Oct 172010
Authors: Brendan Carroll of The Daily Princeton

There is a difference between making remarks that are anti-Muslim and making remarks that are anti-Islam.

Muslims are people: The Arabic word for Muslim means “one who submits” –– to God, that is. Islam, by contrast, means “submission” and is an ideology –– that is to say, a set of truth-claims and prescriptions, like communism, Catholicism or conservatism.

It is one thing to say “Muslims are terrorists” and something different to say “Islam is incompatible with Western values” or even “Islam is wrong.”

Take Martin Peretz’s infamous commentary in The New Republic: “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.” To begin with –– because it is not clear to me that this is universally accepted in Western Europe –– Peretz ought to have the right to say this. He does have the right to say this, under American law.

Nonetheless, he ought not to exercise that right because the commentary is unconstructive, uninformed, unhelpful and an attack on persons rather than ideas.

By way of contrast: To say “Islam is incompatible with Western values” advances a serious debate, not least because it requires us to ask, “What is Islam?” and “What are Western values?” For example, in 2007 roughly one-third of young British Muslims believed that conversion from Islam is forbidden and punishable by death. (Intriguingly, only one-fifth of their grandparents held this view.)

If we assume, as I do, that freedom of religion is an authentically Western value, then that particular definition of Islam is incompatible with Western values. Unfortunately, it is hard for anyone who is not a Muslim to state categorically, “This is Islamic, this is not.”

Like Protestantism, Islam lacks a centralized body to interpret its sources of religious authority: While there are prominent leaders whose decisions guide the practice of millions, it tends to be the violent fanatics who claim that they are the only legitimate voice of Islam.

At the same time as Muslim zealots across the globe are trying to bully Westerners into self-censorship about religion (see the “South Park” Muhammad debacle), many Westerners, on the opposite end of the political spectrum, seem to be working toward the same goal. Witness the British Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, which, but for helpful amendments from the House of Lords, would have ironically rendered both the Bible and the Koran illegal.

Or consider the trial of Geert Wilders: While I find it implausible for a man who wants to ban books to cast himself as a champion of free speech, he should nonetheless not be prosecuted for saying things.

America, fortunately, seems remarkably free of attempts to legally limit our public discussion of religion, which is why I am particularly perplexed by those who question whether America is still “the land of the free.” 

Of course it is: America is, in public discourse, more free than most West European democracies. The only freedom we don’t guarantee is –– to borrow the words of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard –– the freedom “not to be offended.”

I support the general idea of Park51 largely because I view it as the perfect riposte to Islamists who claim that America is engaged in a war against Muslims. So far as I know, the people trying to stop Park51 have thus far failed to demonstrate any connection between the organizers of the Islamic center and Islamist terrorists; though I would point out that the preliminary sketches submitted for the project are very ugly, and its opponents might want to consider arguing against construction on aesthetic grounds alone.

Muslims are people, and until all Muslims become alike — in any respect other than their religion — it will be impossible to smear the backers of Park51 with the brush dipped in the blood of Islamists’ victims. Islam, however, is an ideology, and like any ideology it must be legally and socially open to criticism.

Brendan Carroll is a philosophy major from New York, N.Y. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com

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