Intolerance not Restricted to Islam

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 3: Freethought II: Freedom of Expression

Intolerance not Restricted to Islam

What should be the state and society’s reaction to these assaults on the principle of freedom of speech by religiously motivated zealots? Should religious criticism be more restrained? Should we have more respect for the religious feelings of minorities? Has the Western world gone too far in freely discussing religious ideas? Is the Enlightenment project untenable perhaps, or should it be slowed down? Or should we advocate a new Enlightenment?[104]

If we take some of the commentaries paraphrased above seriously, the question is rather whether we are allowed to speak about the matter at all. Many people feel that we should not address religious terrorism (at least not as “religious”) because this could lead to stigmatization of the religious minorities from which the radicals are recruited. And perhaps even this formulation is contested because, as many people say, someone like Van Gogh’s murderer does not simply “emerge” from the Muslim community. The analogy with the Presbyterians may be illustrative. Paul Hill (1954–2003) was a Presbyterian cleric. But should we be suspicious of the Presbyterian brand of Christianity merely because one of its adherents committed a murder? The analogy with the Catholics in the sixteenth century may be illustrative as well. We cannot say that because Balthasar Gérard (1557–1584) murdered William of Orange (1533–1584) we must suspect all Catholics of murderous intentions.[105] And the fact that Yigal Amir shot the Israeli president Yitzak Rabin in 1995 does not make all Jews potential murderers. So why should we suspect all Muslims? Is that not a selective sort of interest? Is it, under those circumstances, not much more sensible to prevent “stigmatization” and “polarization” and leave the matter alone?

This may seem an attractive approach, but presupposed in the rationality of this course of action is the notion that radicalization and religious terrorism will fade away if we do not pay attention to them. Another presupposition is that the most pertinent problems we have to deal with are racism, xenophobia, and the unjust targeting of ethnic and religious minorities. Undeniably, these are important problems, but are they the only or even the most important problems we have to deal with? Is not terrorism, the threat to the nation-state’s security and the intimidation of writers, cartoonists, and social activists a much greater burden?[106]

Those who answer the last question in the affirmative will say: “We simply cannot afford to be ostriches and keep our head in the sand; we have to face the problems we are dealing with openly and think about strategies to overcome them.” One of the most important elements of that strategy would be to candidly acknowledge that there is a religious element involved in religious terrorism. It is easily said that the terrorist problem has “nothing to do with religion,” but can we really believe that e.g. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa has “nothing to do with Islam”? Or is it in any way convincing to say “Khomeini is not a real Muslim?” You can say that, of course, but isn’t that the same as saying that the Pope has nothing to do with Catholicism?[107]

Francis Fukuyama (1952– ), one of the most prominent authors to have underestimated the significance of the religious upsurge in the contemporary world, writes: “It makes no more sense to see today’s radical Islamism as the inevitable outgrowth of Islam than to see fascism as the culmination of centuries of European Christianity.”[108]

This is a convoluted sentence containing a mixture of fact and fiction. Fukuyama may be right in stating that radical Islam is not an inevitable outgrowth of Islam. This is correct because stressing such inevitability would commit us to a theory of historical determinism. It would mean that every step in the development of a doctrine is necessitated by previous steps. It would imply that the whole subsequent history of humanity lay hidden in the womb of Eve or that – to take an example from the history of metaphysics – that inherent in the essence of “Caesar” was that he would one day cross the Rubicon. Radical Islam is not the only variety of Islam that can be developed, as is clear from the fact that there are many Islamic sects, such as the Sufis, with completely different ideas from those of the jihadists.[109]

Nevertheless, recognizing this does not mean that radical Islam and Islam have no relationship whatsoever. It does not mean that political Islam, radical Islam, Islamism, or Jihadism cannot find moorings in Islamic doctrine, as Fukuyama seems hastily to suppose (and many other commentators do as well).[110] Fukuyama is inclined to this unwarranted assumption on the basis of reading the books by the French Islam-scholar Olivier Roy (1949– ),[111] so it seems, but his ideas are open to challenge as will be clear once we take cognizance of the work of Bassam Tibi (1944– ), for example.[112]

That implies that Fukuyama’s comparison with fascism as the culmination of European Christianity and political Islam as related to Islam is not well chosen. Again: portraying fascism as the “culmination” of European Christianity would be a bit strange, but that does not exclude the fact that scholars have seriously pondered the relationship between Christianity and one element of fascism in the broad sense: anti-Semitism.[113]

I say “in the broad sense,” because the term “fascism” can refer to the Italian totalitarian movement of Benito Mussolini (fascism in the restricted sense), but also to a more general idea comprising National Socialism as well. In that last (broad) sense the term fascism was used in the 1970s. And in this broad sense anti-Semitism is part of the fascist mind.

Now, where does anti-Semitism come from? Does it have religious roots in the Christian tradition in which the Jews were discriminated against because they were regarded as the killers of Christ?[114] This has been, and still is, an object for historical research.

Giniewski v. France

The question of whether that kind of research should be allowed was the focus of a verdict by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in Giniewski v. France (2006).

On January 4, 1994 the Paris newspaper Le Quotidien published an article by an Austrian historian named Paul Giniewski (1926– ). The title of the article was “The Obscurity of Error.” The article contained an analysis of the papal encyclical Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth” 1993). In his article Giniewski contended that “many Christians have recognized that scriptural anti-Judaism and the doctrine of ‘fulfillment’ of the Old Covenant in the New led to anti-Semitism and prepared the ground in which the idea and implementation of Auschwitz took seed.”

This analysis was contested by an organization with the name (and this name is revealing in itself): Alliance générale contre le racisme et pour le respect de l’identité française et chrétienne [General Alliance against Racism and for Respect of the French and Christian Identity]. This organization, we can safely assume, is one that tries to defend the French identity. French identity is apparently sought in (or considered to be synonymous with) Christianity. The organization also seeks to conduct its defense by judicial means, because it brought proceedings against the newspaper and against the author of the article. This was done on the charge that the article by Giniewski contained racially defamatory statements about the Christian community. Domestic courts convicted Giniewski, but the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg did not. The Court ruled unanimously that, by his conviction on this charge, Giniewski’s freedom of expression had been unduly violated.

The Reichskonkordat (“Concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich”) is a treaty negotiated between the Vatican and the emergent Nazi Germany. It was signed on 20 July 1933 by Cardinal Secretary of State (and later Pope Pius XII).

In its motivation the Court indicated that it did not think that Giniewski’s words amounted to accusing Christians and Catholics in general of being responsible for the Nazi massacres. And therefore Christians were not victims of defamation on account of their religious beliefs. The Court also affirmed that Giniewski had tried to develop an argument about a specific doctrine and its possible links with the Holocaust. Doing this could be considered as a contribution to an ongoing debate. And “it is an integral part of freedom of expression to seek historical truth.” Besides, Giniewski’s article did not incite hatred or disrespect, nor did it cast doubt in any way on clearly established historical facts.

Not everything the Court states in its motivation is equally impressive, but the outcome of the case surely is. If every religious community could file suit when its beliefs are criticized, religions would be completely immunized against criticism. Also the construction that religious criticism amounts to a kind of “racism” is – although clever – far from convincing. This kind of criticism has nothing to do with “race.”[115] All scientific views, and likewise all worldviews, including religious ones, should be subject to criticism (see what was said by Clifford in an earlier section of this chapter, Clifford on the Duty to Critique). It is therefore somewhat strange that the Court seems to indict casting doubt on “clearly established historical facts.” Why should we not challenge “clearly established historical facts”?[116] Is not casting doubt on “clearly established facts” what makes a great historian? And if those facts are so well established, why can they not take care of themselves? Do those facts have to be protected by legal means? “I am an established fact and want to remain an established fact, so please don’t contradict me!” Besides, what is “clearly established” in one period may be contested in another. In Chapter 1, I presented Bertrand Russell’s “Liberal Decalogue.” His fifth “commandment” was: “Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.” His seventh: “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” The European Court of Human Rights seems to have incorporated part of the spirit of Russell’s Liberal Decalogue but not all of it. Had the Court done so, it would have realized that scientific progress is nothing if not the continuous challenging of established facts and hypotheses, as W.K. Clifford and Karl Popper (1902–1994) have advocated.[117] This is no different for a discipline like historical science than for the natural sciences. Books by the British historian A.J.P. Taylor (1906–1990), for instance, were not well-known for their respect of well-established historical facts. Of Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War (1961) Stefan Collini (1947– ) writes: “The book, with its emphasis on the accidental nature of the events leading up to war in September 1939 and its apparent refusal to regard Hitler as anything more than one partly incompetent statesman among others, provoked a storm of criticism.”[118] It is only when this culture of freedom is maintained (and even encouraged, as it is by Bertrand Russell, see Chapter 1) that critical books about religious movements and institutions can be published.[119]

In the same way as this is possible in the case of Christianity,[120] it should be possible to do research on the roots of violence, in particular of terrorist violence, in political Islam or Islamism. And is the politico-religious ideology of Islamism completely separated from Islam as a religion?[121] That may be the politically correct attitude, but this is not likely. It cannot come as a surprise that some scholars reject this thesis as unfounded. However intricate or difficult these relationships may be, we should not, therefore, refrain from studying them – but we perhaps ought to stop proclaiming that these things “have nothing to do with each other.”

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[104] See: Amis, Martin, The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom, Alfred A. Knopf, New York and Toronto 2008, p. 13, and p. 91. See also: Rushdie, Salman, “Do We Have to Fight the Battle for the Enlightenment Over Again?” and Kurtz, Paul, The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism, Praeger, Westport, CT 1997, p. 11: “The Enlightenment project still needs to be fulfilled: to create a better world based on reason and the ideals of freedom and progress.”

[105] See on this: Jardine, Lisa, The Awful End of Prince William the Silent. The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun, HarperCollins, London 2005.

[106] See on this: Phares, Walid, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West, Palgrave, Macmillan, New York 2005; Phares, Walid, The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy, Palgrave, MacMillan, New York 2007.

[107] There is a long discussion, as one might expect, on the question of whether movements such as Al Qaeda should be considered exclusively “criminal,” or “political” or also as “religious.” I side with those authors who see this as religio-political. See on this: Gelvin, James L., “Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrorology,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 20, no. 4 2008, pp. 563–581; Kelsay, John, “Al-Qaida as a Muslim (Religio- Political) Movement. Remarks on James L. Gelvin’s ‘Al-Qaeda and Anarchism: A Historian’s Reply to Terrology,’ ” Terrorism and Political Violence, 20, no. 4 2008, pp. 601–605.

[108] Fukuyama, Francis, “A question of identity.” On the difference between Islam and Islamism see: Gresh, Alain, L’Islam, la République et le Monde, p. 90.

[109] See: Demant, Peter R., Islam and Islamism. The Dilemma of the Muslim World, Praeger, Westport, CT 2006; Ismail, Salwa, Rethinking Islamist Politics: Culture, the State and Islamism, I.B. Tauris, New York 2006.

[110] E.g. Tony Blair. See his: Blair, Tony, “A Battle for Global Values,” Foreign Affairs, 86, no. 1 2007, pp. 79–90.

[111] See for the ideas of Roy: Roy, Olivier, Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, C. Hurst & Co., London 2004; Roy, Olivier, The Failure of Political Islam, Translated by Carel Volk, Harvard University Press, Harvard 1996.

[112] See for instance: Tibi, Bassam, “Islamic Law/Shari’a, Human Rights, Universal Morality and International Relations,” Human Rights Quarterly, 16 1994, pp. 277–299; Tibi, Bassam, Im Schatten Allahs. Der Islam und die Menschenrechte [In Allah’s Shadow. Islam and Human Rights], Ullstein, Düsseldorf 2003; Arjomand, Said Amir, The Turban and the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran, Oxford University Press, New York 1988.

[113] See: Poliakov, Léon, The Aryan Myth: A History of Racist and Nationalist Ideas in Europe, New American Library, New York 1974 (1971).

[114] Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, Anti-Semitism, Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill 2002.

[115] See: Ternisien, Xavier, État et Religions [State and Religions], Odile Jacob, Paris 2007, p. 132.

[116] In relation to denying the holocaust this issue is treated in: Shermer, Michael, and Grobman, Alex, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?, University of California Press, Berkeley 2000.

[117] In: Popper, “Science: conjecture and refutations.” For Clifford, see his “The Ethics of Belief.”

[118] Collini, Stefan, Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2006, p. 381. See also: Taylor, A.J.P., The Origins of the Second World War, Penguin, London 1991 (1961); Taylor, A.J.P., The First World War: An Illustrated History, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1978 (1967).

[119] E.g. about the Catholic Church. See: Verhofstadt, Dirk, Pius XII en de vernietiging van de Joden [Pius XII and the Destruction of the Jews], Houtekiet/Atlas, Antwerp 2008. See on unpopular books in general: Karolides, Nicholas J., Bald, Margaret, and Sova, Dawn B., 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature, Checkmark Books, New York 1999; Fishburn, Matthew, Burning Books, Palgrave, MacMillan, Basingstoke 2008.

[120] Lewy even writes: “it is generally recognized that Nazism’s ferocious assault upon European Jewry took place in a climate of opinion conditioned for such an outrage by centuries of Christian hostility to the Jewish religion and people.” See: Lewy, Guenter, “If God is Dead, Everything is Permitted?,” Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick 2008, p. 65.

[121] See on this: Podhoretz, Norman, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, Doubleday, New York 2007 and, on the similarities between Khomeinism and fascism, Taheri, Amir, The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution, Encounter Books, New York 2009, pp. 76–105.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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