Muhammad Cartoons, Pork Sausages, and Muslim Outrage


Here are three statements to consider:

  1. I don't like pork sausages.
  2. Eating pork sausages is wrong.
  3. Anyone who eats pork sausages should be punished.

Statement #1 is a preference that tells us something about the person making the statement, and nothing more. It cannot be meaningfully debated. It makes little sense to talk about it being true or false, right or wrong. Statement #2 is a value judgment. It contains a moral claim which can be meaningfully debated. Statement #3 represents the use of state power to enforce a value judgment. We can debate it, but we often do so at our own risk. This is something we have come to expect in theocratic societies, but we see it in democratic societies like the U.S. too where religious beliefs are often legislated (e.g., blue laws).

Statement #1 causes no problems for anyone, as long as we understand it for what it is. Statement #2 is not inherently problematic. It is easy to imagine someone adding "for me" or "for Muslims" at the end. This would make Statement #2 little more than an individual moral decision or a harmless religious tradition. If Muslims decide not to eat pork, so be it. In fact, more power to them. Statements like this can be problematic when they are elevated to the sort of absolutes often associated with "sacred" or "holy" beliefs and subsequently imposed on unwilling others. For example, it is not reasonable for Muslims to demand that non-Muslims eat pork sausages because their religion says it is wrong. Statements like this can also become problematic if they are used as a basis for treating people who do not conform to it poorly (e.g., you are an evil person because I saw you eat a pork sausage).

While statements like Statement #2 certainly can be problematic, we generally reserve our primary concern for statements like Statement #3. Here we find one group restricting the rights of others on the basis of their moral (and often religious) judgments. We have gone from "I don't want to eat pork sausages" to "eating pork sausages is wrong" to "nobody should be allowed to eat pork sausages," and we've ended up opting to punish those who transgress. This is a problem.

I have no problem at all with any Muslim who decides that he or she does not want to depict Muhammad or view depictions of Muhammad. That is their choice and really no concern of mine. I disagree with any Muslim who claims that depicting Muhammad is morally wrong. At the same time, I recognize that holding such a belief is his or her prerogative right up until the point where he or she attempts to impose it on unwilling others. When this value is legislated and violators are punished, I find this unnecessarily repressive and detrimental to progress. It opens the door to the sort of human rights violations we associate with oppressive regimes. And of course, when Muslims engage in violent reprisal against those who depict Muhammad, I consider this an example of the sort of terrorism that cannot be tolerated in civil societies.

Every Muslim is entitled to feel a sense of moral outrage at the sight of someone eating a pork sausage or depicting Muhammad. I'm not saying that all Muslims are outraged by these things; I'm saying any particular Muslim who does consider them to be serious moral violations has the right to feel outrage when confronted with them. And yet, feelings of outrage do not justify violence and should not be permitted to justify the repression of basic human rights.