Islam vs. the West: This “clash of cultures” ain’t so simple.


We’re seeing violent evidence that plenty of people in the Islamic world don’t share Western notions of freedom of speech. Rioters protesting the California-made anti-Muslim film Innocence of Muslims have invoked “freedom” to mean the freedom they wish to enjoy from insults to their religion. And today we learned that prosecutors in Egypt have ordered the arrest of a number of US-based Egyptian Copts (along with idiot pastor Terry Jones) who are supposed to have been involved with the film, for “insulting the Islamic religion, insulting the Prophet and inciting sectarian strife.”

Coincidentally, Salman Rushdie, still under the shadow of a fatwa after more than two decades, is on a book tour in support of his new memoir.

Last night The Daily Show joked that Islam is acting out like a teenager because it’s only 1,400 years old; think, they said, of what Christianity was doing when it was that age (crusades, Inquisition). It’s not a new thought; in the aftermath of 9/11 I saw the argument seriously proffered that because of the ups and downs of its history Islam is at a less “mature” stage than Christianity and that this explains the attitudes and actions we see as backward.

First of all, let’s not forget how little removed we are from harsh speech restrictions ourselves. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. The Sedition Act reads in part: “That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish…any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States…with intent to defame the said government…or to bring them…into contempt or disrepute; or to incite against them…the hatred of the good people of the United States…such person…shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.”

During World War I another “Sedition Act” also restricted free speech. Anti-war activist and anarchist Mollie Steimer was arrested under it in 1918 for distributing flyers urging American workers to resist the military draft and calling for a general strike.

In France today, a law prohibits women from wearing the face-covering niqab.

In Germany today, it’s illegal to speak out in support of the old Nazi regime.

We do cherish our freedom of speech, certainly here at the Daily Cannibal. (How awful it would be if we couldn’t use the phrase “idiot pastor Terry Jones.”)

But even more important to keep in mind when we try to contrast the Islamic world with the Western is that it wasn’t religious “maturation” that led to the end of Christianity’s worst abuses, or to the relatively enlightened social climate we (somewhat precariously) inhabit today. Those didn’t come about through developments in religion, but through the popularization and normalization of ideas that stand outside religion. Democracy, mainly. Freedom of expression. And the recognition, courtesy of science, that we’re just a speck on the tail of the universe. That sort of thing.

Developments in religion didn’t lead to modern Western society. Escape from it did. (Partial escape, but escape nonetheless.) Let’s try to avoid returning to bondage, like so many in the Islamic world, or like the idiot pastors of our own.