When a situation such as the one created by the anti-Muslims cartoons and their reaction, the tendency for all parties is to seek ever higher ground of self-righteousness – all the time exacerbating the situation. The fact is that the biggest danger to the world at the moment comes from the conflicting certainties of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim fundamentalists. These certainties are rooted in a varied mixture of paranoia, real persecution, cultural egotism, and a search for more simple answers than the world willingly provides.
There is an alternative approach, namely to back off from the conflict at issue and ask: how do we lessen the chance of this happening again?
The traditional answer of the extreme branches of all three cultures is found in new law. It doesn’t work well. For example, Metafilter recently summarized laws designed to reduce anti-Semitism: “In Austria it against the law to make any statements denying the occurrence of the Holocaust. . . Laws in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland make it a criminal offence to deny the Holocaust in public. Germany’s parliament passed legislation in 1985, making it a crime to deny the extermination of the Jews. In 1994, the law was tightened. Now, anyone who publicly endorses, denies or plays down the genocide against the Jews faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail and no less than the imposition of a fine.” In this country we have also passed hate crime laws, many of which directly conflict with the First Amendment and certainly haven’t proved effective.
In fact, violent or nasty offenses against cultures and beliefs are far more dependent on the political or social conditions of the time than on any law or lack thereof. Thus Israel’s policies have spurred anti-Semitism just as 9/11 spurred anti-Islamic expression in this country. In the end it is far more like a disease than a crime and the cure is not the forcible elimination of symptoms but the riddance of viruses causing them.
This involves backtracking by all involved. But sadly those in charge of today’s triptych of terror are too pathologically invested in their self-righteousness to slack off and so matters just get worse and worse.
It is up to the rest of the world – both religious and secular – to show the way through the demonstration of workable and decent relationships with those different from themselves. We need to illustrate with examples things that work better than riots or anger. And we best ignore such futile arguments as the current ones about the cartoons and find ways that serve not as another response to the present debate but as an alternative to it.
Absent right now, for example, is the concept of reciprocal liberty. As Thomas Paine said, “Where the rights of men are equal, every man must finally see the necessity of protecting the rights of others as the most effectual security for his own.”
Describing David Hackett Fischer’s discussion in ‘Albion’s Seed’ of the difference in the view of freedom within the American colonies, Leonard J. Wilson writes, “Their contrasting concepts of liberty are among the most visible today. The Puritan concept of liberty, ‘ordered liberty’ in Fischer’s terminology, focused on the ‘freedom’ to conform to the policies of the Puritan Church and local government. The Virginia concept of liberty, ‘hegemonic liberty’, was hierarchical in nature, ranging from the great freedom of those in positions of power and wealth down to the total lack of freedom accorded to slaves. The Quaker concept of liberty, ‘reciprocal liberty’, focused on the aspects of freedom that were held equally by all people as opposed to the unequal and asymmetric freedoms of the Puritans and Virginians. Finally, the Scotch-Irish concept of liberty, ‘natural liberty’, focused on the natural rights of the individual and his freedom from government coercion.”
The good thing about reciprocal liberty is that you don’t have to approve of the other person’s behavior to accept his or her right to engage in it. Thus, one may fairly object to the Muslim treatment of women but, according to the principle of reciprocal liberty, you don’t invade their countries, force a pseudo democracy upon them, or otherwise try to bully them into righteousness. You find more civil ways to deal with your differences.
Europeans are not particularly good at this which is why they have far harsher laws about Holocaust myths or Muslim women wearing veils. But America, at its best, knows that you don’t have to like someone or their beliefs to extend to them the same freedom to be right or wrong. As Walter Kelly said, we have to defend the basic American right of everyone to make damn fools of themselves.
What has worked here can be applied as well to the rest of the world. As at home, for diversity to work, no one gets to approve its membership. It exists because that’s the world is. Sure, it could be better, but neither more hate nor more Hummers will make it so.