Sunday, April 26, 2009

Slurs and Criticism, Individuals and Creeds

Something more stood out in that twaddle-fest from Terry Eagleton:

Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended [Martin] Amis's slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism. [emphasis mine]
Which slurs on which Muslims does Eagleton have in mind? Maybe one of the "four horsemen", Rushdie, or Amis has said an untoward thing about a Muslim here or there; I don't follow the gossip at that level, so I'm not the one to say, but if so, there are libel and slander laws on the books for redress of such wrongs.

Presumably Eagleton is aware of such laws; more obviously, this is not about legal torts or the ugliness that sometimes erupts among British writers, academics, and clerics. This is about establishing a sloppy elision between Muslims-as-people and Islam-as-creed: these unspecified "slurs on Muslims," which sound like the stuff of an interpersonal spat, serve as evidence for something far wider, "Western supremacism." But this is a category mistake.

Islam is a creed, a set of ideas. Criticism of this body of ideas and their social and political effects is not a "slur," any more than criticism of communism or fascism is a "slur" against particular communists or fascists.

When atheists criticize Islam or Christianity or other faiths, what can fairly be inferred about their views of avowed Muslims and Christians and other believers? Not much, really. They can be fairly accused of accusing believers of faulty judgment -- Dawkins rather prominently uses the word "delusion" -- but this is an entailment of any disagreement on any topic. Investing this sort of conversation with a charged label such as "slur" is, at best, misleading and unhelpful. More commonly -- and this is what I think is going on with Eagleton -- it's a maneuver to silence one side of the dispute, and to evade consideration of the merits.

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