Hate Speech, Religious Freedoms, and Islamophobia
Jul 15, 2011

Hate Speech, Religious Freedoms, and Islamophobia

Competing with the concurrent LGBT Pride parade in Toronto, a local imam took it upon himself to very publicly condemn homosexuality, referencing how Islamic law instructs us to execute those caught in the act. Sigh, it really would be so much easier defending religious freedoms and freedom of expression if they didn't stoop to such egregious lows. Nonetheless, with the Attorney General of Ontario investigating whether this possibly violates Canadian hate speech laws and the news media making a big deal out of it, it must once again be defended.

It hopefully doesn't need to be clarified that, of course, these words are horrific, unconscionable, and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The speech is surely hateful. But it should not (and almost definitely will not in any Canadian court of law) violate hate speech laws.

To begin with, we must note that this Imam's position is not an unreasonable interpretation of the Quran and the Hadiths. Incidentally, it is also not an unreasonable interpretation of the Bible to conclude precisely the same where homosexuality is termed an abomination whose participants "shall surely be put to death". As an aside, I acknowledge the is-ought problem some use as a defense of this line, but regardless it can - and certainly has many times through history - been reasonably interpreted as an ought statement and not just a descriptive one about practices thousands of years ago - much to the suffering of homosexuals. The point is that, unquestionably, such statements as made by this imam are religious statements. Hateful, certainly, but also religious.

Free speech is, in general, protected for everybody. But freedom of religious expression is one of the few things that has been singled out as particularly important and is particularly emphasized as a result. Were it to pass that statements such as the imam's which are so unquestionably close to common interpretations of religious canon were actually hate speech and illegal the result is the same as criminalizing parts of religion. It is saying the legal system has the right and imperative to become theological scholars and judge this or that aspect of theology as hateful and ban it. Clearly this cannot occur. What qualifies for religious speech must by necessity be very broad and inclusive given the wide diversity of interpretations and sects. Anything vaguely related counts as religious and must be protected; anything less and one is making increasingly arbitrary decrees about what does and what does not qualify as religious speech.

There is always a balance between freedom of speech and preventing hate speech. Personally, I feel that Canada's hate speech laws are too strong and this is one of those areas where the US and its culture of free speech that has been legally reestablished over and over again is superior. Too often in history - even in the US (take McCarthyism or Japanese internment) - allowing the state to effectively regulate what citizens can say turns out as a big negative for society as a whole. Even today with the aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers who criticize the establishment (ex Wikileaks, but there are countless others) oppose to trumpeting leaks that support the administration (Osama's killing) there remain attempts to influence the message of allowable speech that without the strong state of free speech laws would undoubtably be far more egregious.  I fully empathize with the motives of supporters of robust hate speech laws, but restricting free speech is not the best or most effective avenue to address these problems.

Ultimately, while I make this analysis based on what we ought to do, the same basic analysis is codified in law. Their is almost no chance this would ever get termed as hate speech simply because it is so clearly religious and religious freedom of expression is paramount in law. It is only a news story because an advocacy group requested it an the Attorney General must give considerations to such request even if they are prima facie spurious.

The other issue related to all this is problems of Islamaphobia. It lets us all be critical of the bigotry and intolerance of this Muslim Imam and through selective attention, repetition and more than a little latent intolerance ourselves, extend the criticism to Muslims in general. One can apologize for the attention this story gets by noting its prominence, timing, and egregious nature. Perhaps taken individually this is all it is and the equivalent statements by a Jewish or Christian leader would be treated exactly the same. I doubt it. Nonetheless, there is a distinct and poignant asymmetry in the kinds of stories about Muslims that make the news, get attention, and get repeated overtime and a such that affects our perceptions. Certainly extremely homophobic sentiment exists among other religious groups - and non religious groups - as well and we cannot possibly keep up to date with any time someone implies homosexuals should be killed. Instead, a select few such stories make the news and these are asymmetrically tilted towards Muslim examples of homosexual intolerance.

Even if coverage of examples of homosexual intolerance among Christians and Muslims was reported with identical frequency and tone, it would still be more damaging for Muslims simply because they are the "other" in our society for so many to whom people have an innate intolerance for and to which such stories are so influential at forming opinions.  Simply taking a few sentences to note the widespread homophobia that exists across religions and society and to find a quick quote from a leading Muslim that strongly condemns such homophobia (there are countless of these) would go a long way. With our overemphasis on negative news - a story about an Imam promoting tolerance doesn't seem to qualify as "interesting" - the result, intentional or not, is a largely negative portrayal of groups like Muslims. Ultimately both homophobia and Islamaphobia are bad; tripping over ourselves in our exuberance to condemn the former by venturing into the territory of the later is neither productive nor tolerable.

It is sometimes argued with me that I perhaps overemphasize the levels of Islamaphobia that exist and when I criticize a story like this one in the Globe it is somehow unfair because there is a degree to which I am strawmaning the article. As in, nothing the Globe writers will say will be individually and specifically bigoted or even touch on that line; the problem comes from how it is interpreted and what the pattern of repetition and selection does to that interpretation. So if I exaggerate how it is interpreted, I am therefore exaggerating how problematic the article is.

In the letters the next day, however, there is the following choice letter that was unfortunately accepted by the editors (the only one on this article) and really demonstrates - despite the superficially analytic and reserved tone - the issues as I describe it:

"You seem to suggest that it is the Canadian majority’s obligation to somehow accommodate the beliefs and values of our growing number of Muslim residents (Consider This – July 4). Fair. But your assumption that Islam is a religion of brotherly love is challenged by the article in the same edition where discrimination toward gays is elevated to the highest form by an imam who has been documented as saying that Islamic law teaches that gays and lesbians should be killed (Imam Decries Islamophobia While Pride Battles Homophobia – July 4).

So long as Islam wants its private beliefs to control, manipulate and dominate our Western liberal democracies, there will never be meaningful dialogue or integration.

Steven Levy, Toronto"
Note the anthropomorphizing - Islam "wants" things. Note the homogenization into a single entity, "Islam", opposed to a diverse plurality of 1.6 billion people with countless sects, practices, beliefs, interpretations and the like. Note the conditionality whereby the writer establishes the conditions that must be accepted to move to a better future. Note the absolutism in "never". I emphasize these elements not because it matters what this particular guy thinks but because they are common among so much criticism of Islam (and bigotry in general) and reappear in the kinds of far more overtly bigoted Islamaphobic comments that wouldn't make it into the Globe Letters but are undoubtably common nonetheless. Most importantly, his view is simply and categorically wrong. Of course there can be "meaningful dialogue and integration" of Muslims - it occurs all the time.

This response to the article underscores my earlier comments about how it undoubtably would be - and was, as it turned out - interpreted. Such things will be and were used to justify generic, all encompassing criticisms about Islam, to paint it in a negative light, and to deliver ultimatums about  it. The danger that comes from the repeated and selective attention to such articles is legitimate. They influence public opinion, and not in a good way.


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Adam said...

Criticising aspects of Islamic thought and practice that, while not universal, are certainly representative of believers in many parts of the world, serves to influence the direction taken by an emergening Islamic modernism.

Unfortunately, the diverse pluralities of many large religions do not have widely agreed upon, well-promulgated vocabularies of self-description. Probably because that sort of taxonomy creates and accentuates division in groups whose power comes from unity, and also because it allows, when desirable, targeted attacks on specific sub-groups to be more easily interpreted as attacks on the whole.

If a group of people would like their diversity of opinion recognized when their opnions are discussed by others, they ought not to shift the intellectual burden of making the proper distinctions disproportionately on those others.

Regarding free speech, you say that, given Canada's hate speech laws, the criteria for classifying something as religious speech ought to be as wide as possible, in order to support the principle of free speech.

Is there a principle for the comprehensibility of the legal system? There ought to be. It would say something like: Words and phrases should be used legally so that their senses as much as possible correspond to how those words are phrases are generally used.

Accordingly, if an idea can reasonably be classified as hateful, then it can reasonably be classified as hateful, regardless of whether it is also classified as religious, and regardless of the attendant legal consequences of it being classified as hateful.

Otherwise the legal system becomes gradually more and more difficult to discuss in any meaningful way, as it evolves into an entirely separate language.

A change in the laws relating to hateful speech is therefore preferable to an overly broad definition of religious speech.

bazie said...

"Unfortunately, the diverse pluralities of many large religions do not have widely agreed upon, well-promulgated vocabularies of self-description. Probably because that sort of taxonomy creates and accentuates division in groups whose power comes from unity, and also because it allows, when desirable, targeted attacks on specific sub-groups to be more easily interpreted as attacks on the whole."

In the west, Islam is often considered to be monolithic, but this is far from accurate. Firstly, there are the major dominant sects (sunni, shia, sufi). But within each of these there are innumerable subsects. Within countries there are widespread differences on all kinds of interpretation from the relevance of quranic jurisprudence to cultural practices. There are plenty of differences, and they are pretty clear about where the differences lie to the point of fighting numerous wars over these intra-islamic different identifiers.

"If a group of people would like their diversity of opinion recognized when their opnions are discussed by others, they ought not to shift the intellectual burden of making the proper distinctions disproportionately on those others."

I would submit that peaceful elements of Islam within Canadian society DO make such distinctions, and are passionate advocates for integration, tolerance, interfaith and the like. The problem is they simply do not get any media coverage except at rare occasions like Tahrir square (and even then western coverage is very poor). The asymmetry, however, is such that imam's who are vocally tollerant of homosexuality will not make a news story, but an imam who is intollerant is not. If the media is to cover a story, THEY have the burden to make the relevent distinctions here.

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