencing of minority opinions through violence or threats of violence is totally unjustifiable. This has been a recurring theme in much of our philosophy and our literature for several hundred years. For example, 150 years ago J.S. Mill (he’s one of our favourite philosophers.you should read him.) said “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. Isn’t that a funny thing to say! Well, in the West, we have spent the last 400 years, or so, ensuring that the largest scope of dissenting opinions and argument is made possible, because we see this not only as humane and just, but also because it is an effective way to discover the truth.
Consider that when Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (a film mocking Jesus) was released in 1979, a few Christians were rather offended. However, nobody set fire to anything. Nobody was murdered. No riots broke out in the street. Indeed, two prominent British clergymen debated John Cleese and Michael Palin on TV after the film had been released. Cleese’s shining moment in the debate came after he was accused of blasphemy by one of the preachers, to which he replied: “Look, four-hundred years ago we would have been burnt for this film. Now, I’m suggesting that we’ve made an advance.” Indeed, it is an advance that John Cleese was not burnt, but it is an advance that is yet to come for the Muslim world.
So, in short, we just don’t care about your hurt feelings, indeed quite the opposite, we think it is great that your feelings have been hurt since this leads to self-examination and self-reflection. It is also a feeling you will have to get used to, because if we ever have to trample over all of your most heartfelt religious convictions in order to answer some question (such as whether Muhammed was a pedophile, or a mass-murderer, or whether he even existed) then we will trample on those convictions. In a free and open democracy, you have to grow a thick skin. I know this is all very new and strange, but basically, we really really really believe in freedom of speech. It is the bedrock of all of our political values. Sorry, it’s just how we feel about it.
2. We believe in the separation of church and state.
Although there are vestigial counterexamples to this belief, such as Queen Elizabeth II being both the head of state and head of the church of England, on the whole, we believe that religion and politics don’t mix. We believe that religion is a private matter and that it should stay outside of the public square (and Tahrir square). This may seem an impossible demand to make on you, since a full Muslim life can only be lived in the Dar as Islam (under a Muslim government). But there really is so much to recommend the separation of church and state, such as the protection of minority religious rights from oppression by the majority, the possibility of rational political debate, public education free from dogmatic religious indoctrination and the equality of all religious creeds before the law. Unfortunately, the separation of church and state is going to be a hard sell for you. Well, never mind. There’s a bigger problem.
Currently you are trying to force us, through acts and threats of violence, to combine religion and state again. For example, Egyptian PM Hisham Qandil is asking the US to “take the necessary measures to ensure insulting billions of people, one-and-a-half billion people and their beliefs, does not happen” . Now, that is actually a violation of the separation of church and state that I was just talking about. It is an attempt to bring a blasphemy law to the US, a country with a proud history of ensuring religious freedom for religious minorities through the legally enshrined separation of church and state in the first amendment of the constitution. It is an attempt to bring shariah law to the US. Can you see why the first amendment and the shariah can’t coexist? I’m sorry but they just can’t.
“Wait!” I can hear you respond. “I would guarantee that all religions are protected from offense! Therefore, this blasphemy law would not violate the separation of church and state. It would just protect all religions equally.” Unfortunately, even if that were the point, that is still a lie. You know just as well as I do that it is blasphemous in Islam to say that Muhammed is not the final prophet. This means that the Baha’i faith would be an offensive religion, since it holds that the prophets, Bab and Bahaullah, came after Muhammed, and followers of Baha’i could therefore be punished for proclaiming this belief. That isn’t protecting all religions equally. That’s discrimination. You are just extremely touchy about your religion, and there’s nothing we can do to help you except suggesting therapy of some sort. I know you say you don’t need help, but there are people out there to support you.
Lastly, there is a really big sore point between you and me. It is the big, hairy elephant in the room. I didn’t even want to bring it up, but It is a major gap separating us by several hundred years. Well, here goes:
3. Your religion is backward.
Sorry, I know this one is really going to smart. In the West, we feel it is super important to guarantee people certain fundamental rights. We feel that these rights are vitally important for guaranteeing a society of human flourishing, individuality, social experimentation, scientific experimentation, artistic freedom, social progress and legal equality. You, on the other hand, do not believe in anything like equal fundamental rights. You believe that women are the chattels of men. You believe that apostasy is a punishable offense (some think it is punishable by death). You believe that men may rape their wives and beat their wives in certain circumstances (even “liberal” Muslim scholars are unlikely to condemn wife-beating outright, and more likely to debate the severity of the beating). You prohibit music. You believe that your prophet, Muhammed, is the very best example of a man, despite the multiple acts of pedophilia, mass rape, mass murder and warmongering attributed to him in the Hadiths. You are anti-semitic and poorly educated for the most part. You do not guarantee legal equality for all religions, imposing a jizhya (special tax) on non-muslims. You endorse capital punishment for adultery. You put your adherents through excessive, militaristic, compulsory rituals that deprive them of sleep and food, exciting a siege mentality. Despite the fact that Biblical literalists are the laughing stock of the Western world, you believe the Qu’ran to be the literal word of Allah, jihad and all. And then, you riot when somebody draws a picture of your prophet.
How can I put this nicely? Hmmm…. OK, think of it this way. You are time travellers! In the West, it is the year 2012, yet somehow, in most majority Muslim countries, it is the year 1433 (just as your own calender says)! You have travelled back to a time before feminism, before the enlightenment, before the industrial revolution, before the sexual revolution, before rock and roll. Hell! Before baroque even!
To cut to the chase, we see your culture, your religion, your laws and your beliefs as painfully backwards. It is like watching an old and dangerous alcoholic drink himself to death. We want to help you quit, but if we try to help you we get attacked with a bottle. We want to encourage you towards the good life; towards a world of liberated women; towards a world without incommensurate punishments; towards a world of social, political and sexual freedom and away from the sadistic Islamic societies you are trying to create.
We don’t like your way of life. We want nothing to do with it. We don’t want to restrict freedom of speech. We don’t want to tell our women to “cover up” or “be modest”. To quote Richard Dawkins “I don’t dress women, women dress themselves”. We don’t want to punish gay and lesbian Muslims in the name of multiculturalism. We don’t want your shariah. We want equality for everyone, regardless of religion, gender, sexual orientation and race. We don’t want to punish freethinkers, we want to encourage them. We want a world of new ideas, of experimentation. We want a world of argument and debate, not silence and repression.
The fact is, we simply have no use for your dark age theology any more, and how could we? We are so much more advanced than you, in so many respects. Scientifically, socially, intellectually, ethically, technologically, economically… The list goes on. I figure we are about 500 years ahead of your civilisation, if it can be called that. What could you bring to the table to offer us other than threats? You have nothing of value for us. Your tools are outdated and we don’t accept your currency. Indeed, we may as well be aliens from outer space, who have just landed on your Islamic planet. Sure, our alien ways may seem strange to you, but that’s because our civilisation is so much more advanced than yours.
We’ve been where you are now, but that was a long time ago. We’re over it. That was just a bad phase we went through. We don’t want to go back there, we want to keep moving forwards, towards equality and intellectual progress. You simply cannot help us anymore, and you’re beginning to drag us down with you. I’m afraid that our differences are just too numerous, and our disagreements too severe. The arguments are getting tiring and repetitive and we just need to move on.
Perhaps one day, far off in the distant future, I’ll see you at a cafe in Florence. You’ll be married, perhaps to someone of the same gender, sipping on a glass of wine perhaps, reading a book, not the Qur’an, but maybe Camus or Pinker, and flirting with the waitress whenever your partner isn’t looking. I’ll see you. We’ll exchange a silent glance. A little smile. And I’ll know that you found a civilised life.