Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Fitna, Fear, and God Talk

I was surprised to see Sam Harris take so long to write something about Fitna, the controversial film on radical Islam by Dutch provocateur Geert Wilders (embedded video here; wikipedia entry here), but I was not surprised by his view of the film or its larger context. Harris:

The film has been deemed offensive because it juxtaposes images of Muslim violence with passages from the Qur'an. Given that the perpetrators of such violence regularly cite these same passages as justification for their actions, merely depicting this connection in a film would seem uncontroversial. Controversial or not, one surely would expect politicians and journalists in every free society to strenuously defend Wilders' right to make such a film. But then one would be living on another planet, a planet where people do not happily repudiate their most basic freedoms in the name of "religious sensitivity."
Also not surprisingly, I agree with Harris that Muslims have no right not to be offended, no right to see their belief system go uncriticized, and no right to use violence or threats of violence to silence others.

But in the course of accusing himself of "craven acquiescence," George Junior adds yet another tragically unsurprising dimension to the discussion, noting that he himself has faced threats for having written blog posts deemed offensive to Islam, and draws a rather grim lesson:
What I do know is that had something happened as a result of my not acquiescing and removing the offending post, few people would have given a rat's ass about me and my family. That much was clear from the lack of response I got from those I tried to confide in.

I don't blame people for wanting to steer clear of trouble, I know I'd be very reluctant to get involved if other people (especially those I had only met online) were facing similar difficulties. Solidarity is only likely to be forthcoming in situations where people have little to lose by expressing it. When the stakes are high, it's every man for himself.
While I follow the reasoning that leads to here, I sincerely hope this is not the proper lesson to draw, nor the standard to uphold.

We who cherish freedoms and their continuation have to insist on solidarity and can never allow ourselves to forget that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Today's concession to fear enables tomorrow's self-censorship, and validates those who would silence the ideas they hate.

Part of the reason for the big red A on the top right of this precious, precious blog is to affirm to other skeptics of religion in particular that you are not alone. You are backed by a worldwide community of skeptics who second your doubts and embrace you through the threats of hellfire, the menacing phone calls, the questioning of your motives, the doubts of your sincerity, the appeals that you back off from their whitewashed vision of faith and restrict yourself to light-hearted musings about movies, pets, hobbies, small towns, and the occasional political snark.

Especially those of us not facing threats -- those of us for whom this remains a rather bloodless exercise, those of us for whom this bravery still comes easily -- we especially are obliged to stand up and tell the truth, and no, it's not too dramatic to add while we still can. There is always a while we still can aspect to the defense of freedom, but rarely a more acute one than that faced by those of us who would speak our minds forcefully on religion. I defy anyone to read a newspaper and yet accuse me of hyperbole.

For those facing actual bodily threats, "craven acquiescence" is nothing worse than the urge to live in peace. The rest of us lack the urgency of that excuse and must answer to a higher standard. We have to be the change we want to see in the world while we can still get away with agitating and advocating for that better world.


mikesdak said...

This is only tangential to the topic, but I recall someone saying that perhaps reacting to accusations of being violent by threatening violence isn't the smartest thing to do. This doesn't occur to them,of course.

George Junior said...

Dale, thanks for picking up on what I wrote - it makes me feel better about it just to have someone acknowledge it.

And I appreciate what you said about my point: "everyman for himself":

"While I follow the reasoning that leads to here, I sincerely hope this is not the proper lesson to draw, nor the standard to uphold."

You are right, of course, it's not the standard to uphold. I hadn't written about it before because (amongst other things) I wasn't at all happy with the lessons I had drawn from the experience.

But I'm not sure what it means for the future (I'm still thinking it through) and I'm baffled that I haven't heard of other bloggers who've experienced something similar. I very much doubt that I'm the only one who received such calls.