The recent film, ‘Innocence of Muslims’, has generated violent reactions, including the killing of the US ambassador in Libya, from various groups in the Islamic world. Cultural critic Stanley Fish has written a piece in the New York Times, ‘Libya, Violence and Free Speech’ which lambasts both those who characterised the response as ‘senseless’ and Western liberalism’s failure to understand the religious mind.
Fish sees John Locke’s liberal values, of the separation of church and state and of tolerance of religious differences, as in fundamental conflict with a religious perspective which requires all behaviour to flow from God-given precepts. For those who hold that view, ‘religion is not an internal, privatised matter safe from the world’s surfaces, but an overriding imperative that the world’s surfaces should reflect’.
In Scotland we should understand that. The National Covenant of 1638 articulated Presbyterian Scotland’s rejection of Roman Catholicism, stating that the duty of the king was to protect and impose Presbyterianism and to ‘abolish and gainstand all false religion contrary to the same; and…to root out of their empire all hereticks and enemies to the true worship of God…’ The National Covenant was a manifesto for the forcible imposition of a state religion and morality on all citizens.

Of course such grand designs for Protestant state hegemony ultimately failed. Protestantism especially Scottish Protestantism, like any democratic ideology, tends to schism and faction, since, despite the fundamentalists’ assertions, the truth is seldom clear or obvious. Once schism operates and a multiplicity of denominations exists, the options are religious tyranny or religious tolerance. Tolerance usually triumphs.
Locke asserted that earthly judges and human beings generally cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints; even if they could, enforcing a single ‘true religion’ would not work, because belief cannot be compelled by violence; and that coercing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than tolerating diversity.
Current trends in radical Islam, however, turn Locke’s position on its head. For the devoutly religious believer, there are clear sources of truth and these truths are not to be gainsaid. Moreover, the point of the violence is not compulsory conversion, although if that occurs, it is a bonus, but rather the assertion of God’s will on rebellious men. Locke’s real weakness, the fundamentalist will assert, is the prioritisation of social order over truth. Divine truth, says the believer, always trumps social peace.
Fish is breathtakingly right to insist that the liberal West must understand the thought processes of the Islamic groups who fire embassies and demand legal protection from ‘insult’, although perhaps it is also essential to recognise such groups as in the minority, even within Islam. It is a mindset intellectually rooted in a religious view of ‘truth’.
Understanding is essential but understanding should not mean compromise. Fish’s coherent analysis leads him to dire conclusions. ‘We have decided that the potential unhappy consequences of a strong free speech regime must be tolerated because the principle is more important than preventing any harm it might permit. We should not be surprised, however, if others in the world – most others, in fact – disagree, not because they are blind and ignorant but because they worship God and truth rather than the First Amendment, which not only keeps God and truth at arm’s length but regards them with a deep suspicion.’
He raises the possibility of compromising on free speech because it is ultimately at odds with a powerful sector of humanity which values God and (its own interpretation of) truth more. Insulting religion may indeed be offensive. If I say, for example that belief in the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917 where she allegedly spoke to local peasant children, is superstitious nonsense and that the so-called miracles of Fatima are part of a massive propaganda exercise by the Catholic Church, I am aware that I am insulting many Catholics. I also believe I am speaking the truth and insist on my right to do so. The alternative is the thought police.
Fish’s anaylsis of the fundamentalist mindset is partially accurate but is also dangerously decontextualised. Why is it that today such powerful emotions can be stirred among considerable numbers of the world’s Muslims? Why has Islam arisen as a radical ideology? Countless reasons, including the urge to certainty in an uncertain world, but perhaps both Mr Fish and Mrs Clinton should seek explanations closer to home.
They might question the cavalier disregard of US policy to the needs and aspirations of the Islamic peoples of the Middle East. The uncritical support of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the cynical alliances with the most reactionary and oppressive of Arab regimes only provided these regimes supported US economic goals in the area, two massively destructive wars in Iraq, have all played a far greater part in stirring Islamic fundamentalism than any fatwa or theological predisposition.
There will always be religious zealots who, from a variety of motives, stir potent movements, often as much political as religious. The mindsets of both the zealots and the followers need to be understood. All credit to Fish for that but an understanding of how power works and how it is perceived is even more crucial and an understanding of the zealots’ mindsets should never be a reason to surrender to them, offer them unwarranted protection and surrender our own freedoms. It was with good reason that the founding fathers ‘kept God and truth at arm’s length’ and it’s with good reason that many of us distrust those who believe they have found both.

The above article was first published in Scottish review on 4 October 2012:

The signing of the National Covenant, Greyfriars Kirkyard, 1638


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