Lately, a trend has developed of urging people to refer to certain events as political rather than religious. To take an example where this might easily be done, take the recent outbreak of anti-Buddhist violence in Bangladesh, apparently over a Facebook image thought to be insulting to the Muslim prophet. It’s irrelevant what caused the violence, it might be said, because in nearby Myanmar (Burma), Muslims have suffered grievously at the hands of Buddhists, who went on a rampage over the alleged rape and murder of a Buddhist girl. So, it might be thought, the violence in Bangladesh, and the destruction of Buddhist temples and homes, may be just a tit-for-tat response to the violence visited upon the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. So, is the violence not more political than religious in origin and nature, and the claimed insult an excuse rather than a reason?
This distinction is often made with the implication that, if it is political, it is not religious, and vice versa, as though religion can be let off the hook simply by bringing up the political dimension of the violence. On the other hand, as is claimed in the Wikipedia article on religious violence,
[t]he invention of the concept of “religious violence” helps the West reinforce superiority of Western social orders to “nonsecular” social orders, namely Muslims at the time of publication.
It is hard to see how this is true, especially since so much of the violence in the arc of countries running from Egypt to Pakistan, though often represented as secular, has been given a deeply religious hue by American fundamentalists, most particularly by President Bush, who claimed God’s commandment as his motivation for attacking Afghanistan and Iraq. A contemporary report states:
President George Bush has claimed he was told by God to invade Iraq and attack Osama bin Laden’s stronghold of Afghanistan as part of a divine mission to bring peace to the Middle East, security for Israel, and a state for the Palestinians.
So a strong religious colouring clearly marks both sides in the ongoing conflict in the region. While not so public as Bush in claiming a religious rationale for going to war, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, believed that God wanted him to go to war to fight evil. It is hard to find much purchase here for the moral superiority of the West, based on the West’s secularity as opposed to the supposed blinkered religionism of the East. So, it is not simply a matter of (innocent) secular states against blinkered (guilty) religion.
The problem is that, whenever a nonbeliever speaks in a critical way about offended Muslims rioting, or Christians in Britain making exaggerated claims about persecution, or Muslims denouncing Islamophobia whenever someone criticises any aspect of their religion, the response is so often that religion is not at the centre of these events; instead, we are to understand, the issues are political, or racial, or cultural, or something other than religious. Islamophobia, for instance, is often thought of as racist, even though Muslims are not identifiable by race, except, of course, insofar as many people, even Muslims, tend to identify Islam with the Arab world, when, of course, it is not that simple, for there are Russian Muslims, Chinese Muslims, Indonesian Muslims, Indian Muslims, and white European (American, Canadian, Australian, etc.) Muslims. So a criticism of Islam is the criticism of a religion, not of a race, or even of a particular ethnic grouping — though of course, in local circumstances, it may be directed at a specific ethnic enclave, and may then be identified more precisely as racial, ethnic or cultural in tone and effect.
But when people throughout the Muslim world began rioting because of the flaky video “Innocence of Muslims”, obviously made by a few fringe individuals, the rage and violence was immediately identified as political rather than religious, in many cases, whether as a result of the pent-up frustrations of thousands of young men without work whose schooling consists largely of religious indoctrination, or as a result of attempts by autocratic regimes to divert attention away from governance to largely frivolous concerns which would simply run themselves out in relatively harmless ways, instead of indulging in political revolution. Or in Bangladesh. Is it really Muslim anger at Buddhists as such, or simply a kind of sympathetic response to the suffering of their Muslim brothers and sisters in Burma?
These questions have no very clear answers, and the reason should be obvious to anyone with any familiarity at all with religion and its functions. Religions are — however important this is in relation to religion’s nature or function as religion — ways of organising people; and ordered groups of people inevitably wield power and can be used for political purposes. The political aims may be unclear, as seems to have been the case in the recent rioting over “Innocence of Muslims.” But it is clear that these apparently unplanned outbursts of rage have been transformed into the basis for a new appeal at the United Nations for global anti-blasphemy laws with teeth. Already the Indonesian President and his Pakistani counterpart (as CNN reports) have made appeals to the UN General Assembly in New York for a global ban on blasphemy, and it is expected that the Iranian, Egyptian and Turkish leaders will also join in the same appeal.
What they are seeking is the criminalising of actions or words which insult religions. As another CNN report “A war is raging against free speech” puts it:
In the view of some Arab and Muslim leaders, the time has come to draft new international rules limiting free expression for the sake of preventing insults to religions. The head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, called for “criminaliz(ing) acts that insult or cause offense to religions.”
Of course, an obvious problem here is that you can’t insult or cause offence to religions, because religions do not have feelings and cannot themselves be offended, a fact which makes clear the degree to which politics and religions are inextricably linked, and why it is virtually impossible to distinguish between acts based on religious conviction, and acts which arise out of political exigencies. The simple truth is that organised religions are vehicles for the exercise of political power, and have always been such. This is especially true of the monotheisms, because they make claims to speak absolutely for the gods claimed to speak uniquely to them; and anything which stands outside the bounds set by their gods are depicted as lawless, indecent and immoral, as Jan Assmann points out in his book The Price of Monotheism (see p. 52). Thus, General Boykin sees the face of evil over the Iraqi battlefield; for Islam, in Boykin’s view, is not a religion, but a cult of evil and death — precisely the kind of compliment that Islam repays in its turn with its idea of the Kafir (sing) or Kuffar (pl), who are those who hide from the truth that they know, and, as a consequence, are abandoned to the Haram (the forbidden) and so are Haram themselves, outside the law, lawless. It is indeed impossible for monotheists not to dismiss those who do not accept the truth (as they see it) as in some sense less than fully human. This became evident to me some years ago when I first read Lord Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference. Though I have lost the quote, there comes a point where he cannot think of polytheists as in any sense possessed of dignity. That would have been a difference too far.
The claim of Muslim leaders seems to be that distinguishing blasphemy is a simple matter, and that banning it would not lead to the suppression of free speech. Indeed, the claim seems to be that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly places limits on free speech where it concerns something so closely identified with the person as religion. My freedom to criticise belief ends where your beliefs begin — this seems to be the basic idea, one based on the familiar saying that my freedom to swing my arms ends where your chin begins. It is evident that this would make criticism of any kind nearly impossible, for the simple claim to be offended would be sufficient to limit speech, and people would be encouraged to find grounds of offence in the speech of others by a ban based on the offensive nature of some speech. Even worse than that, for, in order to draft such a law, offensive speech would have to be defined, and the definition itself would inevitably cause offence. The limits could therefore be defined only in terms of the offence caused, meaning that acts not known to be criminal at the time of commission would be criminalised simply by the fact that some people are offended by the acts in question.
The proposal is therefore absurd, but it will not stop it being made, for the proposal is both a guarantee of the religious bona fides of the persons making it, and a political gesture of good faith to their constituencies. Thus, the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has said:
The world is shaken by the depravity of fanatics who have committed acts of insult against the faith of over 1.5 billion Muslims. We strongly condemn these offensive acts, whether it involves the production of a film, the publication of cartoons, or indeed any other acts of insult and provocation. Such acts can never be justified as freedom of speech or expression.
Notice the words “the depravity of fanatics.” The Kuffar are always beyond the pale, their lives without respect or dignity, chaotic and depraved. But notice how uncertain is the reference to “acts of insult and provocation.” The world is once again being held political hostage to a religion and it sensitivities — a religion which, when it has the power, will suppress minority religions without compunction. It’s time that religion be taken out of the political equation and confined to the private sphere. The idea may seem utopian, but there is no other obvious way of dealing with the present idiocies of the religions and their quests for power. That it does seem utopian, however, is reason to believe we are entering a period of increasing political instability based on the religious sensitivities of throngs of young men whose sense of religious entitlement is absolute. The statement by President Karzai leads one to wonder why so many people had to die in Afghanistan over the past eleven years, and why more are yet to die there.