At first glance, religion has always been the enemy of freedom. By its very nature, religion is seemingly didactic and absolutist, claiming to be the answer to all the world's problems - to be the source of fundamental truth.
So it is that Islam is again attracting negative attention in the press. The needless death in Benghazi of the American Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed by smoke inhalation after the US consulate was stormed by Muslims livid about the trailer for a US-made film apparently disrespectful of the Prophet Mohammad called The Innocence of Muslims, is a nasty reminder of the inability of Islam to bear criticism or insult.
That Channel 4's decision to cancel a screening of Tom Holland's documentary Islam: The Untold Story was announced only a day before the tragedy in Libya is a strange coincidence. After it was broadcast in late August, Channel 4 reportedly received around 1200 complaints. The documentary focused on Islam's early history, and speculated that the version of Islam that exists today developed not in Mecca, but somewhere in the vicinity of Palestine around 200 years after the Prophet Mohammad passed away.
Whatever you may think of a film which insults the Prophet Mohammad, or Tom Holland's conjectures, they are to be countered by rational debate, not bigoted threats or actual violence. It is not acceptable for any group to use their liberty and/or free speech to deny the same to another. Each time a religion claims that its own ignorance is sacred, it strikes a blow not only to freedom of speech but also to the idea of a common humanity.
However, we must remember that intolerance is not a characteristic unique to religion. As with all organic symbols rooted deeply in human identities, Islam - like all other religions - is open to abuse by those seeking to wield power and terror. But many other divides have also been exploited in the same way, such as race in Nazi Germany, class in Soviet Russia, and tribe in Rwanda. Whatever Islam's problems and failures, they are the result of human fallibility, not some contrived view of religion or God. In fact, both the Nazis and the Soviets were secular regimes.
The issue, rather, is absolutism. Every human has their own conception of how to achieve 'the good life', but besides very limited exceptions, it is wrong and unnatural to impose these onto anyone else. One of the most important things shared in common by belief systems which turn into absolutist ideologies is that despite their supposedly noble aims for humanity, they begin to violently enforce these beliefs onto people regardless of whether or not they agree.
Islam is no different because, like all other beliefs, it is a spectrum, and can be manipulated to extremity for the sake of power. But that is not to say that at its essence it is fundamentally illiberal and destructive, just as Communism, Republicanism, and even Nationalism were not fundamentally illiberal and destructive until they were steered by often psychopathic leaders to forcefully impose themselves onto people; becoming as a result the terrible absolutist extremes of Stalinism, Bonapartism, and Fascism, respectively. Islam, when left alone by intolerant psychopaths, is actually a peaceful and humane religion.
Ironically, negative and ignorant criticisms of Islam often come either from atheists who believe their own rationality to be the objective truth, or fundamentalist Christians who would argue against abortion rights for women who were raped. Tellingly, one of the producers of The Innocence of Muslims was Pastor Terry Jones who last year burned the Qur'an. Worse, the director of the film, Sam Bacile, said in a recent interview that "Islam is a cancer, period," while Richard Dawkins has in the past described Islam as "one of the great evils in the world". It is these levels of ignorance and hatred which lead along that dangerous road to absolutism.
All human beliefs contain within them the seeds of absolutism. As citizens it is our duty to respect the beliefs of others without resorting to the extremes of condoning morally reprehensible behaviour or condemning ideas we can't understand. Ultimately, the only way to fight absolutism is to first fight the absolutist tendencies that lie within ourselves.
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