Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Freedom and Faith

by Fred Dallmayr

These are dark and dangerous times. Everywhere one turns one finds rancor, ill will, and animosities galore. The situation is starkly illustrated by the ongoing uproar over the cartoons published in Denmark. As a result of this uproar, people have been killed and property has been destroyed in numerous places; and there is no end in sight. This outcome is surely highly deplorable; my point in any case is not to condone or whitewash acts of violence committed against people or property. However, the outcome is hardly fortuitous; as in any confrontation, there are two sides to the story. It is well to remember that the uproar in this instance was not instigated by Muslims or Muslim countries. It was a response to a prior incident or provocation. Reason dictates that, here as elsewhere, one consider the cause-effect nexus, the relation between action and reaction. In this matter, it is tempting to wax fundamentalist on both sides. In Western media, the uproar is usually portrayed as the conflict between "freedom" and dogmatism or fanaticism. "Freedom" in this context is often treated as something absolute and nearly sacred, while religious faith is presented as deplorable and obsolete.

For a Western person, it is important to ponder a bit this "absolutism". Does freedom really mean that we can do as we please, that we can insult or malign other people at will? This assumption is at odds with both
the religious and the ethical traditions of the West. Western civilization is often called "Judaeo-Christian"; but neither Judaism nor Christianity instructs believers to insult or injure other people. On the contrary,
both Judaism and Christianity uphold the biblical injunction to love our fellow-beings (and this does not exclude Muslims). A prominent peak of the ethical tradition of the West is the moral philosophy of Kant. That philosophy stipulates as a "categorical imperative" the duty to treat other human beings as ends, not as means. And nowhere in Kant's work is there a hint that this imperative does not extend to Muslims.

So Western religious and ethical traditions are united in condemning the use of "freedom" as a weapon of insult or injury. There are also legal considerations pointing in the same direction. In America, the great
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that individual freedom does not entitle a person to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. Anyone who has traveled in the Near East, or simply has read the
newspapers, knows that the Muslim world today is like a tinder box where a single match can cause a major conflagration. This is or should be common knowledge. There is a further legal consideration. As a
deterrent to ethnic cleansings and other forms of collective violence, several countries, and also some states in America, have adopted statutes prohibiting "hate crimes" committed against groups of people.
In addition, there is the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (in force since March 1976) which states in one article: "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement
to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law."

Again, I do not in any way condone the violence committed in response to the cartoons. But as I stated at the beginning: these are dark and dangerous times. Humankind seems be inching its way toward
catastrophe, possibly a nuclear catastrophe. There are people in capitals of the world whose fingers are itching to press the nuclear button. In this situation it behooves all of us to exercise sober restraint, and to keep a guard on our words and deeds in order to prevent the worst from happening. Neither freedom nor religious faith entitle anyone to jeopardize the future of this earth.


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