Protecting Muslim Honor at the Price of Freedom of Speech: Bruce Crumley, Time Magazine and Charlie Hebdo

For other responses to Crumley, see Nick Cohen and Jamie Kirchick.

In what I hope is part of the last gasps of the disorienting moral relativism that marked so many intellectuals during the aughts (’00s), Bruce Crumley was given the pages of Time Magazine to spin out a now classic critique based on the internalizing of “Islamophobia” as proposed by Muslims who want to avoid public criticism, something approaching the level of a dogma in journalistic circles. In response to the Charlie Hebdo firebombing, Crumley not only blamed Charlie Hebdo for the attack, but those political and intellectual figures in France who condemned the bombing.

[N]ot only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good. What common good is served by creating more division and anger, and by tempting belligerent reaction?

It’s yet to be seen whether Islamist extremists were behind today’s arson, but both the paper’s current edition, and the rush of politicians to embrace it as the icon of French democracy, raises the possibility of even moderate Muslims thinking “good on you” if and when militants are eventually fingered for the strike. It’s all so unnecessary.

But that seems more self-indulgent and willfully injurious when it amounts to defending the right to scream “fire” in an increasingly over-heated theater. Why? Because like France’s 2010 law banning the burqa in public (and earlier legislation prohibiting the hijab in public schools), the nation’s government-sponsored debates on Islam’s place in French society all reflected very real Islamophobic attitudes spreading throughout society. Indeed, such perceived anti-Muslim action has made France a point of focus for Islamist radicals at home and abroad looking to harp on new signs of aggression against Islam.

Crumley has here made the classic moral inversion so characteristic of HRC: he treats Muslims as a force of nature, and not as autonomous moral agents. In his analogy, the “burning theater” corresponds to the increasing hostility of Muslims towards the West. He identifies it at the end of his article:  ”a climate where violent response—however illegitimate—is a real risk.” In other words, since Muslims are prone to (increasingly) violent responses, we must avoid “gratuitously” provoking them, and in the process (still more gratuitously) “offending millions of moderate people as well.” In short, we can’t say to them: “This is the minimal level of criticism in our culture. If you want to participate in public sphere of a civil society, you have to learn to live with it. We all have.” We have to infantilize them.

And yet, what kind of Muslim would be insulted by this cartoon? Unlike many of the Danish ones which were not even critical, this one is actually quite sympathetic: a smiling Muhammad “threatens” 100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.” What’s offensive here? Would a Christian find a picture of Jesus saying this offensive? Personally I think the “vast majority” of European Jews would find such a cover with Moses and the text, delightful (decided relief from the genuinely antisemitic cartoons that grace European newspapers).

The offensive part here is not the content, but the depiction itself. Muhammad, we are told, must not be depicted. But of course, that’s according to (some) interpretations of Sharia (Muslim law), and in principle, enforceable only in  dar al Islam. Jews may disapprove of Christians claiming a man became (or was born) divine, but that’s their practice, and it would never occur to a Jew to insist that non-Jews observe his or her divinely-imposed restrictions on picturing God. What Muslims should not do in principle does not apply to non-Muslims.

(One could also argue that the 100 lashes was a swipe at the more violent and regressive aspects of Islamic “justice.” But then that’s also an Islamist desire. Indeed, for the people who bombed the office, the cover should read: “100 lashes if you dare laugh.” If the implied criticism of lashing in Islam is offensive, what are we, who find lashing offensive, to do?)

Thus, what drives the anger and insult at the depiction of an even sympathetic Muhammad is the desire to impose Sharia on infidels, indeed to enforce a particularly rigorous interpretation of Sharia. It is, in short, like its predecessor incidents – Salman Rushdie, Danish Cartoons, Pope’s remark — an expression of a Jihadi worldview in which the non-Muslim world is Dar al Harb, the world of the sword, the world of the as-yet unsubjected infidel, a world in which Salafi Mujehaddin now assert the millennial project of, to paraphrase Freud, “where there was dar al Harb, there shall be dar al Islam.”

Do we really want to identify as “moderate” people who so share this point of view that a sympathetic cartoon about Muhammad insults them?

If the “vast majority” of moderate Muslims were to say to us, “we will listen to serious criticism about Islam and not assault those who engage in it, but please don’t gratuitously mock us,” I’d say, “fair enough.” But that’s not what’s going on here. This is not a small peccadillo in the otherwise mature attitude of “the vast majority of moderate Muslims,” but rather a sign of how pervasive their sense of insecurity, how desperately fragile they are, and how they turn that fragility into aggression.

Let me give this an “honor-shame” analysis of Crumley’s reaction. Crumley is protecting the thin skin of Muslims who, in contact with the rough and tumble verbal sport of modernity, find themselves at once humiliated and frustrated. Coming from societies in which the ability to assault people whom uttered statements one considered insulting to Muhammad or his divinely founded religion, was taken for granted, Muslims have enormous trouble navigating a public sphere in which much that they consider blasphemous (as did earlier Christians), is commonplace. Freedom of speech means above all, the right to criticize. Public criticism is anathema in an honor shame society where being criticized – even worse, admitting to fault – is a sign of weakness and an invitation to aggression from others.

Cromley is fully aware and highly sensitive to this thin skin. But he would consider saying so openly a form of Islamophobia. He constantly worries about insulting and offending Muslims. For him, Charlie Hebdo has “mock[ed] an entire faith… creating more division and anger… tempting belligerent reaction.” What happened to the “highly variegated” Muslim world? They all respond the same way? What an Islamophobic, essentializing reading of Islam.

On the other hand, the belligerent reaction he expects conforms quite nicely with my definition of an honor-shame culture where it is allowed, expected, even required to shed blood (or intimidate) for the sake of one’s honor. Is he – unconsciously of course – admitting that Islam is overwhelmingly an honor-shame culture.

Now I think I agree with Crumley in principle. Gratuitous insult is not exactly what we need. Much better purposeful, serious criticism (i.e., to Muslims, insult). If Crumley really embodied the maturity he pretends to – puerile Charlie Hebdo grow up! – then he’d have a hefty toll of serious challenges to Islam to his credit. That would certainly give him the weight to chide CH’s juvenile humor. That would certainly attest to his readiness to treat Muslims as adults, capable of listening to as well as proffering criticism, to his faith that “the vast majority of Muslims are moderates.” For example, is it “gratuitously provocative” to denounce the genocidal hatreds spewed by Muslim preachers? Has he done that? Or has he passed over this – to us deeply shameful behavior – in silence?

But if he is primarily trying to spare Muslims’ feelings, if he secretly believes that they are incapable of playing by the minimal rules of civil society, that they are not far from sympathizing with Jihadis for whom violence is a legitimate response to any form of criticism of Islam (including the insult of not converting to Islam), if he’s afraid of provoking Muslims by asking them what’s going on with their hate-mongering preachers, then he is unconsciously admitting that Muslims are overwhelmingly touchy, primitive, violent people who must be – at all costs – appeased. His anger at Charlie Hebdo for provoking them may not only come from his (Islamophobic) fear of a predictably violent Muslim reaction, but also his displeasure at having his fantasy of moderate Muslims demonstrably disproven.

His anger and disgust with Charlie Hebdo and its supporters bespeaks embarrassed anger,  the hostility that people who believe that appeasement will win over “moderate Muslims” feel when their effort to make friends with the beast get interrupted. And, not uncharacteristically, in his anger he indulges in a bit of (Muslim-sympathetic) Schadenfreude:

We [!?], by contrast, have another reaction to the firebombing: Sorry for your loss, Charlie, and there’s no justification of such an illegitimate response to your current edition. But do you still think the price you paid for printing an offensive, shameful, and singularly humor-deficient parody on the logic of “because we can” was so worthwhile? If so, good luck with those charcoal drawings your pages will now be featuring.

Here’s where Crumley and I part paths: he treats the Muslims as animals or little children – enfants terribles – and he assumes that he can win them over with carrots. The stick will just mess everything up. So he finds Charlie Hebdo’s behavior “childish, futile, Islamophobic [sic!]… inflammatory… obnoxious, infantile… offensive, shameful… a singularly humor-deficient parody… outrageous, unacceptable, condemnable.”

I’d rather than treat Charlie Hebdo as a teaching moment, as a shibboleth for detecting what Muslims genuinely are “moderate” by modern standards and not “in comparison with Jihadis.” Even if some of us would not have published the cartoon – I would not – and even if we think it’s a tasteless provocation, now’s the time to teach to our Muslim co-citizens what we learned in grade school: “sticks and stones may break our bones but names can never hurt us.” If we can’t imagine and find moderate Muslims to whom we can turn and say, “this is the minimal level of criticism for modern civil society, and your learning to get past the implied/imagined insult  constitutes a minimal adherence to principles of reciprocity,” then what does it mean to carry on about “moderate Muslims”?

This reciprocity is especially significant, given how virulently critical of infidels many of the most vocal Muslims are. They have as little difficulty expressing their freedom of speech criticizing – indeed demonizing – others, as they have difficulty listening to criticism from others.

This radical (and pre-modern) asymmetry of “us” and “them” reflects one of the most disturbing – and to liberals, incomprehensible, unimaginable, principle of Wala wa bara - “loyalty to Muslims and enmity for infidels.” It constitutes the exact opposite of the modern principles that underly civil polities in which citizens are guaranteed “human rights.”

Crumley believes that the right of “exercising free speech in Western nations… no longer needs to be proved.” This is classic “liberal cognitive egocentrism“: we Westerners don’t need that proof. But does he really think that Muslims don’t need some remedial education? Does he really think that both the extremists who engage in violence to silence speech they find offensive, and their potentially sympathetic “moderates” who are in danger – depending on how we act – of sympathizing with these extremists, consider “the exercise of freedom of speech” a “good” that no longer needs to be proved? If he does he’s a fool. If he doesn’t, how does he propose we explain to them what it’s all about.

The key element of freedom of speech is not being able to say anything you want, or even criticize everyone you want. The key lies in reciprocity: each “free” individual not only gets to exercise freedom to criticize, but also must endure the exercise of that freedom by others who may want to criticize you. This reciprocity was at the core of the modern meditation: In the Encyclopedie, Diderot definedined natural law (read here the law of civil polities) as

…in each man an act of pure understanding that reasons in the silence of passions about what man may demand of his neighbor ( semblable ) and what his neighbor has a right to demand of him.”

In Islam there is a similar principle, what some Muslims call the “Great Jihad,” the internal struggle. According to one of Muhammad’s hadiths, redolent of both Christian and Jewish demotic millennialism, Muhammad warned his disciples:

You will never enter paradise until you believe, and you will never believe until you love one another (tahabbu) and make peace widespread between yourselves, loving one another, and not one of you will ever believe until his neighbor is secure from his injustices .”

Now for Muslims to enter the modern world, they not only have to apply this to their fellow Muslims (a huge task in today’s world), but to non-Muslims. In other words they have to renounce the invidious, tribal principle of Wala wa bara.

If Crumley wants serious people to take him seriously, let him come up with more sober ways to establish the importance of reciprocal freedom of speech rather than blithely assume that this most difficult of freedoms is already a fully acquired “right” of everyone in the 21st century.

When the pope said “Islam is inherently violent,” Muslims around the world rioted violently, essentially saying, “How dare you say I’m violent.” When the Western intelligentsia, dominated by the kind of thinking so amply demonstrated by Crumley, blamed the pope for “provoking them,” the joke was on us. It’s time to show some sanity by getting a sense of humor. Crumley, lighten up; and Muslims, grow up. Just because no one (or very few of us) are laughing, doesn’t mean the joke isn’t on you.

One Response to Protecting Muslim Honor at the Price of Freedom of Speech: Bruce Crumley, Time Magazine and Charlie Hebdo

  1. [...] In what I hope is part of the last gasps of the disorienting moral relativism that marked so many intellectuals during the aughts (’00s), Bruce Crumley was given the pages of Time Magazine to spin out a now classic critique based on the internalizing of “Islamophobia” as proposed by Muslims who want to avoid public criticism, something approaching the level of a dogma in journalistic circles. In response to the Charlie Hebdo firebombing, Crumley not only blamed Charlie Hebdo for the attack, but those political and intellectual figures in France who condemned the bombing. Richard Landes [...]

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