Free Speech and Applauding Appalling Behavior

Young-girl-mocks-a-street-preacher-800x430There has been a video making its rounds on social networks of a girl, probably around 11 or 12, screaming “shut up” at a street preacher talking about Jesus and salvation. To my dismay, the numerous comments I see are from people applauding her behavior. I think the young lady’s action are not to be applauded but denounced. I understand that many people dislike street preaching. I understand that public preachers often say confrontational and disparaging statements. The preachers justify their position by scripture, doctrine, and traditions within their faith. The vast majority of street preachers I have encountered are ready and willing to engage in discussion and debate, and are willing to do so with a modicum of civility. But this is not what we see in this video. Instead of dialogue, engagement, and exchange, we find a young lady screaming in an attempt to stop the preaching altogether. Her screams are to silence and not engage. Her yelling does not foster understanding but animosity. Her obnoxious behavior mirrors the kind of obnoxious behavior which many condemn street preacher for displaying. She becomes a caricature of what she opposes.

Some are justifying her behavior by saying that during the Halloween weekend, many street preachers come to Salem, Massachusetts and tell the inhabitant they need to “turn or burn.” This young lady’s behavior perhaps expresses the frustration the local feel about this annual self-righteous pilgrimage. While I understand how the scenario they describe can be frustrating if one is not Christian, it still does not justify her appalling behavior. I also think the young lady’s behavior is a great example of the deficiency of dialogue and communication in our country. People today rarely engage is reasoned dialogue. Instead there are, at best, participants giving monologues, talking past one another, or, at worse, an exchange of expletives and insults. Sadly, this video is closer to the latter form of exchanges performed today.

In typical jeremiads, this is where the writer nostalgically opines for a time when there was more civility and they romantically imagine it was in the past. Being a historian, however, I have no such delusions. In many ways, today’s political dialogue, for all its faults, is still better than times in the past. For instance, in the debate about America’s participation in the 1812 War, a publisher of a Baltimore newspaper, The Federal Republican, found a crowd forming around his building upset about an editorial denouncing the war against Britain. The mob turned into a riot when shots were fired. The angry crowd pulled out ten people, beating most senseless, killing one, and setting fire to another. They also destroyed the printing presses and buildings. The publishers quickly rebuilt only to find a second riot later again destroying the printing presses. After this second episode, the publishers fled Baltimore, justifiably fearing for their lives. (Pasley, Tyranny of Printers, 246-248). Perhaps we are fortunate that he video shows a girl yelling instead of brandishing a weapon.

Nevertheless, the poor behavior displayed in both cases only underscores the wrong way to approach disagreement. Free speech is only possible when we tolerate the speech we disagree with the most. It is easy to support the speech by those of whom we agree or like. But free speech only means something when we support the rights of those who say thing of which we disagree. The young lady shouting “shut up” at the preacher is not an advocate of free speech. She is closer to the tyrants and dictators in the world dedicated to silencing the speech they dislike. This is not to say we should silence the young lady. Her yelling for the preacher to shut up is speech also. But we should recognize the consequences should she had gotten her way.

The Century Old Rhetoric of Bill Maher, Reza Aslan, and Cornel West

[This blog post was originally posted on the Religion in American History blog on October 30, 2014.]

Recently the social media sites have been abuzz with the debate about Islam, especially focusing on Bill Maher’s interlocutors taking center stage. It would be excessively repetitive to point out how both sides of the debate are simplistic and prone to generalizations. Instead, I would refer you to Steven Ramey’s post on the Culture on the Edge blog. For this blog post, I want to focus on a speech that took place over a century ago, one presented at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. I want to focus on this speech because, by looking it, we can see how the conversation about the nature of Islam took place over a century ago mirrors the conversation about Islam today.

Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb was the only representative for Islam who spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. Though Webb was raised a Christian, he lived his life as a seeker as pointed out in the biography A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb by Umar F. Abd-Allah (Oxford 2006). One significant influence on Webb was Theosophy, and it was through this influence he went searching for a new religion. He was appointed Consular Representative to the Philippines at the U.S. office at Manila and while in the Philippines in 1888 converted to Sunni Islam. From that time forward, he became an outspoken proponent for the tradition, establishing the American Muslim Propagation Movement in New York and an English based newspaper called Moslem World. It was in this context that he spoke at the World Parliament in Chicago.

Webb opens his speech pointing out the bias against Islam present in the West, especially America. He states, “There are several reasons why Islam and the character of its followers are so little understood in Europe and America, and one of these is that when a man adopts, or says he adopts, Islam, he becomes known as a Mussulman [i.e. Muslim] and his nationality becomes merged in his religion.” Webb continues, “If a Mohammedan, Turk, Egyptian, Syrian or African commits a crime the newspaper reports do not tell us that it was committed by a Turk, an Egyptian, a Syrian or an African, but by a Mohammedan. If an Irishman, an Italian, a Spaniard or a German commits a crime in the United States, we do not say that it was committed by a Catholic, a Methodist or a Baptist, nor even a Christian; we designate the man by his nationality. … But, just as soon as a membership of the East is arrested for a crime or misdemeanor, he is registered as a representative of the religion his parents followed or he adopted.”

In a recent debate between Reza Aslan and CNN reporters, referring back to what Aslan said to Bill Maher, Aslan argued that the monolithic representation of Islam loses its national and regional character. When Maher and reporters characterized Islam in different ways, Aslan responded “which Islam?” For instance, when asked about the treatment of women in Muslim countries, one reporter asked, “[in Muslim countries] for the most part, it is not a free and open society for women in those states.” Aslan replied, “It certainly is in Indonesia and Malaysia. It certainly is in Bangladesh. It certainly is in Turkey. I mean, again, this is the problem is that you’re talking about a religion of 1.5 billion people and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush by saying, well, in Saudi Arabia, they can’t drive and so therefore that is somehow representative of Islam.”

Specifically about violence Webb asks, “If one or a dozen of these [Muslims] should commit an act of brutal intolerance or fanaticism, would it be just to say that it was due to the meritable tendencies of their religion?” His answer is very similar to Aslan’s reply when asked “if Islam promote[s] violence?” Aslan replies, “Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent.”

For his part, Webb gives an early version of the repeated claim that the majority of Muslims are peaceful. Denying the statement that a Muslim goes “directly to Paradise” if he dies killing a Christian, he says, instead, this is a lie to “injure as peaceful and non-aggressive a class of people as the world has ever seen.”

This same rhetoric is not just reiterated by Aslan. The recent conversation between Bill Maher, Cornel West, and John Avalon, author of the book, Wingnuts, maintain the same tropes. After Maher continues the same wide sweeping generalizations about Islam, both his own and quoting those of others, West continues the rhetoric of internal difference, giving it his own spin. “The claim that quotes makes, the juxtaposition between liberals versus Islam, as if Islam is homogenous, there are prophetic Islamic figures who argue for liberties, for tolerance, for equality, beginning with Malcom X. Beginning with Mahmoud Mohammed Taha. There is a whole tradition within Islam that argues for rights, tolerance, and all this.”

John Avalon agrees and adds the rhetoric about peaceful Muslims, “You got to be able to confront the very real obvious threat we have been confronting as western liberal democracies for a long time while making the assumption, the clear separation between the vast majority of Muslims who are peaceful, I would argue, and a virulent strain of radical Islamism and Islamists who have been hell-bent on murdering as many people as possible for the past decade and a half.”

West rejoins, “But based on Brother Bill’s argument, the history of Christianity killing Jews, or the history of American Christians lynching black people would be the only statement for Christianity. That’s simply not true.” West’s rejoinder repeats the point that Islam being tread differently than other religions.

Recurrently we have the same rhetoric in this debate: Muslims are painted with a broad brush, the sweeping generalizations applied to Islam are not applied to other religions, we need to see that there are significant differences between different Muslims, Muslim communities, and Muslim nations, and that the majority of Muslims in the world are peaceful. This was the rhetoric for Webb at the 1893 World Parliament of Religion, and it stays the same today.

There are differences of course. The issues of polygamy in Islam, how Mohammed and his successors spread the religion by the sword, or that slavery is part of Islam, are less of an issue, but they still are discussed. Webb addressed these representations. Yet there are new ones that have emerged since Webb, often dealing with female oppression, such as female genital mutilation, to which Aslan replies, “It’s a Central African problem” and not a Muslim one. Or the lack of rights women have, to which Aslan claims is only some Muslim countries, but not all. Sometimes the old issues reemerge in the new discourses about women, such as this recent essay about polygamy and women’s rights in Pakistan.

While the differences are important, I find the similarities both significant and troubling. It means there really is little changing in the public debates, and the same tired points are rehashed time and again. As scholars of religion, who try to have nuance, in historical and critical conversations about these subjects, the lack of advancement regarding the public discourse about Islam is signals a larger problem. There is plenty of scholarship addressing all the points well, and push back against the generalizations on both sides. But what effect has this scholarship had on the overall discourse? Unfortunately, it seems little. This is even true for scholars like Aslan and West. Both these scholars deploy the same century-old rhetoric.

After converting to Islam, Webb addressed his fellow Theosophists, telling them of the greatness of Islam and how it had much in common with the Eastern religions they valorized. Webb went so far as to claim, “If I could take the reader by the hand and lead him along the path I have traveled … I feel assured that I could convince him that, to be a Theosophist, one must be a follower of Islam.” Theosophists rejected his claim. One replied, “But it is natural that the religion of Mohammed has not received from Western people a very great consideration. They judge it in the mass, and not from some of its teachings. The West developed its social system and its religious belief on its own lines, and having seen that many followers of the Prophet are polygamists, which is contrary to Western notions, the entire Islamic system has been condemned on that ground, both in a social and religious sense.” Today Islam is still judged as “contrary to Western notions” and “condemned on that ground, both in a social and religious sense” regardless of what scholars say. As a result, the rhetoric about Islam, over a century after Webb’s speech, is still the same.

Is America Losing its Religious Vitality?

Bellarmine Forum 08 Buzz[This blog post originally appeared on the Religion in American History blog on 9/30/2014.]

Over the last week, I have been seeing a confluence of concerns regarding religious vitality in America, specifically pointing to the diminishing numbers of “cults” appearing in the news media. In the New York Times Op-Ed section, Ross Douthat lamented the loss, and pointed to others, stating “The decline of cults … might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.” Douthat links to a talk Philip Jenkins gave this summer at Baylor where Jenkins stated, “the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades.” In each case sounds a jeremiad regarding American religious vitality, and we are told the center of American religiosity is at stake. But is it?

I have to admit that I find these claims unconvincing. Instead I think there is something else going on beyond a mild shift towards a secularizing public. The first is the continued diminishment of Christianity’s, particularly Protestantism’s, claim to be the religious center of America and the continued expansion of a diverse religious marketplace. Second, we need to take into account the legal changes, and its mandates for tolerance and accommodation. Lastly, we need to recognize the different religious patterns in the youth of America, and their reluctance to join groups of any kind, established or marginal. Combined, these three factors have made objecting to newer religious groups socially unacceptable, and have pushed Gen Y and Millennials to eschew joining any group, but instead, to create their own religiosity, remaining spiritual but not religious.

There can be no doubt that America is greatly diversifying its religious environment. As a recent internet meme made apparent, while Christianity may be the most common religion in every US state, the second most common religion is surprising to many. America’s promise of real religious freedom has spawned a nation of significant religious diversity. Add to this many Christians who promote tolerance, accommodation, and diversity and you have a formula for fewer complaints about fringe religion. In a tolerant religious marketplace, new religious movements are not seen as threats, but just one more option, an option that is barely worth noticing or making a big deal over. It certainly is not cause to go to the media, abduct people to “save” them, or claim people are being brainwashed.

Legal changes since the 1990s have also opened up opportunities for minority religions to assert their rights, and use the law to punish those who would challenge them. Perhaps readers are familiar with this video of David Suhor, an American pagan, opening the prayer at a Florida County Commissioners meeting earlier this year. Despite the fact that Commissioner Wilson Robertson walked out because he does not want a pagan or Satanist praying for him, the remainder of the Commissioners stood quietly while Suhor read the invocation of the watchtowers, a common part of pagan invocation ceremonies. This kind of activity would be summarily denied in the past. However Supreme Court decisions now force governments to be accommodating and inclusive. We also see the way the law is used to enforce this mandate because Suhor is threatening to sue the Escambia County School Board for not allowing him to pray at their meetings. The legal landscape has dramatically changed since the heyday of cult scares, and the law is much more supportive of new religious movements and is punitive against those who would defame or deny them a role in American communities. As a result, Americans are much more tolerant, accommodating, and fearful of a lawsuit. This, of course does not mean Christians are not complaining about some “fringe” religious movements, like the current controversy regarding the satanic statue in Oklahoma and Satanic children’s activity book in Florida. But even these have a significant legal component to them regarding inclusion and accommodation.

Lastly, I am sure I don’t have to remind the readers of this blog the attitudes the last two generations have had regarding membership of religious institutions. They generally don’t join groups, and when they do, the levels of commitment is much lower than previous generations. This is why since the 1990s we have seen the significant increase of the spiritual but not religious segment of American religious marketplace. Just as the pews remain empty in churches, millennials and Gen-Y’ers are not joining new religious movements. Like established religious traditions, religious institutions simply cannot attract the youth of America to attend, join and donate. This is particularly problematic for New Religious Movements because the youth is from where these movements attract the most members. Since they lack the human capital to make these movements function, there are fewer in number and often don’t last as long.

These three factors, I think, are more responsible for the lack of media attention for new religious movements, “i.e. “cults.” The changing religious marketplace, legal requirements for inclusion, including the threat of legal action, and the fact that the youth of America are resistant to joining any religious institution, established or fringe, equates to a very different, less Christian, but not necessarily less vital religious marketplace.