Monday, December 13, 2010

"Defaming Muhammad: Dignity, Harm, and Incitement to Religious Hatred"

Peter G. Danchin, Defaming Muhammad: Dignity, Harm, and Incitement to Religious Hatred, 2 Duke Forum L. & Soc. Change 5 (2010). (available on SSRN)

This is an interesting and provocative article that asks whether mainstream liberal legalism has correctly articulated the issues created by the Danish Muhammad cartoons. Danchin argues that "[w]hat has been most striking about the Danish cartoons controversy has been how the deep sense of injury expressed by so many Muslims . . . has literally been incomprehensible within Euro-Atlantic modernity." (p. 10) The article thus follows closely to the arguments expressed by Saba Mahmood in Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury and Free Speech while standing in opposition to Robert Post's article Religion and Freedom of Speech: Portraits of Muhammed which (according to Danchin) portrayed the controversy as a paradigmatic example of the necessity of adhering to strong freedom of speech principles in the face of conservative religious cries of blasphemy. Danchin thus asks us to step away from the exceptionalist U.S. approach to hate speech (which almost always finds such laws unconstitutional) and instead to examine more seriously the approaching international consensus that believers need legal protection against attacks on their faith. Danchin seems sympathetic to Mahmood's argument that Muslims were understandably angered by the cartoons because of their deep and intimate personal attachment to Muhammad. Under this analysis, "the notion of moral injury caused by denigratory or purposively offensive speech no longer falls as neatly into . . . private belief or conscience[,] [but] [r]ather suggests a sense of violation--and violence--that strikes at a Muslim's very being, a sense of wounding against an entire habitus or structure of affect." (pp. 31-32)

The article can be frustrating at times--many passages are difficult to decipher and Danchin carefully equivocates on important points. Moreso, he's writing as a political philosopher at a high level of generality, and thus avoids the hard questions that real politicians and lawyers would have to deal with: does the special relationship Muslims are said to have with Muhammad justify special legal protections that members of other faiths are apparently able to function without? Will Muslims grow a "thick skin" as the Islamic world increasingly clashes with modernity and the liberal devotion to free speech and criticism? Is this whole notion of a "special relationship" between Muslims and Muhammad really any different than believers of any religion feel towards their god, saints, prophets, or other religious leaders? (that is, do we have anything more than Saba Mahmood's word for this argument?). My sympathies are obvious more towards Robert Post's position, but Danchin's article is definitely worth reading as it's a sophisticated and thought-provoking reappraisal of the the common approach of treating the cartoons as a simple contest of free speech vs. blasphemy.

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