Against human rights

The UN is holding a Durban Review Conference concerning human rights in April 2009. Canada is already boycotting it, and a few other Western countries are also suggesting they might. Wrangling about Israeli-Palestinian matters seems to be at the heart of the controversy.

Among secularists, there’s an extra concern that Muslim organizations have successfully pressured the UN to endorse curtailment of free speech when “abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination.” That is, there is a good possibility that speech giving offense to Muslims might be considered an abuse. (For background, see Free Inquiry and MacLeans articles.)

Something to worry about, yes. But I think that as Western secularists, we bring the trouble on ourselves in part. We keep insisting that human rights should be universal, and that these rights should include unrestricted free speech.

A common critique of human rights charges that these rights are products of a Western, individualist moral consensus, derived from the historical experience of Europe and its derivative settler societies. Claiming they are universal and imposing them on the rest of the planet is uncomfortably close to colonialist talk of a “civilizing mission.” Even in secular guise, this sort of Enlightenment universalism is very much heir to a Christian missionary urge.

There is a good deal of truth to this charge. So, we might say that we don’t want to impose our idea of rights. Instead, we put rights up for negotiation, to try and achieve a truly universal consensus. Indeed, we want a consensus that is not distorted by power, including the superior commercial and military power enjoyed by Western countries today. Such a consensus, presumably, should be what institutions such as the UN are trying for.

In such a case, however, we should not expect an expansive, secular, individualist notion of free speech to emerge from this consensus. What is more likely to happen is that we end up with a lowest common denominator of human rights, something that condemns the kinds of atrocities just about everyone professes to recoil from, while being much weaker on cross-culturally controversial matters. Muslim countries will discourage much in what we think of as women’s rights, the United States will object to reproductive rights and workers’ rights, Europeans will dither, etc. etc. Maybe we’ll get a consensus on a strong stance against outright genocide, though that will immediately invite political wrangling about what counts.

Maybe that’s too cynical; maybe we can achieve more. After all, there is a pressing problem people around the world confront, of achieving some kind of peace between people with different cultures who live side by side. Some variety of multiculturalism, in that case, seems to be a possibility. But that is not entirely benign. Multiculturalism is not at all the same thing as a cosmopolitan ethic, nor is it individualist in character.

Take, for example, the matter of free speech and offending Islam. It’s easy for secularists to advocate very expansive free speech rights. If you’re like me—cosmopolitan, secular, suspicious of all “thick” forms of community, obsessed with intellectual criticism—there’s very little question where your interests lie. Yet balanced against that, there are the interests of devout Muslims to avoid the harm caused through free speech.

Among Muslims, there is a strong, nearly universal consensus that certain forms of public criticism of Islam, the Quran, or the Prophet are inherently insulting and harmful. This includes much that Western secularists would consider merely forceful criticism normal in spirited public debate. The Muslim consensus gets weaker when the question of stopping offensive speech comes up. Some think that governments should ensure a climate where Muslims can practice their faith without enduring disrespect; mild sanctions against offenses to the Muslim community would suffice. Some, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, call for (and get) more substantive legal sanctions preventing offenses to Islam. And there are even a number who defend drastic penalties, including assassination of offenders. But the wide variety of sanctions envisioned should not obscure the strong Muslim consensus that offenses to Islam should not be protected speech. From a Muslim point of view, such speech is no more worthy of protection than shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater.

This is not an absurd position. No right comes without limits. The limits are up to political negotiation, and as interested and affected parties, Muslim communities have a legitimate part in these negotiations. Moreover, the Muslim position cannot be set aside as objecting to speech that does no harm. It does harm. Muslims are offended and insulted by acts such as impious caricatures of the Prophet. This is not harm comparable to danger to life or property, perhaps, but it is harm. Respect is an important human need. And given that most humans find respect and a meaningful life in the context of a tight community of faith, acts that erode respect and the position of a community do real harm to individuals.

There are other reasons to restrict free speech that are particularly relevant in a Western context, where Muslims are typically part of immigrant communities. One is that criticizing Islam in certain ways can be very much like shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. For whatever reasons (culture, economic condition, etc.), criticizing Islam can reliably lead to serious community unrest culminating in violence. Governments have an interest in protecting the peace. In the political negotiations over how to best achieve this, restricting the problematic speech is as much an option as is trying to get Muslim communities to react differently. Given the deep and historically rooted moral consensus against religiously offensive speech in a Muslim environment, discouraging the more forceful varieties of criticisms of Islam may well be an easier, cheaper option.

Another reason is one articulated by multicultural leftists, even Marxists who may not be too friendly toward certain social aspects of religion. They see forceful opposition to Islam in the context of Muslims being a minority, disadvantaged group who are subject to scapegoating. They describe free speech offensive to Islam as being similar to Nazis using anti-Semitic speech: “Germans excoriating Jews as ‘vermin’ were exercising their right to free speech — before also exercising their right to light the furnaces.” The analogy may be overblown, but there may be some legitimacy to restricting speech that, whether intended or not, has a predictable side effect of being used as a weapon against a minority community.

Political conservatives may have their own reasons to restrict speech in certain contexts, even though they act as champions of free speech when it suits their Muslim-bashing purposes. In The United States, conservatives have never had much trouble with making life miserable for socialists, for example, whether by legal or extra-legal means. They have seen themselves (with some justification) as protecting a cultural consensus and way of life against enemies who clearly want to undermine the consensus. Muslim objections to impious criticism are similar in many ways.

Now, all of these considerations do not move me too much. My standpoint and my interests drive me toward an expansive view of free speech, even after reflecting on the possible reasons to think otherwise. But I have to defend these interests politically, in an environment where few may share something close to my interests and my way of life. I am fortunate that I live in a Western country that (however imperfectly) has a historical experience favorable toward free speech. But that’s only a starting point. I can’t say “that’s our tradition” and that’s an end to it. (There are plenty of things I don’t like or can’t identify with in “our tradition,” particularly when that is a white Protestant tradition.)

I would not be surprised if conceptions of free speech and human rights in Western societies move toward more of an accommodation with Muslim interests. I would like things to go otherwise. But I don’t see this happening if we indulge in Islamophobia, and particularly not if we do not properly engage with the substantial reasons put forth to restrict speech. We have to acknowledge the harm devout Muslims encounter in a more critical climate, and yet (if we can) produce reasons to override such concerns. And I think such reasons will have to refer to a particular, local historical experience—not any universal notion of human rights.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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