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Theological Notebook: Against Tolerance; the Pakistani Murders

Dan pointed out to me a column from The Guardian dealing with the ongoing problem of Western unwillingness to defend liberal principles, in this case as exemplified in the response to the assassination (or martyrdom) of civil rights activist Shahbaz Bhatti this past week (and of Salmaan Taseer, earlier) in Pakistan. Bad right-wing thinking is at least pretty blatant in its illiberality. Bad left-wing thinking, unfortunately, paints itself into an illiberal corner using mis-applied liberal impulses.

As I look at the post-modern cultural context we operate in today, it's a potential problem I have to address with my students. The Modern mindset still believed, like the ages before it, that one could find and follow truth in reality: thus the Enlightenment trumpeted the achievements of the new sciences in teasing out truths of our universe. Likewise, Enlightenment philosophers attacked Christianity not because they were bigots, ostensibly, but because they thought it was a set of untrue claims about the world. That approach still leaves everything in the realm of study, examination, debate, and evidence.

The Post-Modern mindset that is emerging has ultimately given up on the idea of truths in reality, at least in any realm beyond the physical sciences, whose technology obviously works. There is a well-meaning moral thrust behind this, as Charles Taylor pointed out 20 years ago in The Ethics of Authenticity. Its desire to avoid conflicts between religions and worldviews has led it to embrace peace at the cost of saying that there cannot be any great moral codes that everyone must follow or any one "correct" religion, out of the belief that such irreconcilable perspectives end in conflict, as has been seen before in history. John Lennon's "Imagine" might be considered the great hymn of such a philosophy, with its claim that a world with no religions would be naturally more peaceful. The popular impulse to be "spiritual but not religious" is motivated by similar ethical drives, imagining that by "rising above" identifying one particular view as right, to the exclusion of all others, one is living out in themselves a more enlightened and tolerant ethic.

The only problem is, it doesn't work out that way.

We are amphibians, in terms of our philosophical orientation in this world: we live at a great time of historical transition between worldviews, with most of us being half-Moderns and half Post-Moderns. Most of us have mixes of these philosophies in our heads, and, since we live in a culture that has little patience for the long work of philosophy, most of us haven't done the work of trying to sort out these ideas, of "checking the math" of different groups' ideas to see why one might claim that a particular view is right or true, and to find where they might not be compatible, or might not even be ideas that we want to endorse. (To anyone who hasn't done the work of "checking the math," truth-claims sound like close-minded arrogance, and we do like to put the kabosh on such people.) To the extent that we are Moderns, we want to promote ideas of human rights and universal justice. Good stuff! To the extent that we are Post-Moderns, we recognize the importance of perspective, both individual and cultural, and we want to hold to that "prime directive" that no person or culture has the right to impose its ideas upon another. Also pretty good stuff.

But the two philosophical approaches are incompatible, at least, if the Post-Modern privileging of perspective is taken to its logical extreme.

An example: we might say as Moderns that women ought to have equal rights in society. If we say this as Moderns, we say it because we believe it to be a moral truth, regardless of whether one personally believes it or not. That's what a truth is. And so we would come down on the side of those Moderns who wrote the Declaration of Independence, saying that "we hold these truths to be self-evident," that they are true for all and everywhere. But as Post-Moderns, we want to say that no culture has the right to impose its values on another culture, which seems like a pretty good rule of behavior, looking at past overwhelmings of one culture by another, such as in the European migration to the Americas. But if we really hold that value as absolute, then we cannot say, for example, that women ought to have equal rights in Middle Eastern Islamic societies, because that would be an imposition of Western liberal values on another culture, violating its integrity.

See? It doesn't go both ways, if one really absolutizes the Post-Modern perspective. Women either ought to be granted such rights, or the status of women in society is solely a matter of cultural perspective, but both cannot be true. Thus we have the surprising historical irony that the Vatican has become the most outspoken defender of that old Enlightenment (in its truth-embracing aspects, if not its anti-Christian aspects). That whirring sound you hear is Voltaire, Jefferson and Hume spinning in their graves.

So now we have the problem of Western unwillingness to defend liberal principles. The Post-Modern mindset in this culture has tended to go farther down the line of embracing perspectivism or subjectivism, and that unwillingness to "impose a set of values on another group," even to the point of being unwilling to "impose" values like a universal human rights ethic, which, problematically, is at the very heart of liberal values. We either believe in a democratic Liberty as the right of all human beings, or we do not. If we believe it, but only for those who already possess it or "want" it, then we betray the Declaration and we bow down to every thuggish group that can pass itself off as an alternative "culture."

We have to do some hard, delicate and painful work: we have to dare to converse and to raise the possibility that some values, cultures and perspectives might not be true, good, or beautiful. And that instantly is opened up to the Post-Modern accusation of blasphemy: it's "intolerant." But do I really want to tolerate totalitarian regimes? Do I really want to tolerate the oppression of women?

We have to get past our fear of being declared intolerant. (Which is, of course, just a rhetorical strategy to shut one up: no great tolerance there.) We have to be willing to embrace the greater tolerance of actively engaging in dialogue and disputation with alternative points of view, rather than hope that the simplistic "tolerance of all viewpoints" will magically lead to cultural peace. That Post-Modern hope was well-meaning, and driven by the good values of tolerance and peaceful co-existence, but in its absolute and naive form, it empowers every oppressive group under the sun, and it only sounds reasonable, tolerant and enlightened as long as the militants haven't yet entered into your country or your neighbourhood. It is a far greater tolerance (hell, let's just call it "Love" instead) to actively be, for example, a Christian engaged with a Muslim, both of whom are free to say, "I think that you're dead wrong about what you believe and here is why," and then still buy one another a Coke, than it is to be the person who, in the name of tolerance, says that we should abstain from embracing one position or another, and instead should all be "tolerant." That sort of pseudo-tolerance is just the latest, and far most violent, form of Western Imperialism that has ever been conceived, as it de-legitimizes any perspective other than its own, all in the double-speak of peace, tolerance and openness. It makes having ghettos look absolutely humane.
The Pakistan Killings Are Not About Blasphemy
Western liberals are happy to denounce white extremists, while covering up militant Islam with a blanket of political correctness

Nick Cohen
The Observer, Sun 6 Mar 2011 12.53 GMT

After Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, religious "scholars" doubted whether the Ayatollah Khomeini had the right to order his murder. They had no liberal qualms about executing a writer for subjecting religion to imaginative scrutiny. They believed that blasphemers and apostates must die as their religion insisted. But only if they were citizens of an Islamic state. As Rushdie was living in London in 1989, a free man in a free country, the clerics concluded that religious law did not apply to him.

The Rushdie controversy was the Dreyfus affair of the late 20th century. It established today's dividing lines between the secular and the authoritarian, between those who were willing to defend freedom of thought and inquiry and those who wanted to censor and self-censor to keep fanatics happy. We can gauge how low we have sunk by remembering that at the start of the battle 23 years ago there was a tiny regard for the forms of legality, even among those who were otherwise happy to condemn free thinkers to death. However brutal they were, they respected their version of due process.

The Islamist murders first of Salmaan Taseer and then of Shahbaz Bhatti show that what tiny scruples blood-soaked men possessed vanished long ago. The best way to describe the terror which is reducing Pakistani liberals to silence is to enumerate what the assassins did not allege. They did not say that Taseer and Bhatti must die because they were apostates – or, to put that "crime" in plain language, because they were adults who decided they no longer believed in the Muslim god. Taseer had not renounced Islam. Bhatti could not renounce it as he was the bravest Christian in Pakistan, who campaigned for equal rights for persecuted minorities with the dignity and physical courage of a modern Martin Luther King.

Nor did their assassins claim that their targets had committed the capital crime of blasphemy. Taseer and Bhatti had not said that the Koran, like the Talmud and the New Testament, was the work of men not god. They did not denounce Muhammad's morality or offer any criticism of his life and teaching. If you wanted to reduce the whirling, brilliant narrative of Rushdie's Satanic Verses to a single sentence, you could say that it was in part a "blasphemous" account of the early history of Islam. Taseer and Bhatti attempted nothing so brave. They confined themselves to making the modest point that Pakistan's death penalty for blasphemy was excessive and barbaric, and that was enough to condemn them. Their killers murdered them for the previously unknown crime of advocating law reform: blew them away for the new offence of blaspheming against blasphemy.

One Pakistani journalist I spoke to described his fellow liberals as members of a persecuted minority, who now knew that if they spoke out, they would be shot down. Salmaan Taseer's daughter, Shehrbano, wrote a heartbreaking piece for the Guardian in which she despaired of a "spineless" Pakistani elite that was too frightened to praise her father or condemn his murderers.

In the networked world, censorship by the authoritarian state or clerical paramilitaries is meant to matter less. Technology enthusiasts can point to Twitter revolutions as proof of how emancipatory democratic ideas seep into apparently closed societies. But the ideas that Pakistanis need from America, Europe or "the west" to help fight armed theocracy are not there for surfers to find.

Fear plays its part in keeping western opinion quiet as well. It is hard to credit, but liberal society responded pretty well to the threat to Rushdie in 1989. Penguin refused to withdraw the Satanic Verses. Booksellers ignored threats and bombs and carried on selling it. But once the global wave of terror had passed, no one wanted to put themselves through what Rushdie and Penguin had been through, and a silence descended. Even the supposedly militant "new atheists," whom genteel commentators damn for their vulgarity, steer clear of religions that might kill them. Close readers of Richard Dawkins will notice that almost all his examples of clerical folly are drawn from the Catholic and American evangelical churches, whose congregations are unlikely to firebomb his publishers.

The fear is still present. Last month, four men were convicted of slashing the face and fracturing the skull of Gary Smith, a London teacher who had made the mistake of taking the windy official pronouncements about "promoting diversity" seriously and taught Muslim girls about Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. Political violence comes from the British National Party, English Defence League and various splinter groups from the IRA, as well as Islamists, and that is before you raise your gaze and examine the assorted gun-totting crazies who inhabit the fringe of American politics.

The difference between Islamism and the rest is that liberals are happy to denounce white extremists, while covering up militant Islam with the wet blanket of political correctness. They do not confine themselves to saying that, of course, society must protect people from being murdered for their religion, as Slobodan Milosevic murdered the Bosnian Muslims, and punish employers who refuse jobs to members of creeds they dislike, as Protestant employers in Northern Ireland once refused to hire Catholics. They maintain it is illicit to criticise religious ideas. Thus, along with the admittedly faint fear of violence, western writers who want to provide arguments against religious misogyny, homophobia, racism and censorship must also live with the fear that their contemporaries will accuse them of orientalism or Islamophobia.

The world may pay a price for the monumental blunder of treating religious ideologies – which are beliefs that men and women ought to be free to accept or reject – as if they were ethnicities, which no man or woman can change. Not the smallest reason why the Arab revolution is such an optimistic event is that al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood have been left as gawping bystanders. Their isolation cannot last. Eventually, if Arab states move towards democracy, there will be a confrontation with political Islam. Arab liberals, like Pakistani liberals, will search the net for guidance. They will discover that far from offering strategies that might help, timorous western liberals have convinced themselves that it is "racist" to criticise raging fanatics who no longer even bother to pretend that they are anything other than liberalism's mortal enemies.

m.guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Pakistan Minister Shahbaz Bhatti Shot Dead in Islamabad
Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws – killed by assassins who left leaflets signed 'Taliban al-Qaida'

Declan Walsh in Islamabad
Wednesday 2 March 2011 15.11 GMT

Self-described Taliban gunmen have shot dead Pakistan's minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, an advocate of reform of the country's blasphemy laws, as he left his Islamabad home.

Two assassins sprayed the Christian minister's car with gunfire, striking him at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets that described him as a "Christian infidel". The leaflets were signed "Taliban al-Qaida Punjab".

Bhatti's 22-year-old niece Mariam was first on the scene. "I rushed out to find his body covered with blood. I said "uncle, uncle" and tried to take his pulse. But he was already dead," she said at Bhatti's house, extending a bloodstained palm. The sound of wailing women rose from the next room.

Bhatti's assassination was the second killing of a politician in Islamabad over blasphemy in as many months, following the assassination of the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer outside a cafe a few miles away on 4 January.

Dismayed human rights activists said it was another sign of rising intolerance at hands of violent extremists. "I am sad and upset but not surprised," said the veteran campaigner Tahira Abdullah outside Bhatti's house. "These people have a long list of targets, and we are all on it. It's not a matter of if, but when."

The only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet, Bhatti had predicted his own death. In a farewell statement recorded four months ago, to be broadcast in the event of his death, he spoke of threats from the Taliban and al-Qaida.

But he vowed not to stop speaking for marginalised Christians and other minorities. "I will die to defend their rights," he said on the tape released to the BBC and al-Jazeera. "These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles."


Lax security did not help. Witnesses and police said Bhatti was travelling with just his driver when he came under attack less than 50 metres from the Islamabad home he shares with his mother.

A small white car carrying gunmen blocked his way. After an initial burst of fire they dragged Bhatti's driver from the vehicle, then continued firing through a side window. "It lasted about twenty seconds," said a neighbour, Naseem Javed. "When I rushed out I saw the minister's driver standing by the car, shivering, and his niece weeping and shouting."

"They fired 25 bullets," said a police officer beside a bullet-pocked pavement, holding a handful of brass Kalashnikov bullet cases.

As they left the gunmen flung pamphlets on to the road that blamed President Asif Ali Zardari's government for putting an "infidel Christian" in charge of a committee to review the blasphemy laws. The government insists no such committee exists. "With the blessing of Allah, the mujahideen will send each of you to hell," said the note.

Last November Bhatti joined Salmaan Taseer in championing the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death last November for allegedly committing blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad.

"This law is being misused," Bhatti told Open magazine at the time. "Many people are facing death threats and problems. They're in prison and are being killed extra-judicially."

The government later distanced itself from the blasphemy reformists, repeatedly stressing that it had no intention of amending the law, leaving Bhatti and Taseer politically isolated. Now that both men are dead, angry supporters say the government bears some responsibility for not protecting them politically, if not physically.

"The government distanced itself from anyone who took a stand on blasphemy. I blame them for being such chickens," said Abdullah.

Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch said Bhatti's death represented "the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups both prior to and after the killing of Salmaan Taseer".

The embattled Christian community also voiced concerns about its safety. "We feel very insecure," said Bhatti's brother in law, Yousaf Nishan. "In this society you can't open your mouth, even if you want to say something good, because you're afraid who you might offend."

The assassination raised fresh questions about the safety of Sherry Rehman, a parliamentarian who also championed reform of the blasphemy laws, and who has been in semi-hiding since January.

She was not available for comment. Friends said she may have gone into hiding again, fearing for her safety.
Tags: ethical, interreligious, islam, middle east, philosophical, political, secularism/modernity, theological notebook
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