Friday, March 30, 2007

A Road Paved with Good Intentions?

Once again irony rules. On the same day that Reuters reported the controversy over "My Sweet Lord," they filed a story from Vienna with the following lead:
The United Nations top human rights body condemned "defamation" of religion on Friday and, in an apparent reference to the storm over the Prophet cartoons, said press freedom had its limits.

With the support of China, Russia and Cuba, Moslem and Arab states comfortably won a vote on the 47-state Human Rights Council to express concern at "negative stereotyping" of religions and "attempts to identify Islam with terrorism".

"The resolution is tabled in the expectation that it will compel the international community to acknowledge and address the disturbing phenomena of the defamation of religions, especially Islam," said Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The implications of these three paragraphs are far from clear. Much clearer is that the final vote reflected a major divide between "Western civilization" and the rest of the world:
The resolution was opposed by Western states which said it focused too much on Islam. The job of the Council was to deal with the rights of individuals not religions, they said.
The result was a narrow margin. 24 countries voted in favor; 23 did not (divided between 14 against and 9 abstentions).

I am not sure why Reuters put those quote marks around "defamation;" but they should be taken as a warning. If ever there were a word whose semantics varied from culture to culture, this would be it. The American legal system has had enough problems ruling on defamatory speech within its own culture. What international legal system could do justice to the question when so much cross-cultural variation is concerned? There is, of course, the classic ruling on pornography: "I know it when I see it." That, however, was an individual judgment; and I doubt that the United Nations would trust such a judgment to a single jurist.

Recently I wrote about two films made from Lion Feuchtwanger's novel, Jew Suss. I wrote that one of these films was made in 1934 and, for its time, made a very bold statement against anti-Semitism. However, in 1940 a second film was released under Nazi auspices that served their anti-Semitic propaganda very well. Would this reflect back on the novel and put it in a defamatory light? I would hope not, but I can certainly imagine that quite a few people saw the second film with absolutely no awareness of the first. They would probably assume that the novel was just as anti-Semitic.

Let's consider another example, which probably gets closer to the cultural interests of at least some of the countries that voted in favor of the UN resolution. In my last blog I once described The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a book "maliciously designed to shape the reader's opinion." Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that the use of the adverb "maliciously" could used to make a case for the defamatory nature of this book. Now, however, consider the case of Robert Spencer. Wikipedia tries very hard to provide an objective and balanced description of this man and his works. This includes a list of his six books:
It also includes the following paragraph (all hyperlinks included):
Khaleel Mohammed, Louay M. Safi and Carl Ernst assert that Spencer's scholarship and interpretations of Islam are fundamentally flawed - that he supports preconceived notions through selection bias - that he lacks genuine understanding and; that 'he has no academic training in Islamic studies whatsoever; his M.A. degree was in the field of early Christianity'.[9] [10] [5] For example, critics have objected to what they see as Spencer's method of taking some Muslim interpretations and then using them to characterize all Muslims or what he implies is the real Islam; cf. for example Mark LeVine [11]. They object to what they describe as Spencer's method of taking a position they deem to be radical (on apostasy, women, etc) and then attibute that position to all of Islam, rather than situating it within ongoing discussions.[5] Khaleel Mohammed and Spencer have had detailed discussions on Front Page Magazine.[12][10] [13][14] Carl Ernst and William Kenan have called him an Islamophobe.[15]. They also allege that Spencer's publications are not scholarly because they are not blind peer reviewed and not published by any university press.[15]
That paragraph is then followed by a section with the heading "Spencer's responses to critics."
This time, for the sake of argument, let us take this article as an authoritative source (putting aside my many peeves with Wikipedia). Are any of Spencer's books defamatory? The Pakistani government seems to think so; they have banned The Truth About Muhammad. Pakistan is a Muslim state, however; so, should a judgment they make for their own country apply to the rest of the world. When I wrote about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (when it was my ox that was being gored), I still fell back on the concept of "malicious design;" and, at my current level of understanding, I do not know if I would attribute malice to Spencer's work. If one's reasoning is flawed, then one may eventually negotiate with one's critics over those flaws; and, in the best of all possible worlds (or, as Habermas would put it, an "ideal speech situation"), mutual understanding would ensue. However, if the flaws have arisen through malice, negotiation is unlikely to resolve anything.

My conclusion, then, is that Pakistan has every right to ban Spencer's book, even if I, personally, object to any book being banned. They also have the right to offer themselves as an example to other Muslim states, whose respective legal systems could invoke a similar ban. I just do not want to see decisions made at the national level elevated to global policy, even if the United Nations is brought into the process. I objected to the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in response to the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and I would object to any attempt to declare any of Spencer's books defamatory on an international scale. Meanwhile, I probably ought to do some more reading to form my own opinion about Spencer, knowing full well that much of my thinking about Islam has already been (positively) influenced by Karen Armstrong!

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