May 11, 2016

Maajid Nawaz Suggests We Call Out Those Who Advocate Islamic Theocracy

confused dog
Laura-C-F, CC By-SA 3.0

While referring those who advocate Islamic theocracy during a recent discussion with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz recommended that we "call them out" in order to make their ideas "a taboo."


After watching a recent discussion on Islam between Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (see the video below), I found myself pondering a question that should be relevant to atheists and freethinkers who value the free expression of ideas. Someone asked a question from the audience about how the discussants would balance the right to free expression (i.e., our right to criticize Islam) with concerns over "hate speech" (i.e., some of the critics of Islam may be motivated by racism and/or xenophobia). I think this is an important question and one with which many of us have struggled. But what prompted me to post about it is that something in Nawaz's response caught me off guard.

Not surprisingly, both he and Hirsi Ali came down on the side of free expression. I believe Hirsi Ali even described herself as a "free speech fundamentalist" or something along those lines. Starting right about 36:58, Nawaz said that he opposes no-platforming and "safe spaces" and that he believes that the answer to hate speech is more speech. I couldn't agree more. When it comes to dealing with bad ideas, I think it is a mistake to attempt to stifle their expression.

But then he said something that seemed to go in the other direction. He said that the way to handle non-violent extremists is to "call them out" like we did with racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Our goal, he said, should be "to make it a taboo." Now, he was referring to "Muslim theocrats" when he said this. That is, he was saying that he wants to make advocating Islamic theocracy as taboo as racism and the like; however, it sounded to me like the general principle he's advocating is that make whatever we consider hate speech socially unacceptable through call outs and condemnation. Would public shaming fit here too? Aren't these tactics designed to reduce speech we don't like rather than encourage more of it?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding or reading too much into this, but it seems like Nawaz was suggesting that the antidote to hate speech is more speech and then recommending that we bring social pressures to bear in order to make what we consider hate speech socially unacceptable. I'm not entirely sure how to reconcile what strike me as contradictory approaches. It seems that trying to make something a taboo is about trying to prevent the expression of ideas we do not like.

Suppose that a group of fundamentalist Christians decided to adopt a strategy of making it taboo to criticize Jesus. Wouldn't this necessarily mean that they were hoping to eliminate or at least reduce speech critical of Jesus? And if so, wouldn't many atheists and freethinkers bristle at the idea? I guess I'm not sure how trying to make something a taboo can be reconciled with support for the free expression of ideas unless one defines free speech so narrowly that it only involves the application of state power.

When it comes to how we made the progress we have made with regard to racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, it seems to me that we accomplished far more with education than we did with our call out culture. If these things are now taboo, I think they are taboo more because we helped people to understand why they are bad ideas rather than penalizing their expression.


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