On islamophobia and freedom of speech

So by now you will probably have heard about an enormous row going on over some political cartoons published in a danish newspaper. These cartoons were deeply offensive to some muslims, primarily but not exclusively because they depict the prophet Mohammed, something many muslims consider sacreligious (although there is apparently nothing specific in the Koran which says so).

The argument is raging back and forth: is this free speech, or is this religious persecution? Do Danish newspapers have a right to say what they like, or is this "hate speech" that should be illegal, in the same way that Nazis are banned from advocating the killing of Jews? A number of newspapers around Europe have decided the former is correct, and republished the cartoons.

I must say that something has been bugging me about these cartoons, and specifically their republication "in solidarity" (aka to boost readership). But I need to draw a clear distinction between the very first one and all the subsequent ones.

The subsequent ones, while certainly blasphemous under the rule that there can be no depictions of Mohammed in art, are not, in my customarily oh-so-humble opinion, hate speech. They are commentary, on Islamic customs, on violence in the name of Islam, or meta-commentary on the publication of the previous cartoons. Some are just pictures.

The first one, however, is a nasty little bit of what could easily be termed hate speech. I defend equally vociferously its right to be published of course, but I disagree with its sentiment and shocked that respectable publications would pick it up and republish it. It’s as if a protest by some Jews at a Nazi cartoon led to a lot of newspapers reprinting an anti-semitic cartoon: totally within their rights, but in very poor taste.

The reason the debate is getting confused is because both interpretations apply: European newspapers are spreading hate speech, but simultaneously spreading fair commentary. Middle-eastern countries are reacting to the publication of the first, but we are looking at the subsequent ones instead and terming it an over-reaction.

But aren't they overreacting?

When we do something that they consider blasphemous -- like this -- they react with outrage and calls for our government to be overthrown. We think they're crazy and have no right to tell us how to run our lives. It's freedom of speech.

But when they do something we consider evil, like execute gay teenagers, we react with outrage and call for regime change. They think we're crazy, and have no right to tell them how to run their lives. It's freedom of religion. But we somehow think it's different.

Now obviously I think that executing kids is worse than drawing a picture, no matter how offensive that picture may be. But we have to understand that they really, genuinely and sincerely believe exactly the opposite. And our belief that we are in the right is just as arbitrary as theirs. We tend to forget that.

The power of belief

Of course, some will respond that you cannot compare the persecution of homosexuals by Iran with blasphemy and islamophobia perpetrated by the free but irresponsible press of Europe. People are born gay, but you can choose to believe anything you like, right? So it's unfair to persecute people for being gay, or black, or asian, but totally okay to pick on them if we disapprove of their religious beliefs.

I wish that were true. But is it really?

I read an interesting article the other day about the mental processes of political believers. Some scientists were studying the brains of people with strong political beliefs, and they found something quite worrying:

[When presented with information that their chosen political candidate contradicted themselves,] "We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning. ... What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."

Test subjects on both sides of the political aisle reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted ... Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix.

Some beliefs are held so deeply that they are unchangeable without significant mental trauma. There is mounting evidence that certain thought patterns are strongly self-perpetuating: information that reinforces the existing belief produces strong reward feelings, while information that contradicts the belief produces disgust, often leading to anger, which, faced with no other outlet, translates easily into physical retaliation for mental anguish -- because even if you can't make the fact that hurts you go away, you can certainly make the person who's telling you the facts shut up.

The example relates to political beliefs, but the same I’m sure is even more true of religious beliefs, which are frequently much stronger than political ones. You may not be born muslim (although some muslims certainly believe you are), but it's possible that after a certain amount of time, you can't be anything but muslim: any ideas which suggested that Islam was not 100% correct would cause you serious mental distress. At which point attacks on your beliefs are going to be greeted, at a very deep and basic physiological level, with violence. (The Washington Post has a longer article about these mental effects.)

Secular western culture's entire existence is a challenge to the tenets of radical islam. Is there any wonder there's conflict?

Update: Please understand, I am not trying to excuse or explain away the persecution of homosexuals or terrorism in the name of religion. The point I'm trying to make is that a campaign of persuasion, however reasoned, is going to be totally ineffective, as scientific theory predicts and historical records clearly demonstrate, and one of propaganda and diplomatic pressure even less so. Presenting conflicting evidence to someone whose brain is fundamentally wired to reject is only going to provoke them, not placate them. So we need to fundamentally re-think our strategy for dealing with the world of Islamic extremism, and possibly with the religious world in general.