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The Case of the Danish Cartoons

Is Liberalism a Failing Religion?

by EDWARD F. MOONEY

I was ready to learn from Stanley Fish about the insensitivity, not to mention the global dangers, of mocking your neighbor’s Religion. His NY Times Op-Ed (2/12/06) is billed as a response to the furor over Danish publication of cartoons of Mohammad. But as it turns out, Fish ducks discussing whether the cartoons were insensitive or blasphemous or ought not to have been solicited or published in a country that has marginalized its population of roughly 200,000 Muslims. What comes quickly into view for him is neither human suffering nor the blindness of the Copenhagen press but another inviting question. Is Liberalism believable?

The Danish fiasco prompts Fish to rehearse a witty polemic against a degenerate Religion posing as a respectable political tradition. As Fish would have it, Liberalism is not a hard won set of institutions that, among other things, tames religious zealotry. It’s just another sort of zealotry. He mocks our daylight assurance that historical Liberalism has tamped down religious violence, wars, and persecution, and raises our nighttime fear that Liberalism might be just another faith, another dogma on the block. Liberalism has worn a white hat far too long.

Yet why does Fish launch this letter in the midst of the present Muslim-Danish scandal? Perhaps pure fascination with the dubious equation "Liberalism is Religion" gives momentary relief from real-time headaches: Christian insensitivity to Islam; Islam’s measured and then violent reaction to the blasphemous cartoons; Editorial restraint in the name of decency. We might expect a national newspaper to show tact, or as the Danish editor has it, "self-censorship," rather than lightheartedly depict Islam’s not-to-be depicted most revered figure.

Conventional taxonomy aside, Fish declares that Liberalism is Religion. It rests on dogmas like the "neutrality" of public space, makes a fetish of free speech, and enforces a powerful taboo against disrespecting your neighbor’s Religion. Promoting this equation bars Liberalism from taking the high ground above Religions, and from passing as a trusted public administrator of things Religious. But Fish has a quixotic task ahead. He wants to apply Liberal critique to the bug-a-bears of taboo, dogma, and fetish without becoming Liberal. He’d blanch at the idea that he continues the Liberal Enlightenment’s suspicion of all things religious. So why is Fish so keen to promote his dubious equation?

Here’s a suggestion: Liberalism is more vulnerable if it’s boxed up as Religion, and critics need soft targets. Religion-critique has a venerable history. Fish keeps in business by enlarging the target, turning Liberal critique back on itself. This may not lift the fog in Copenhagen or around the world, but it throws a wrench in understanding how to manage religious diversity.

If Liberalism is a Religion, we can’t allot Christians, Jews, Liberals, Atheists (yes, they’re religious), and Muslims equal time for their parades, as Liberals might propose. For if we deliver a "fair" distribution of favors in "neutral" space, then the Religion of Liberalism has an "unfair" advantage. Why should it impose its parochial standard of "fairness," or think there’s merit in maintaining "neutral" public space? How, then, would Fish regulate religious space? Perhaps we revert to rough and tumble. Whoever gets to the parade grounds first and holds it, gets to march, and if it’s their religious style, to trample all the others.

Fish falls just shy of saying that Liberals, as adherents of just another Religion, and without a political high ground, must just buck up and compete for dominance with Jews and Christians and other religious claimants in this raucous free for all. He sets the clock back. Is there a Geneva Convention or overseeing Conscience to bear on this combat? He gently mocks Liberal respect for those of other faiths. Such respect "comes cheap," as he puts it. I’d have thought Spinoza and others fought hard for it! If post-Liberals become pre-Liberals as they devalue Kantian respect, they’ll be uprooted when virulent waves of disrespect (and worse) break out.

I thought Liberalism developed historically as an alternative to bloody political religious conflict and persecution, but I’m instructed otherwise. Stanley Fish tells me Liberalism is just another dogma hiding under fig-leafs like "free speech." It’s the dogma, he says, that "everything (at least in the area of expression and ideas) is permitted and nothing is to be taken seriously." He nurses the fantasy that Muslims who air violent anti-Christian and anti-Jewish graffiti in their newscasts have it partly right: at least they’re serious about their Religion; they believe it. Next to their zeal, the Religion of Tolerance, Respect, and Neutrality begins to pale. It fears to mock or blaspheme established Pieties; it wants to keep zeal off the streets.

Muslims are more forthright about their deep convictions than Liberals are, Fish seems to believe, and he seems to admire this. Their loves and hates appear vividly in media images that excoriate Christians and Jews. (Of course many Muslims would disown those images.) If Liberals were just as forthright, Fish intimates, they’d stop hiding under the public-private screen. And then what? Excoriate any Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, or Illiberal who dares to speak against them? Of course Fish does not believe we should encourage disorder. He wants Liberal protections and respect for his views. Liberals can grant these, with a minimum of violence, but Fish seems to pooh-pooh that possibility. Can illiberals offer more protection?

Fish delivers his critique from the relative safety of academe, relatively secured by a relatively Liberal state. But he burns away the ground beneath his feet. He can’t occupy neutral public space, for he’s declared it a Liberal myth, so he has to move about as just another religious voice among others in unprotected space. Perhaps he’s a prophet of the new church across the street, as yet unnamed, perhaps post-Liberal or illiberal. He competes with Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Liberal, Jewish, and other faiths for congregants. Yet after denying neutral public space, Fish paints himself out of the picture. Who will print his letters? If the Times is seriously Liberal (read, "seriously religious") then it will act as any self-respecting Religion should: it will close the Temple doors to any who would mock it.

Let’s say the Times refuses to be boxed up as a religious institution. It tries to be neutral with regard to its favors toward Religions, and holds, against Fish, that neutrality is not a religious value. If Fish presents himself as an illiberal polemicist mocking what the Times stands for, that might be taken as an instance of post-Liberal religious zeal. Fish begins to resemble a religious proselytizer out to win converts, for he’s painted the ideal of Liberal persuasion as a sham. The Times then refuses his letter, for it refuses to host sectarian disputes. Buddhists can’t attack Sufis in the Times unless they acknowledge the ground rules of Liberal debate.

Can Fish frame a protest to this exclusion? He might plead, rather incongruously, that he’s an exception, that his belief in free speech is not just a zealous sectarian preference. Or he might plea that despite being religious, the Times still has an obligation to print critiques of their faith-structure launched from opposing illiberal faith-structures. But at this point the debate becomes both comic and inconsequential. Let’s have each party wink and lay down arms. "We’ll call ourselves good Liberals all around; We at the Times will give you space, and you’ll concede that good Liberals critique each other ­ forget the dubious equation!"

Fish has no praise for the Danish paper’s self-restraint prior to soliciting and printing the offensive cartoons. Neither does he explicitly approve of their dissemination. He hides his cards on these vital points. His interest is in exotic claims about the fraudulence of Liberalism, and the fraudulence of the denial that it’s a Religion on a par with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Atheism. Let me set his shadow play with Liberalism aside to get closer to the painful issues he avoids.

I assume we’d be indignant, Fish included, if the Times solicited amusing cartoons, not of officials standing by, but of victims: cartoons of a Katrina bloated corpse, of starving children in Rwanda, of trudging death camp inmates. Some things are forbidden, sacred, and inviolable, it seems, for at least some of our media. So Fish is wrong. Freedom of expression does not exclude taking some content as unprintable when to print would be unacceptably cruel. Liberals take that seriously, as something close to sacred. But that doesn’t make them congregants of a world Religion.

Indignation would put the Times editors one step above the Danes, who, by all accounts, have yet to acknowledge that Muslims have reason to be indignant. Of course I don’t think Fish would promote publishing cartoons of death camp inmates. But unfortunately he simply ducks discussion of the need, in such cases, for editorial self-restraint, the need, for example, to reject scurrilous or blasphemous or morally obscene cartoons. And he simply ducks the question whether, on balance, the horrors of religious conflict are exacerbated or eased by Liberal conventions. The real issues get unplugged. Which speaks against illiberalism.

EDWARD F. MOONEY is a professor of religion and philosophy at Syracuse University. He is the author of Selves and Discord in Resolve, Knights of Faith and Resignation, and Wilderness and the Heart. Mooney can be reached at: efmooney@syr.edu