Islam and Free Speech

Dr Gibson and Dr. Delacroix have both staked out their positions on the matter, and Dr. Delacroix has promised more, but I thought I’d add my own two cents to the matter.

I’ve already shared my thoughts here before, and nothing that I see in the Middle East or elsewhere changes my argument.

Among observers of all political stripes, there have been two broad categories into which they have gravitated. One of these has been the Islamic societies are still in the middle ages argument. This is a legitimate point, too. As Dr. Gibson points out:

Without knowing anything of Islamic theology, we can draw some conclusions about Islam from the status of the Muslim countries. Human rights are trampled, especially if you’re female, gay, a member of the wrong Islamic sect, or worse yet, a Christian or Jew. Virtually no scientific or technological advances have come out of Islamic countries in recent centuries. I am unaware of any significant recent Islamic artistic or literary accomplishments. A medieval view of interest is still in effect. Corrupt monarchies and corrupt theocracies rule many of the countries, notwithstanding the Arab Spring. Assad is butchering his own people in Syria.

In summary, Islam sucks.

This is all true.

Dr Delacroix chimes in with another, somewhat connected blog:

As usual, our liberal elite demonstrates a deeply anchored ignorance of anything foreign. Secretary Clinton, soon echoed by Senator Feinstein […] wonders how the violent jihadists could do it to us, in the very country and the very city, Benghazi, we helped save from bloody destruction.

Ms. Secretary, Ms Senator: That’s why they did it.  First, the Salafists, extreme jihadists, played a minor part in the liberation of Libya from dictatorship. They were upstaged by the same  infidels who recently dispatched their figurehead in Pakistan.  Their collective credibility was at stake.

Second, Ms Secretary, Ms Senator, there is no reason to believe that  the violent jihadists respond to our own behavior in any way except the way I describe above. They don’t kill us because of what we do, they kill us because of who we are. They also kill Middle-Eastern Christians, Jews, and Shiite Muslims because of who they are. Their ideology comprises no reason to stop waging war until they have conquered the whole world for a reborn Islamic Caliphate. Some are willing to die in the service of this grand cinematographic endeavor. But, incidentally, if you think about it, the number really willing to die is quite small in relation to one billion Muslims (take or leave one hundred million).

There are two reasons I think that while both esteemed men have confused, as one reader points out, correlation with causation.

Let me get all of the common objections out of the way first: I understand that Islam, the religion, represents a backwards way of thinking about the world. I am not an apologist for the people who perpetrate crimes in the name of Islam. I am aware that many Muslims harbor a deep chauvinism, as well as deep homophobic, misogynistic, and even racist sentiments about the non-Muslim world. Christianity was like this as well, hundreds of years ago. You can still find remnants of it in the “Bible belts” of the small republics of northern Europe and the large republics of the United States, Canada, and Australia today.

But Islam the religion is no more responsible for the violence and poverty of Muslim parts of the world than Christianity was responsible for the violence and poverty of the Christian parts of the world hundreds of years ago. I know what you are thinking: “you just the ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ parts of the world, Brandon, and you still think religion has nothing to do with it? What a moron!”

Hear me out, though.

The problems of the Muslim world can be pinpointed to its institutions in place rather than the prevalent religion. As I have pointed out before here on this blog, the states in the Middle East forged after the second World War were molded on the New Deal republic of Franklin Roosevelt (in Europe, this is commonly known as the “nation-state”).  States earned legitimacy not through representation but through doling out rents that the populations perceived to be of vital interest. Rents such as free health care, free education, and guaranteed retirement accounts. In order to convince Muslim populations in the new states that representation was of no use to them, and that it would be better to sacrifice their liberties for security, the elites of these states rallied around certain ideologies. These ideologies were nationalistic to their core, and used Islam only when it was expedient to do so.

Just think: what kind of political institutions were in place in Christian Europe when all of the violence and poverty was then prevalent there? Was liberal democracy and its mother, the capitalist economic system, in place at the time? Or was Christian Europe dominated by feudal estates and monarchies whose luminaries held profit and individual liberty in contempt?

When the New Deal-esque welfare programs of these new states came to their bitter-but-predictable end in the late seventies and early eighties, elites began to turn to Islam more and more to make their case that it was not they who had mismanaged things, but rather that “neo-liberalism” – a stupid word with no meaning meant designed to be a catch-all phrase used by the ignorant enemies of freedom – was to blame for the cuts in government spending that began to be carried out.

When the Soviet Uni0n dissolved a decade after cuts began to be made to the welfare states of the autocrats, and US bombs and troops and economic sanctions began to become more and more common, the elites – corrupt, vicious, and predictable – naturally sought a scapegoat, and they found it in US imperialism and ninth-century Islamic doctrines.

When we see mobs of Muslims burning American and other Western embassies (and books and flags), and killing innocent people, we naturally think that the causes of this violence is because of their religion, but this is simply not the case. The lack of the following freedoms are to blame for the poverty and violence of the Muslim world: free speech, international connections to the rest of the world, protections for private property, protections for other individual rights such as the right to keep and bear arms, the right to travel freely, the right to worship as one pleases, and the right to earn a living.

If these institutions that protect individual rights were in place, and rigorously maintained, the violence and poverty would be replaced by factional politics and prosperity. The fact that Islam is used again and again as a way to halt or to bury progress does not mean that Islam itself is to blame for the lack of progress and prosperity in the Muslim world.

I make this argument for two reasons: 1) to help further understanding between the culturally and materially rich of the world (the West) and the culturally and materially poor of the world (Muslim societies, among others who are hostile to equality before the law), and 2) to ensure that religion does not get more attention that it deserves. The status of religion in societies should be lowered to a place where it better belongs: in the hearts and minds of fearful and superstitious men and women, and not public discourse or scientific analysis of how the world works.

This explanation, I believe, is much better for helping to understand the Muslim world and its current predicament than the old canard of “they kill us because of who we are.”

Ultimately, you have to make up your minds. Notes On Liberty is committed to putting forth arguments of all stripes for the furthering of knowledge and understanding of the world. This is the tradition of the West that is most precious to me.

4 thoughts on “Islam and Free Speech

  1. Brandon

    We are who we are because we have: free speech, international connections to the rest of the world, protections for private property, protections for other individual rights such as the right to keep and bear arms, the right to travel freely, the right to worship as one pleases and the right to earn a living. And therefore they kill us because of who they are not; which is who we are.

    • Sorry Johnny, but you have it all wrong.

      Most Muslims kill other Muslims. The vast majority of the violence is committed in order to gain power in the centers of the states created in the Middle East. The violence in the Middle East that spills over into the West is due to the blowback of our foreign policy: Western states take sides in these power struggles.

      The al-Qaeda attacks of September 11th are a good example of this. Osama bin Laden is part of a faction that is at odds with the Saudi family. When Washington put troops in Saudi Arabia to guarantee the Saudi family’s security, it angered many other factions vying for Riyadh’s power, and the predictable spillover of violence into Western societies occurred.

      Or, you can always continue to believe that “they kill us because they hate us.” Just like the German people killed all those Jews because of their “war-like qualities” rather than the economic, social, and political condition of their state…

  2. Brandon

    Western states do take sides in Middle East power struggles. For many reasons (bad and good). That’s not the discussion. Why would Osama bin Laden expend the time and energy to airplane bomb New York rather than focus those energies vying for Ryadh’s power where the power struggle is occurring? For example airplane bomb the Saudi family. He was smart enough to know fighting the wrath of Western states is a big drain on achieving his goal of achieving power within his state.

    I think he (they) fear(s) what makes us who we are and his home grown frustrations of not having (and having had) the “what makes us” leads to a perverse hate of us. Hate clouds his decision making abilities.

    I don’t understand the “war-like qualities” of the Jews prior to and during World War Two.

    • Johnny,

      You are not making any sense, and I suspect it’s because you do not read things very carefully. For instance, you write:

      I don’t understand the “war-like qualities” of the Jews prior to and during World War Two.

      I never said anything about the war-like quality of the Jews, Johnny. Where, pray tell, did you come up with this conclusion?

      Likewise, you write:

      Western states do take sides in Middle East power struggles […] That’s not the discussion.

      Actually, it’s integral to the argument I put forth.

      And then you come up with this (oh the humanity!):

      I think he (they) fear(s) what makes us who we are and his home grown frustrations of not having (and having had) the “what makes us” leads to a perverse hate of us. Hate clouds his decision making abilities.


      I’m too tired to repeat myself. Sometimes it’s worth doing so, but it’s nice outside and Johnny’s syntax skills have persuaded me that I should be enjoying the weather rather than repeating myself. I’m such a jerk!

Please keep it civil

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