Update: 9:48 am Atlantic Time, Sunday, 16th September 2012: Jerry Coyne has just responded to Hoffmann’s scurrilous bit of atheist bashing, justly pointing out that Hoffmann seems to be missing the point again. Here is a nice summary from Jerry’s post:
So are we now to suppress free speech against all religions? Or is it okay to criticize Jews, Hindus, and Christians (viz. “The Life of Brian”) but not Muslims? What, exactly, would Hoffmann have us do? We already, all three of us, have disassociated ourselves from Jones’s stupid activities and ill-advised Muslim-bashing, but we all defend strongly his right to do criticize Islam however he wants. If the rights of fringe minorities like those including Jones aren’t protected, then the rights of all of us are endangered. That is precisely why freedom of speech and religion are written into America’s Bill of Rights.
Freedom, believe it or not. Joe Hoffmann, is worth protecting. I will post another take on this in an hour or two. (By the way, this is really contrary to my purposes. I had intended yesterday to address myself to the case of Evans Mott, the New Zealander, whose trial for the assisted suicide of his wife, ended in exoneration. I will get back to that anon.)
Since he has taken the trouble to bring himself to my attention once again (just as I was beginning to warm to him), it would be impolite of me to ignore that R. Joseph Hoffmann has once again taken it upon himself to scold me for — now, how did he put it exactly — “a singularly ill-informed piece” of mine written over a year ago at the time of the Pastor Terry Jones “media sensation” over the burning of a Qu’ran. As I said then:
[A]nyone who thinks, as Hoffmann does, that someone who burns a book which others value more than human life itself is guilty of murder has simply, I believe, lost the plot.
This is not to deny that Terry Jones’s stunt over Qu’ran burning was full of a particularly vile mix of Christian fundamentalism, showmanship, as well a nasty strain of what can justly be called Islamophobia. But the question still is, as I quote Leo Igwe as saying: which is more important, books or people’s lives?
Of course, Hoffmann thinks that this further scolding is necessary, because Terry Jones has made one more foray into the public spotlight, which the American media seem so willing to shine upon him, in a particularly intemperate response to the wild and unruly protests in the Arab world which have already taken American lives, and seem very likely to continue a while longer. Clearly, someone or some group of persons is fomenting the response to the lamentable anti-Islam video, snippets of which can still be seen on Youtube (at least they could until yesterday, and I am not disposed to watch them again). (I deliberately refrain from linking to them.) Muslims seem to think that if they light enough fires, and rampage through streets in protest, that they can silence all criticism of their religion. But just as they can rampage, so others will do their bit to give them all the reason they seem to need to erupt in paroxysms of fury at perceived slights to the memory of their prophet. As Alan Dershowitz has shown, it does not take much to arouse the religious to fiery denunciations of those whom they perceive as enemies to their truths. Even the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Lord Sacks, has accused Richard Dawkins of antisemitism because of his description of the Old Testament god as perhaps the nastiest character in all fiction. It does not take much to ruffle the feathers of the religious.
However, let me clarify for Hoffmann what I meant when I spoke, in the post he refers to, about losing the thread of the argument, and asked the following series of questions:
Did Hoffmann not see the signs? Has he not read of the cartoon controversy, which began as the expression of a concern that freedom of speech was being restricted by Muslim sensitivity to anything at all that could be construed as offence? Did he miss entirely the story of the simple Christian woman in Pakistan who was charged with blasphemy, and whose defender, the Governor of the Punjab, Salman Tareer, was murdered by one of his own bodyguards, a traitor and a murderer who was then feted as a champion of Islam? Did he miss the story about Christians converting to Islam because of threats and intimidations?
The questions, I thought he would be able to see, were intended to be rhetorical. I am not so fixated on Hoffmann that I thought it worthwhile to see whether he had commented on any of these things. So his response misses the point I had hoped to make. Today (15th September 2012) Hoffmann thinks it apt to suggest that those questions justify his comment that I am singularly uninformed, and so he says, of me, that I had
wondered out loud if [he, that is, Hoffmann] hadn’t paid attention to the “cartoons controversy,” evidently missing the fact that [he] had written extensively on the topic in 2008 and had conditionally defended the right of Free Inquiry magazine, where [he] was an associate editor, to publish the cartoons in the US.
But that’s not what I did. The rhetorical questions were meant to raise the question whether or not Hoffmann could see a golden thread running through all these events, including the unfortunate Qu’ran burning of the lamentable Pastor Terry Jones.
Does Terry Jones do these things to arouse responses? Yes, of course he does, and he does so because he is pretty sure that he will get them. Should he be prevented from testing the limits of Muslim patience? No, of course, not, and not only because I have a tender spot for American constitutional guarantees of free speech. I think the more often the limits are tested, the more likely we are to create a situation in which we can criticise Islam without the constant fear of someone being killed, or a fatwa being issued by some misguided cleric to murder someone for their offences against the great religion of Islam.
The present rioting and murders in the Middle East are the result of a stupid video — and it is a clownish production without any merit whatsoever – which was clearly intended to be an insult to the supposed prophet Muhammad. About that there is no question. Would it have been better never to have been made? Undoubtedly, the world would have been richer without it. Should those who made it be imprisoned — and for what? For fomenting violence half a world away? One of the producers of the film seems to have broken the terms of his parole by taking part in its production, so there is perhaps a perfectly legitimate reason for sending him back to complete his sentence, but not for causing offence. Should people who offend the sensibilities of the religious be jailed or fined or otherwise legally constrained because of their outrages? Should the director, the actors and the producers of The Life of Brian be imprisoned, fined or sent to Coventry, simply because they outraged the sensitivities of Christians? In my view, no. Is it, like the “Piss Christ” that I used as an example in the post to which Hoffmann adverts, something that should be forbidden, just because it offends?
My answer to those questions is no, and again, no. I don’t think so. I regret, of course, that people died because some amateur film makers in California aroused the outrage and the ire of Muslims. But how, I wonder, did our freedoms come about? Do we have these freedoms because no one dared to challenge the limits of them? Because no one offended someone else by publishing or saying things that caused offence to others? And did no one die as a result? So long as we censor ourselves — as Channel 4 did in Britain the other day — because somewhere some Muslims will be offended, then not only will they go on being offended, they will know that they can silence us by being so.
Now, Hoffman, being parochial, seems to think — does he think this? — what exactly is the point of his latest offering? — that Pastor Terry Jones, who, he says, likes a mirror, is trying to influence the presidential election. I have no opinion about this. Not knowing the temper of the American people, I do not know what success Terry Jones’ might have in influencing the wider electorate by his silly shenanigans. I should have thought his influence would be almost nugatory, but perhaps I don’t understand the mind of the American people.
However, it still puzzles me why Hoffmann thinks it germane to bring up at this point what I or Jerry Coyne or PZ Myers said over a year ago about this particularly repugnant specimen of a human being. And I really wonder whether it is true, that, as he says, “tone deaf atheists … cost lives.” I am sure that not one word that I have written has cost any lives, nor would I want them to. However, if people go on killing sprees because someone has offended their religious sensibilities, then the guilt lies, not with the one who has caused offence, but with those who have done the killing. Let’s get things in perspective here. If we don’t, our freedoms, such as they are, will be very short-lived. Does Hoffmann really want Muslims to be able to censor our speech by playing the violence card every time we dare to speak about their supposed prophet? I think Pastor Jones is an idiot, and said as much in my earlier post about him, but I don’t think we should censor what he says. He shows himself to be an idiot every time he opens his mouth, and every time a Muslim kills in defence of the prophet of Islam, he demonstrates that this is not a religion of peace.
Jerry Coyne has just put up a post, and says, of this picture:
Somebody tell me that this isn’t child abuse.
A mother allowing a child to carry this blood-thirsty placard is just as crackpot as Terry Jones, but Terry Jones is not suggesting that anyone kill others for the notional offence of insulting a prophet. He’s not suggesting that anyone kill others at all. When mothers think it appropriate for their children to carry hate messages like this in Sydney, Australia, Islam is a problem that needs to be settled now, and Jones is right to see that there is a problem here. It’s not going to get better until Muslims are convinced that this is not a civilised response to religious disagreement or dispute, and they will not be convinced of this if people are not permitted to criticise Islam or its prophet. Let’s get some perspective, shall we, Dr. Hoffman? Forget the strident voices of the atheists you so despise, and see the world as it really is, where people who are offended because someone has insulted a man now long dead go about rampaging through the streets, setting fires and killing innocent people, all in an effort to protect their religion from criticism or abuse.
Religions shouldn’t be protected in this way. If Islam is a religion of peace, let them show us that that is what it is, and not go on rampages every time someone, no matter how foolish, insults what to them are holy things. They will be just as holy to them, though others despise them. PZ “desecrates” what Catholics think of as the body of Christ, but he thinks of as crackers, because Catholics pilloried a young man, and sought to endanger his future, because they believed he had desecrated something they hold sacred. This was not tone deafness; it was a justified response to what PZ considered to be a silly belief that should not be allowed to ruin lives. People are going to be offended, and sometimes hurt, when this kind of thing is done, but the harm will be done by the religious, until they grow thicker skins, and recognise that what an unbeliever does has no bearing on what they consider holy. The same goes for offences against Islam. Muslims need thicker skins. Every time someone denies that Muhammad was a prophet and avers that he did not receive a revelation from a god, they are being offensive to Islam. Of course they are. And being able to think and say such things is a right we should be willing to stand up for and defend. And that is why I said, and say again, that Hoffmann seems to have lost the thread of the story all over again.