Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The Wrong Right

Posted by JJ in Hats Off, Gentlemen, Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Tuesday October 3, 2006 at 8:22 pm)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others’ calls for the restaging of Idomeneo by the Berlin German Opera Company are absolutely right. The edition to be staged, including a scene with the severed heads of several religious leaders, was cancelled over fears of violence from Muslim extremists (despite the fact that a previous staging in 2003 resulted in no such incidents). But by focusing on the threat to free expression, those fighting for liberal rights have ignored the legitimate foundation of Muslims’ complaint, and revealed that the real problem in this case and others isn’t expression — it’s conscience.

Of course there are some in the Muslim world exploiting these issues to sow fear of aWestern plot against Islam, those threats belong, with others, in the “to be ignored” pile. Blackmail begets blackmail, and as Chancellor Merkel and others have rightly observed, succumbing to the threat of violence is the surest way to magnify that threat.

The legitimate concern is harder to dismiss. For many Muslims, it is wrong to depict the prophet Mohammed. Hence, in some paintings and illustrations of Koranic tales, Mohammed is veiled (of course, the practice isn’t universal). Those Muslims who object to such depiction may genuinely be offended by such works as this version of Idomeneo.

The first response is the right one — liberal society doesn’t protect anyone from mere offence. Still, appeals to religious tolerance may demand forebearance.

Those are wrong in the most fundamental sense. The essence of religious tolerance in Western society stems from State persecution aimed at enforcing uniform behaviour. Faith became a major contention when Protestants broke from the Catholic Church; and rulers across Europe were often brutal in their efforts to impose the “right” choice on their subjects.

Queen Elizabeth’s response was typical of her clarity of insight:

I have no desire to make windows into men’s souls.

In ten words, the crux of that most cherished of liberal values: the freedom of the conscience. We may be required to do many things, and punished for many others, but the State cannot justify either command or condemnation by the need to control what we believe. It is from this fundamental principle that the right to religious belief, tolerance, and worship are born.

And this is the problem with calls for non-Muslims to respect Muslim practice. Religious tolerance means allowing those with beliefs to hold them, not requiring non-believers to do the same or, what is worse, act only in conformity with others’ beliefs.

This is the real threat to rights — not that to expression, which is always bounded by considerations of balance and propriety. It is the threat to freedom of conscience posed by allowing religious belief and practice to be imposed on nonbelievers for the sake of believers.

There remains the problem of offensiveness. When you know something will be offensive, there must surely be extra consideration. Common courtesy demands that we not allow ourselves to recklessly or cheaply offend others. But that is no matter for government, as those who attacked Danish embassies did not understand. Policing morals no more befits a state than threats of violence do deep religious feeling.

There may be no more fundamental right than this: the right to a conscience free to find its own way. We check our expressions daily, biting our tongues over harsh words, letting others take the spotlight, refraining from merely adding our agreement to a chorus, or ending a discussion with discretion. But our minds are not so easily checked, and often run on once our words run dry.

We can therefore tolerate the occasional attack on what we say, all in the name of sociability. But our freedom to believe — no matter how casually threatened — is too precious to yield.

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