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Austin Cline

Muslim Reactions to Rushdie and Muhammad Cartoons: An Assertion of Rights?

By September 4, 2006

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Do Muslims have a right to be offended by Salman Rushdie's book Satanic Verses or the Muhammad cartoons? Of course. Do they have a right to insist that their feelings of offense become a reason for censoring material they don't like? Do they have a right not be offended? Of course not.

In the February, 1990 issue of Political Quarterly, Tariq Modood writes:

[T]he UK offers its Muslims a formal equality but is not yet willing to acknowledge in its institutional and legal arrangements the existence of a Muslim community which for instance can be deeply hurt and provoked to violence by forms of literature that the majority of citizens have become used to tolerating. ...

What does Tariq Modood mean by suggesting that the government “acknowledge in its institutional and legal arrangements” that the Muslim community can become offended by some forms of expression? What does he expect the state to do — apologize for the actions of private entities when Muslims are offended? Prevent private entities from expressing ideas which Muslims find offensive? Neither of these are acceptable, but I have trouble imagining what Tariq Modood might have had in mind instead.

Moreover, why single out Muslims for some privileged treatment? Why not Christians and Sikhs as well? Why not communists and libertarians, too? Surely Tariq Modood doesn’t intended that only religious people, or that only adherents of one particular religion, benefit from whatever sort of “acknowledgment” he has in mind — or does he?

Because he doesn’t explain what he means or what he has in mind, Tariq Modood can’t be read as saying anything very meaningful or substantive; sadly, little has changed in the intervening 15 years. What Tariq Modood says here about the Salman Rushdie affair back in 1990 is very similar to what is being said today over the Muhammad cartoons from Denmark.

For however appalled we might be by ‘the hang ’em and flog ’em’ interpreters of the Quranic verses, that should not obscure for any of us, Muslims and non-Muslims, that ‘the Rushdie affair’ is not about the life of Salman Rushdie nor freedom of expression, let alone Islamic fundamentalism or book-burning or Iranian interference in British affairs.

The issue is of the rights of non-European religious and cultural minorities in the context of a secular hegemony. Is the Enlightenment big enough to legitimise the existence of pre-Enlightenment religious enthusiasm or can it only exist by suffocating all who fail to be overawed by its intellectual brilliance and vision of Man?

Tariq Modood is wrong — the “Rushdie” affair is about Salman Rushdie’s life (Tariq Modood is awfully cavalier about the fact that a man’s was threatened with murder and forced into hiding for years — something which reduces his credibility immeasurably) and is also about freedom of expression. Modood might legitimately think that there are other issues as well, but he cannot legitimately dismisses these as valid issues. Doing so suggests that he really doesn’t understand what’s going on — not unlike many people today who refuse to accept that the Muhammad cartoons are about freedom of expression as well.

What rights to religious and cultural minorities have in the context of a secular society? They have all the same rights as everyone else — and none of those rights include a right not to be offended. The political, social, technological, and scientific progress of the modern era cannot be separated from the basic civil and social liberties which the ‘the hang ’em and flog ’em’ crowd objects to.

Tariq Modood’s essay doesn’t mean very much if he isn’t arguing for the suppression — whether official or unofficial — of ideas, expressions, and images which religious and cultural minorities don’t like. In that case, though, Tariq Modood is trying to use and benefit from the very freedoms he would like to undermine, and that makes him a hypocrite.


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