The recent wave of violent reactions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East to the online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad may be taken as the most recent example of a clash between “contending modernities.”
The US-based moviemaker is sometimes taken to represent the values of “Western democracy” and “free speech,” while the protesters in places such as Libya and Pakistan are taken to represent “extremism” and “illiberalism.” Of course, neither the US-based moviemaker nor the Muslim protesters are necessarily paradigmatic of their wider societies or cultures. Furthermore, they arguably represent not a clash of “democracy” vs. “extremism” but a clash between rival — and plausible — conceptions of modern democracy.
On one side, the defenders of largely unrestricted free speech and freedom of expression champion a democratic model that generally refuses to grant special privilege to religion or religious sensibilities. On the other, the religiously offended prefer a democratic model that includes the right of a community to be free from grave insults to its identity and values. Indeed, such a view is in keeping with a robust norm of popular sovereignty — “Vox populi, vox Dei”!
The moviemaker and the rioter thus embrace stereotypical and exaggerated versions of “secular” and “religious” conceptions of democracy. We know that secular approaches, which emphasize free expression, need not be hostile to religious sensibilities, beliefs or practices; just as we know that religions can and do preserve the dignity of sacred figures and sites without recourse to violence or even to censorship.
Beyond Clashing Civilizations
As some analysts have pointed out, this clash is not simply between Muslims and Christians. The terrain is more complicated. For example, Coptic Christians in the region compared the release of the movie on Muhammad to that of The “Da Vinci Code,” the 2006 movie that they not only found offensive but which they succeeded in restricting in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. And in the wake of the recent protests a number of Christian leaders — including Maronite Catholic Patriarch Bechara Rai and four Anglican bishops — have expressed support for international bans on religious defamation and blasphemy. At the same time, of course, dozens of Muslim thinkers have condemned the violent riots as obscurantist and inconsistent with Islam.
Both models of democracy presuppose a different conception of the relationship between religion and the State. But, one may ask, is there something each can learn from the other? Is there a middle ground in which both freedoms of expression, and from sacrilege, can be respected and guaranteed?
We invite responses to these and related questions!