The Futility of Appeasement

Quick! Somebody call the accommodationists!

Several men who went to a suburban mosque to perform morning prayers Wednesday were shocked to discover two bloodied wild boar heads wrapped in plastic bags in the mosque compound, said Zulkifli Mohamad, the top official at the Sri Sentosa Mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city.

This unpleasant stunt is just the latest symptom of a smoldering religious war that recently erupted in Malaysia, a multiethnic and multireligious country with a Muslim majority and significant Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities. The catalyst was a decision last year in which Malaysia’s highest court ruled that the Herald, a Roman Catholic newspaper, had the right to use the word “Allah” in its Malay-language edition as a term for God. This overruled a “years-old government ban on the use of the word in non-Muslim publications”, and this was the result:

Among the attacks in various Malaysian states, eight churches and two small Islamic prayer halls were firebombed, two churches were splashed with paint, one had a window broken, a rum bottle was thrown at a mosque and a Sikh temple was pelted with stones, apparently because Sikhs use “Allah” in their scriptures.

The New York Times gives further details of the ensuing violence and protests, including this bit:

“Allah is only for us,” said Faedzah Fuad, 28, who participated in the rally. “The Christians can use any word, we don’t care, but please don’t use the word Allah.”

…Hand-lettered signs reading “Please respect the name of Allah” remained in a stack on the ground where Ms. Faedzah had prepared them.

Another article notes that Malay Muslims “paraded a severed cow’s head in the streets” in November to protest the building of a new Hindu temple – one wonders if they inadvertently inspired the latest act of vandalism.

So far, prominent accommodationists like Chris Mooney and Karen Armstrong have yet to blame the Malaysian violence on Richard Dawkins, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they come up with some connection.

But I’d really like to know how people who hold such views would respond to this. Should the Christians have sought permission to use the word “Allah” in their own publications? Why or why not? And how would they respond to protestors like Faedzah Fuad? Since Mooney and his allies hold that religious beliefs must be respected, does being respectful require that the rest of us be forbidden to even use a word if a particular religious group claims ownership of it?

It’s also worth noting, contrary to the worldview of the accommodationists, that the peace which formerly prevailed wasn’t a cheerful democratic diplomacy that was disrupted by a few reckless agitators. On the contrary, it was enforced by coercion: it was illegal for non-Muslim publications to use the word “Allah”, even if said publication was printed by people for whom that word was a part of their native language. Writing for Slate, Christopher Hitchens describes just how narrow the Malaysian court’s ruling was:

The high court finding was very narrowly drawn; it said that the Catholic Herald could say Allah in its Malay-language edition, provided that the paper was sold “only on church grounds and bearing the label FOR NON-MUSLIMS ONLY.”

But as Hitchens notes, even this incredibly circumscribed exemption was too much for the Islamists, and the court decision has now joined

the long list of actual and potential confrontations [between religions], derived from the infinitely elastic list of matters about which Muslims award themselves the right to be aggrieved… Who could have guessed that they wouldn’t notice until last year that there were non-Muslims speaking the same language as them? Who could have foreseen that within weeks of this startling discovery we would witness the usual dreary display of yelling crowds, snarling preachers, and smoldering buildings?

Events like this show the futility of trying to keep the peace by tiptoeing around religious believers’ sensibilities. Contrary to the accommodationists who believe all would be well if only we New Atheists would stop stirring up trouble, the truth of the matter is that there are millions of fundamentalists, of many different religions, who cannot be appeased, who will not accept anything less than total submission, and who need only the barest sliver of an excuse to resort to violence. Trying to keep these people happy is pointless: if we bow to one of their demands, that will just encourage them to demand more, until the whole world is shackled by their peculiar and archaic set of laws.

Violence like this is a reason why we need more atheist speech, not less. If religious believers expect that they can have any demand met by claiming offense, that only gives them an incentive to become more unreasonable and more prone to violence. We need to make it clear to everyone that no one’s beliefs are above criticism, and no one can expect to escape skeptical inquiry. That attitude, and not hypersensitive demands for self-censorship, is the only thing that will lead to an end of religious warfare and violence in the long run.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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