The academic journal Science, Religion & Culture has a special issue on Islam, Culture and the Charlie Hebdo affair. The first article I’ve opened is Free Speech is Free for Whom? by Hussein Rashid, an adjunct prof at Hofstra. I…don’t like it. It’s written in a form of academese that I’m very allergic to – the kind that wraps its points in such a cloud of pseudo-technical verbiage that…well that two things:
- people like me can’t stand to read it
- the unwary are fooled into thinking it’s profound
He’s saying less than he appears to be saying, in other words, and in doing so he makes it hard to pin down what he is saying because of the sheer annoyance of reading.
There is an analytic issue in attempting to create a conflict between a religion and a concept. Aside from the obvious lack of parallelism, neither has an agency of its own. A religion is constituted by the actions and interpretations of those who claim adherence to it; free expression must be exercised to be real.
In other words, religions and concepts aren’t people. True.
What makes the narrative so compelling is that it indexes other symbols. If free speech is “good,” then everything associated with it must be good. This includes ideas of democracy, secularism, Enlightenment, Reformation, and modernity. Two of these terms refer to historical moments, the meanings and values of which are not generally agreed upon in specifics. The other three terms are also ill-defined, and mean different things in different cultural contexts, even in the semiosphere represented by the “West.”
In other words, we need to define our terms. Ok.
In a state of competition, if free speech is good, then Islam must be bad. The religion indexes a series of depictions of the “Other,” such as violence, lack of culture/civilization, poor gender roles, superstition/illogic, and primitiveness. This construction, a significant part of Orientalist discourse, goes back centuries. However, the ways in which the “Other” is constructed is not limited to Muslims, but is used to describe minorities of any type, whether they are minorities by religion, race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexuality.
By questioning the very narrative engendered by the attacks on the workers of CH, we understand the ways in which post-Enlightenment liberal values are, in fact, methods for continued exclusion. That we can offer such a critique does not mean that the aspirations of these values is inherently problematic. Rather, they too have no agency, and it is in the ways in which these values are referenced and applied that is problematic. Specifically at stake is the idea that the Enlightenment is the teleological end for humanity; as a result there is only way to be modern; and the liberal values generated by the Enlightenment are neutral and should be universally accepted.
In other words…oh never mind, you can see where he’s going. That’s enough for me. Massimo Pigliucci also has an article in the issue; that’s bound to be much better.