Share, Yes; Force, No

Ophelia Benson

Is religion a public or private thing? Is it general or particular? Universal or personal? Like rights and laws or art and literature? Do its obligations and taboos apply to everyone or only to people who choose to be bound by them?

The answers depend on who does the answering, of course. Catholic bishops will answer one way, and secular activists will answer another.

That’s how it is, but I don’t think it’s how it should be. It seems to me that clerics and even the most ardent of believers ought to be able to grasp that their haram and halal, forbidden and permitted, should not be imposed on everyone.

I have strong favorites in literature, music, food, landscapes, cities—many things—but I don’t feel any need to force them on everyone. Share, yes, but force, no. Notice how normal and routine that is. Professionals in the relevant fields take the same approach. They like to share their work, but they don’t try to make it mandatory.

To be fair, most religious professionals and consumers also follow that pattern. My Seattle neighborhood is packed with churches—small ones on side streets tucked in among the houses—but nobody bangs on my door or pounces on me as I walk past to demand that I join and pay tithes, any more than the one tiny bookstore does.

That’s good; that’s as it should be; but it’s not the norm everywhere. There are the town councillors of Newtown­abbey in Northern Ireland who canceled a production by the Reduced Shakespeare Company titled The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), which had been scheduled to run for two nights. Dissenting Sinn Féin Councillor Gerry O’Reilly rightly called the action “censorship” and added, “This is clearly an example of certain councillors forcing their religious views onto everyone else in the constituency. What the councillors are basically saying is that they can dictate what type of dramas people can view.” Fortunately, the council reversed the cancellation a few days later, but the inclination to treat religious views as public and lawlike was there.

There’s the high-school teacher described by one of the plaintiffs in the American Civil Liberties Union’s case Lane v. Sabine Parish School Board, who included on a science test a fill-in-the-blank question: “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE ____ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The “correct” answer was “Lord,” and the teacher belittled the plaintiff’s son in front of the class for not knowing the answer.

And there are the many people who want to punish Maajid Nawaz, a British former radical Islamist turned liberal Muslim, for daring to say on social media that he is not offended by an image from the satirical cartoon Jesus and Mo. The back story here is that the BBC television discussion show The Big Questions asked, in an episode broadcast January 12, 2014. “Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?” (That’s another version of the questions I started this article with). Nawaz was one of the panelists. Two others were Chris Moos and Abhishek Phadnis, students at the London School of Economics and officers of the student Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society. Moos and Phadnis had been in the news for protesting religiously inspired gender segregation at university events, and over conflicts with their student union about displaying the Jesus and Mo cartoons in locations where they might “offend” someone. When the BBC asked them to be on the show, it also asked them to wear their Jesus and Mo T-shirts, which they did, and in the last few minutes of the broadcast the moderator set off an exchange between the T-shirt–wearing atheists and two heavily veiled women sitting next to them who had just been defending gender segregation. “I support your right to wear your veils, personally,” Moos told them. “Do you support my right to wear whatever I want to?” Obligingly, they said a very firm “No” and went on to talk the usual guff about cartoons threatening their religion.

That’s when Nawaz broke in to say, “I’m a Muslim and that T-shirt doesn’t threaten me whatsoever. It doesn’t threaten my God, it doesn’t threaten my faith, it doesn’t threaten the Qur’an, it does not threaten any aspect of my religion. I do not feel threatened by those gentlemen wearing that T-shirt.” There was a round of applause.

That’s the context in which, a few days later, Nawaz posted an image from the cartoon on Twitter—an image in which Jesus says “Hey,” and Mo says “How ya doin?” Nawaz commented, “This is not offensive & I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it.”

Very good. Lovely. If you’re going to have a god, for crying out loud have one that’s not a petty, vain, spiteful tyrant.

But no, that won’t do. The jobs program for petty, vain, spiteful tyrants kicked into gear as indignant onlookers fell all over themselves to reject and rebuke any suggestion that Muslims aren’t required to have a meltdown at every joke or cartoon or criticism.

I’ve been following the backlash closely, because religious tantrums over criticism both interest and worry me. Two much-recycled claims are particularly good examples of treating personal beliefs as if they were laws binding on everyone.

The first is usually formed as a question: “How would you like it if someone did a cartoon of someone in your family?” The claim is that a cartoon of a man who has been dead for fourteen centuries is equivalent to a cartoon of your family member—“you” being not one person but all people. The question-claim is often followed up with: “We Muslims love the Prophet much more than our parents or children or spouses.” It always makes me despair in its blindness to important differences. A long-dead historical figure is not the same as a living person and is not in the same relationship to living people as their loved ones are. It’s not useful or wise to transfer the protective love people have for those close to them to a public figure who is also a very demanding, detailed, intrusive lawgiver. It was never a good idea to think of Stalin as Uncle Joe, and it’s not a good idea to think of Muhammad as Mother Mo.

The other pseudo-argument is: “Islam forbids making images of the prophet.” That one, surprisingly, is made by reporters as well as by Outraged Believers. It is usually presented as if it applied to everyone, and therefore Outraged Believers have a legitimate grievance if such images are published. But the rules and taboos of Islam do not apply to everyone. As far as I’m concerned, they don’t apply to anyone who doesn’t choose to let them, but at any rate they certainly don’t apply to people who aren’t Muslim. We are allowed to draw stick-figures and label them “Mo.” What Islam forbids is neither here nor there.

The sad thing is that Nawaz’s cheerful statement looked at first (to me at least) like a chance to start a trend the other way—toward a more relaxed, open, liberal public face for Muslims in Britain. Nawaz is a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats and perhaps his way of thinking could spread.

Given how the quarrel has played out so far, though, that doesn’t seem likely.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


If only more believers could recognize that their taboos apply to them, not to everyone.

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