On Disturbing Challenges to the Sense of Community in an Electronic Age

George Anastaplo

I.

            The point of departure for this inquiry has been provided by the much-publicized responses “worldwide” to a primitive video, “Innocence of Muslims,” posted on the Internet in the United States in 2012, a video in which the Prophet Mohammad was deliberately disparaged and which was said to have been responded to violently here and there, evidently by furious Muslims. Such rampages seem to be triggered worldwide in Islamic communities from time to time, with even newspaper cartoons mocking the Prophet being thus provocative (cartoons of the kind that we are accustomed to having our politicians and others among us of note  routinely subjected to). Particularly provocative, of course, can be displays, or even just the prospect of displays, of a public burning in the United States of the Koran by a publicity-seeking preacher.

It may sometimes seem that there are people here and there (and not only Muslims, of course) who “want” to be offended. Efforts may be made to locate (if not even, it can be suspected, to plant) on the Internet, or in some other medium, something suitably provocative. Considering how much “stuff” there is routinely “out there,” it is remarkable that there are not many more outbursts than those we do hear about from time to time.

Of course, there have “always” been provocative expressions that can excite violent repercussions elsewhere. Thus, we in the West have long known about affronts to honor which have led to deadly duels. Wars have been resorted to, or at least intensified, by insults that honor, if not also concerns about the national interest, “must” respond to.

 II.

            Questions are raised from time to time about the character and life of the Prophet Mohammad, and not only by “the prejudiced.” After all, he was a human being of considerable talent and a surpassing ambition. Even so, the dubious features of his astonishing career were anticipated by far worse episodes in the careers of some of his more eminent predecessors as well as of some of his distinguished successors among religious leaders worldwide.

We can recall, for example, the divinely-inspired slaughter by Moses of thousands who had worshipped the Golden Calf. We can recall as well the deadly persecutions by Saul (later known as Paul) of fellow Jews with Christian inclinations. Then there is, of course, what was done to early Christians by offended pagans and to thousands of “witches” by later Christians.

We can also recall the determined disparagement (sometimes eventually deadly) of heretics resorted to by Christians after Mohammad. Thomas More and Martin Luther readily came to mind. Long before, of course, there had been (we have been told) the deliberate destruction of virtually all of the human race by the Creator Himself, an episode that makes any misconduct attributed to Mohammad or to his competitors (including Christian fanatics) trivial by comparison.

III.

            Some can consider Mohammad’s career to have been characterized by presumptuousness. He did report himself amazed that he could be chosen to serve as a particularly exalted Messenger of the Divine. It is said that his effectiveness as the preeminent prophet was much enhanced by the beauty of the language in which he delivered his revelations from On High, language that most of us in the West can do no more than begin to sense in the translations of the Koran upon which we must rely.

The most serious criticisms here should be directed not at Mohammad personally but rather at those who have virtually deified him. Thus, no image of him is ever to be found among the Faithful. This is in dramatic contrast, of course, to the many representations of Jesus (as part of the Trinity) to which we in the West have long been accustomed.

Jesus himself remains important for Islam, but not as a divinity. There may even be seen in Mohammad a determined return to Jewish Unitarianism. It is said that he was disappointed (if not angry) that the Jews of his day did not recognize what he offered as a divinely-inspired culmination of the grand system that Moses and his prophetic successors had inaugurated and developed.

IV.

            Whatever Mohammad’s personal failings—after all, he was only human‒, they are minor (and really not very interesting) compared to what some of his would-be followers routinely say and do. The language used by Muslims in attacking differing Islamic sects can be striking. Such sects are evidently accustomed to fierce uses of violence among themselves (far worse even than what the Irish, for example, have done among themselves in our own time).

The official status of females in some Islamic countries can be troubling, at least for us. Also troubling, of course, can be the deadly attacks by some determined Muslims upon the funeral processions and other religious observances of rival Islamic sects. We in the West do not hear on those occasions the kind of protests from religious authorities that can be provoked by a presumptuous video or cartoon in the West, leaving us to wonder what Islamic “public opinion” really believes about such shocking conduct by fellow religionists.

Particularly dramatic was the fatwa issued against Salman Rushie by an Iranian spiritual leader in 1989, a pronouncement (evidently backed up with the offer of a substantial monetary reward) that induced the targeted novelist to go into hiding for more than a decade. Far less prominent than this fatwa were any protests that might have been issued by other Muslim religious authorities questioning such bloodymindedness. But then, how many prominent political leaders among us have protested our current Presidential “fatwas” against Terrorists, death sentences that authorize drone strikes distant from any conventional battle field?

V.

            The deadly consequences of an irresponsible video can remind us of the routinely irresponsible aspects of the worldwide Internet Regime. A tremendous amount of “stuff,” much of which can be useful, is “out there.” No community (political or religious or social)—not even the Chinese?—can reasonably hope either to anticipate or to control for long what is happening among themselves without opting out of important worldwide technological developments.

The consequences of these developments are far more extensive, and far less subject to control by recognized authorities, than a Television Regime had been. I myself presumed to argue, several decades ago, that broadcast television should be shut down in this Country, at least with respect to political campaigning. The 2012 political campaign in this Country, with hundreds of millions of dollars lavished on television advertising, suggests what we may have to put up with hereafter.

A major difficulty for those among us who want to regulate such financial excesses is what the United States Supreme Court has been moved to declare to be protected “freedom of speech.” An even greater difficulty is the effective identification of what is truly our own, for which we are somehow responsible and which we can effectively regulate. We have only begun to be aware of the long-term consequences (both highminded and despicable) of a determined Globalization.

VI.

            Among the consequences of Globalization is a large-scale indulgence in Vulgarity. I continue to be amazed, upon venturing to see a popular movie, by how tawdry the language used and the activities portrayed can be. Even more uninhibited, of course, is what has evidently become routine on the Internet.

Instructive here for us in this Country can be a study of what has happened to our sports. They have become a major industry, professionalizing in effect even much of what is done at the College level (and perhaps also in some high schools). For many people, it can seem, Sports have taken the place of Politics (and perhaps also of Religion) in their “World.”

The foundations upon which Sports allegiances rest can be arbitrary, especially where “free agency” rules. What, Sports Fans dare not ask, is truly Our Own? Both Globalization and a Market Economy have had profound effects here which the True Community would be challenged to identify and to address.

VII.

            All this suggests why it can be virtually impossible to anticipate and then to control what is done and said everywhere on the Internet these days. The chance circumstances both of the purveyors and of the recipients (somewhere worldwide) can be critical. Also, as I have indicated, there may even be, here and there, recipients who very much want to be offended.

Be that as it may, it is virtually impossible (especially at a time when the traditional politically-oriented “freedom of speech” has come to be regarded as the individualism-minded “freedom of expression”) to do much officially in this Country about provocative postings on the Internet. Sometimes a public appeal can promote restraint, but even then the disturbing Message is often already “Out There” (if only in the form of the announcement of an intention). Sometimes, of course, the irresponsible “speaker” has done other things for which he can be penalized and hence restrained by apprehensive authorities.

Responsible leaders in the countries where offended recipients may be found should be most concerned by the passions acted on among themselves. That is, the primary concern of such leaders should be with that which they can hope to control somewhat—that is, not with the foolishness (if not even the malice) of some Posting Agent halfway around the world but rather with the passions exploited (and perhaps thereby legitimated) among themselves. Permitting such destructive “emoting” (even when the immediate targets are “only” foreigners) puts an otherwise orderly community at risk in the long run.

VIII.

            Responsible Muslim leaders should also be concerned about “what else” their people are getting off the Internet besides the occasioned Insult to Mohammad and his Religion. There are, of course, immense treasure troves of information available there. But there are also available obviously corrupting material that communities can become accustomed to (if not even dependent upon).

We can take some comfort in the recognition that the abuses of something called “freedom of speech” (or, more likely today, “freedom of expression”) can be countered somewhat by that use of freedom of speech which challenges its misuse. After all, people in our governments are also entitled to freedom of speech. They may have a right, if not sometimes even the duty, to challenge any misuse by their fellow-citizens of that ancient right, something that is recognized in a recent Letter to the Editor by a prominent First Amendment lawyer in this Country (Floyd Abrams, “The White House and Free Speech,” Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2012, p. A18):

Gordon Crovitz’s criticism (“The White House Goes Mum on Free Speech,” Information Age, Sept. 24) of the administration’s supposed advocacy of “censorship” in response to the “Innocence of Muslims” movie that was followed by violent demonstrations abroad confuses two concepts. He is perfectly correct that the movie is not only protected by the First Amendment, but that any effort to suppress it, to punish its producer in any way or to justify or excuse violent, not to say murderous, responses to it, is worthy of the harshest condemnation. The odious fatwa aimed at Salman Rushdie threatened the free speech of all, just as would one that was aimed at the far less worthy, but equally First Amendment-protected, producer of this film. All that, though, is quite different in nature from disassociating oneself or one’s nation from irresponsible and even incendiary speech. If an American president were asked about Nazi speech, I doubt that anyone would criticize him or her for criticizing the speech. If such speech had been followed by violence abroad, it is inconceivable that the president would be accused of advocating censorship for making plain that it did not represent the views of the U.S. It was not advocacy of censorship, but a common-sense defense of national security for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to state that the inflammatory film was not produced by the U.S. and that this nation rejected “its content and message.”

Muslim leaders may be tempted, from time to time, to exploit the passions stirred up among their people by provocative Internet (or other) “publications” abroad. But should they not be helped to recognize that there are not, among their people, the centuries of self-government available to moderate the immediate recourse to violence encouraged by offensive statements elsewhere? Thus, their primary concern as leaders should not be with the irresponsibility permitted abroad but rather with the deadly passions that seem to be legitimated among themselves.

IX.

            We may usefully return to the killings that sometimes do seem routine in some Islamic countries, including those visited upon funeral processions and rival religious celebrations. Such a legitimation of violence is dramatized by the infamous fatwa, by a distinguished Muslim cleric, that we have recalled. Particularly troubling there (we again notice) is that there is not publicized (so far as we in the West can tell) vigorous and sustained condemnation by responsible Muslim leaders worldwide of such pious violence, the kind of responses that there would surely be in the West if such a fatwa were issued by, say, the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.

Those who recall how much Islamic culture could once match, if not even at times surpass, what was available anywhere in the West can wonder how and why Islam has deteriorated to the extent that it evidently has, even endorsing (or at least permitting) as it does much-publicized “pious” hooliganism here and there in response to foreign “provocations.” One can wonder, of course, about the consequences for a century now, at least in the Middle East, of vast sums of mostly unearned Oil Money. But prior to that, and much deeper in its consequences, may have been the threat to Islam in its Glory posed by the prospects of Mongol incursions.

The corrosive effects of Fearfulness on Islam even in its glory should be taken to heart by us, especially considering what we have allowed to be done among and by us both during the Cold War for several decades and now for a decade of the War on Terror. Much in need of consideration (perhaps even prayerful consideration) may be an examination of what is truly fearful and what should be done (and not done) about it. Such an examination can be one of the privileges of our traditional freedom of speech in the service of competent self-government.

____________________
These remarks were prepared for a meeting (organized by Alex Sproul) at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, November 18, 2012. There may be found in George Anastaplo, But Not Philosophy:  Seven Introductions to Non-Western Thought (2002), a discussion of Islam. These 2012 remarks should be included in Volume VIII (Reflections on Crime, Character, and the Constitution) in my projected ten-volume Reflections series (the fifth volume of which was published in 2013).

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