There is actually a third way to oppose the jailing of Gillian Gibbons for insulting Islam.
Taj Hargey, Chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, writing on the letters page of the Guardian defends the free speech of Holocaust deniers:
The Qur'an makes it incontrovertible that all people have the right to choose their own path and perspectives in life (2:256; 10:99; 18:29; 109:6;etc). It is therefore a fallacy that Islam denies the vital principle of freedom of speech.So, to recap, we can argue that:
1.Gibbons did nothing insult Islam but if she did she deserves prison time,
2.Blasphemy laws are ridiculous and illogical and should not be supported in any circumstances, or
3.Islam’s holy book supports free speech which therefore means blasphemy should not be outlawed.
The first is obviously unpalatable but the third certainly holds some attraction. It brings to mind the blogosphere debate earlier this year over female genital mutilation (FGM).
There, a part of the discussion appeared to be over whether the most useful tactic was to fight FGM in its “cultural milieu” by emphasising that Islam doesn’t support the practice, or oppose it on the grounds of universal secular human rights.
Kim and Mark at Larvatus Prodeo took the former view. Ayaan Hirsi Ali takes that later as does Julie Szego. (Tim Blair, while being on the right side of an argument for once, used the opportunity to payout on “feminists”.)
In both cases, blasphemy and FGM, it would appear that arguing from a system of belief – in this case Islam – already accepted by those you are trying to convince would be beneficial. The Muslims of Sudan and Egypt can keep their faith while blasphemy laws and female genital mutilation can be consigned to the dustbin of history.
With this approach Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s atheism becomes a liability. Nick Cohen describes Garton Ash’s argument that:
there was no point in liberals treating her [Ali] as a heroine because her abandonment of Islam and embrace of atheism meant her arguments carried no weight with Muslims.This also seemed to be Kim’s argument.
By couching anti-FGM and pro free speech arguments in the language of Islam traction may be gained on these issues. But should we really be relying on religious arguments to oppose FGM and blasphemy? And what if the Koran does advocate an abhorrent practice? Are we then forced to accept it because we have agreed to discuss morality on the terrain of Islam rather than liberal secularism?
After all, as Ophelia Benson notes, it:
still leaves you with the problem of having to argue over what's in a 1400-year-old book - it still leaves you with the problem of worrying about what “scripture” says instead of about what is best for human beings in the light of current knowledge and accumulated understanding and moral insight.Cohen describes Ali’s two responses to this ceding of ground to religion:
If liberal secularists didn't have pride and confidence in their principles, why should they expect anyone else to take them seriously? And if… they turned away from democrats and insisted on treating European Muslims as children who can only be spoken to in the baby language of gobbledegook [religion], what right did they have to be surprised if European Muslims reacted with childish petulance rather than the broad-mindedness of full adult citizens?Is there a risk that using religious arguments to combat FGM and blasphemy laws may actually be detrimental to the struggle for universal secular human rights?