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Blaming the Blasphemer

photograph of Salman Rushdie

As I write, Salman Rushdie is in hospital on a ventilator, having been stabbed in the neck and torso while on stage in New York. His injuries are severe. It is, at this moment, unknown if he will survive.

Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, a work of fiction, is considered blasphemous by many Muslims, including the late Ayatollah Khomeini. For those who don’t know, the Ayatollah issued a public fatwa (religious judgment) against Rushdie, calling for all Muslims to kill him and receive a reward of $3,000,000 and immediate passage to paradise. The cash reward was recently raised by $600,000, though the Iranians seem to have struggled to improve on the offer of eternal paradise.

In 1990, Rushdie attempted to escape his life in hiding. He claimed to have renewed his Muslim faith of birth, stating that he did not agree with any character in the novel and that he does not agree with those who question “the authenticity of the holy Qur’an or who reject the divinity of Allah.” Rushdie later described the move as the biggest mistake of his life. In any case, it made no difference. The fatwa stood. “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time,” Khomeini stated, “it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell.”

There are now reports of celebration in Tehran. “I don’t know Salman Rushdie,” Reza Amiri, a 27-year-old deliveryman told a member of the Associated Press, “but I am happy to hear that he was attacked since he insulted Islam. This is the fate for anybody who insults sanctities.” The conservative Iranian newspaper Khorasan’s headline reads “Satan on the path to hell,” accompanied by a picture of Rushdie on a stretcher.

Rushdie is not the only victim of the religious backlash to his novel. Bookstores that stocked it were firebombed. There were deadly riots across the globe. And others involved with the publication and translation of the book were also targeted for assassination including Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator (stabbed to death), Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator (stabbed multiple times), the Norwegian publisher William Nygaard (shot three times in the back outside his Oslo home), and Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator (the intended target of a mob of arsonists who set fire to a hotel, brutally murdering 37 people).

These attacks, including the latest on Rushdie, and the issuing of the fatwa are all very obviously morally reprehensible. But there is perhaps a bit more room for discussion when it comes to the choice of Rushdie to publish his novel.

Is it morally permissible to write and publish something that you know, or suspect, will be taken to be blasphemous, that you think will result in the deaths of innocents?

At the time of the original controversy, this question divided Western intellectuals.

Western critics of Rushdie included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prince Charles, John le Carre, Roald Dahl, Germaine Greer, John Berger, and Jimmy Carter. “Nobody has a God-given right to insult a great religion and be published with impunity,” wrote le Carre, calling on Rushdie to withdraw the book from publication.

In The New York Times, Jimmy Carter wrote: “Rushdie’s book is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Rushdie, Carter contended, was guilty of “vilifying” Muhammad and “defaming” the Qur’an. “The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs,” complained Carter, “ must have anticipated a horrified reaction through the Islamic world.” John Berger, author, Marxist, and literary critic, provided a similar condemnation of Rushdie and his publishers in The Guardian, noting that his novel “has already cost several human lives and threatens to cost many, many more.” Roald Dahl, the well-loved children’s book writer, concurred: “he must have been totally aware of the deep and violent feelings his book would stir up among devout Muslims. In other words, he knew exactly what he was doing and he cannot plead otherwise.”

These intellectuals’ central contention was that Rushdie had acted immorally by publishing the book and thereby causing unnecessary loss of life.

(Both Carter and Berger also offered clear condemnations of both the violence and the fatwa.)

A peculiar thing about this critique is that Rushdie never attacked anyone. Other people did. And these murders and attempted murderers were not encouraged by Rushdie, nor were they acting in concordance with Rushdie’s beliefs or wishes. The criticism of Rushdie is merely that his actions were part of a causal chain that (predictably) produced violence, ultimately on himself.

But such arguments look a lot like victim-blaming. It would be wrong to blame a victim of sexual assault for having worn “provocative” clothing late at night. “Ah!” our intellectual might protest, “But she knew so much about what sexual assaulters are like; it was foreseeable that by dressing this way she might cause a sexual assault to occur, so she bears some responsibility, or at least ought not to dress that way.” I hope it is obvious how feeble an argument this is. The victim, in this case, is blameless; the attacker bears full moral responsibility.

Similarly, it would be wrong to blame Rushdie for having written a “provocative” work of fiction, even if doing so would (likely) spark religious violence. The moral responsibility for any ensuing violence would lie squarely at the feet of those who encourage and enact it.

It is not the moral responsibility of an author to self-censor to prevent mob violence, just as it is not the moral responsibility of a woman to dress conservatively to prevent sexual assault on herself or others.

“I do not expect many to listen to arguments like mine,” wrote Rushdie-critic John Berger, a bit self-pityingly (as Christopher Hitchens noted) for one of the country’s best-known public intellectuals writing in one of the largest newspapers in Britain, “The colonial prejudices are still too ingrained.” Berger’s suggestion is that Rushdie and his defenders are unjustifiably privileging values many of us find sacred in the West — such as free expression — over those found sacred in the Muslim world.

But there is another colonial prejudice that is also worth considering; the insulting presumption that Muslims and other “outsiders” have less moral agency than ourselves. According to this prejudice, Muslims are incapable of receiving criticism or insult to their religion without responding violently.

This prejudice is, of course, absurd. Many Muslims abhor the violent response to The Satanic Verses and wish to overturn the blasphemy laws which are so common in Muslim-majority countries. It is an insult to the authors who jointly wrote and published For Rushdie: Essays by Arab and Muslim Writers in Defense of Free Speech. It denies the 127 signatures of imprisoned Iranian writers, artists, and intellectuals who declared:

We underline the intolerable character of the decree of death that the Fatwah is, and we insist on the fact that aesthetic criteria are the only proper ones for judging works of art. To the extent that the systematic denial of the rights of man in Iran is tolerated, this can only further encourage the export outside the Islamic Republic of its terroristic methods which destroy freedom.

Rushdie’s critics, keen as they were to protect a marginalized group, condemned Rushdie for causing the violence committed by individual Muslims. But in doing so, these intellectuals treated the Muslim perpetrators of that violence as lacking full moral agency. You can’t cause autonomous people to do something – it is up to them! Implicitly, Rushdie’s Western critics saw Muslims as mere cogs in a machine run by Westerners, or “Englishmen with dark skin” such as Rushdie, as feminist Germaine Greer mockingly referred to him. Rushdie’s critics saw Muslims as less than fully capable moral actors.

True respect, the respect of moral equals, does not ask that we protect each other from hurt feelings. Rather, it requires that we believe that each of us has the capacity to respond to hurt feelings in a morally acceptable manner – with conversation rather than violence. In their haste to protect a marginalized group, Rushdie’s critics forgot what true respect consists of. And in doing so, they blamed the victim for the abhorrent actions of a small number of fully capable and fully responsible moral agents. This time around, let’s not repeat that moral mistake.

The Dangerous Allure of Conspiracy Theories

photograph of QAnon sign at rally

Once again, the world is on fire. Every day seems to bring a new catastrophe, another phase of a slowly unfolding apocalypse. We naturally intuit that spontaneous combustion is impossible, so a sinister individual (or a sinister group of individuals) must be responsible for the presence of evil in the world. Some speculate that the most recent bout of wildfires in California were ignited by a giant laser (though no one can agree on who fired the lasers in the first place), while others across the globe set 5G towers ablaze out of fear that this frightening new technology was created by a malevolent organization to hasten the spread of coronavirus. Events as disparate as the recent explosion in Beirut to the rise in income inequality have been subsumed into a vast web of conspiracy and intrigue. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as crusaders against the arsonists at the very pinnacle of society, and are taking to internet forums to demand retribution for perceived wrongs.

The conspiracy theorists’ framework for making sense of the world is a dangerously attractive one. Despite mainstream disdain for nutjobs in tinfoil hats, conspiracy theories (and those who unravel them) have been glamorized in pop culture through films like The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code, both of which involve a single individual unraveling the lies perpetuated by a malevolent but often invisible cadre of villains. Real-life conspiracy theorists also model themselves after the archetypal detective of popular crime fiction. This character possesses authority to sort truth from untruth, often in the face of hostility or danger, and acts as an agent for the common good.

But in many ways, the conspiracy theorist is the inverse of the detective; the latter operates within the system of legality, often working directly for the powers-that-be, which requires an implicit trust in authority. They usually hunt down someone who has broken the law, and who is therefore on the fringes of the system. Furthermore, the detective gathers empirical evidence which forms the justification for their pursuit. The conspiracy theorist, on the other hand, is on the outside looking in, and displays a consistent mistrust of both the state and the press as sources of truth. Though conspiracy theorists ostensibly obsess over paper trails and blurry photographs, their evidence (which is almost always misconstrued or fabricated) doesn’t matter nearly as much as the conclusion. As Michael Barkun explains in A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,

the more sweeping a conspiracy theory’s claims, the less relevant evidence becomes …. This paradox occurs because conspiracy theories are at their heart nonfalsifiable. No matter how much evidence their adherents accumulate, belief in a conspiracy theory ultimately becomes a matter of faith rather than proof.

In that sense, most conspiracy theorists are less concerned with uncovering the truth than confirming what they already believe. This is supported by a 2016 study, which identifies partisanship as an crucial factor in measuring how likely someone is to buy into conspiracy theories. The researchers determined that “political socialization and psychological traits are likely the most important influences” on whether or not someone will find themselves watching documentaries on ancient aliens or writing lengthy Facebook posts about lizard people masquerading as world leaders. For example, “Republicans are the most likely to believe in the media conspiracy followed by Independents and Democrats. This is because Republicans have for decades been told by their elites that the media are biased and potentially corrupt.” The study concludes that people from both ends of the political spectrum can be predisposed to see a conspiracy where there isn’t one, but partisanship is ultimately the more important predictor whether a person will believe a specific theory than any other factor. In other words, Democrats rarely buy into conspiracy theories about their own party, and vice versa with Republicans. The enemy is never one of us.

It’s no wonder the tinfoil-hat mindset is so addictive. It’s like being in a hall of mirrors, where all you can see is your own flattering image repeated endlessly. Michael J. Wood suggests in another 2016 study that “people who are aware of past malfeasance by powerful actors in society might extrapolate from known abuses of power to more speculative ones,” or that “people with more conspiracist world views might be more likely to seek out information on criminal acts carried out by officials in the past, while those with less conspiracist world views might ignore or reject such information.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, fed by a sense of predetermined mistrust that is only confirmed by every photoshopped UFO. Conspiracy theories can be easily adapted to suit our own personal needs, which further fuels the narcissism. As one recent study on a conspiracy theory involving Bill Gates, coronavirus, and satanic cults points out,

there’s never just one version of a conspiracy theory — and that’s part of their power and reach. Often, there are as many variants on a given conspiracy theory as there are theorists, if not more. Each individual can shape and reshape whatever version of the theory they choose to believe, incorporating some narrative elements and rejecting others.

This mutable quality makes conspiracy theories personal, as easily integratable into our sense of self as any hobby or lifestyle choice. Even worse, the very nature of social media amplifies the potency of conspiracy theories. The study explains that

where conspiracists are the most engaged users on a given niche topic or search term, they both generate content and effectively train recommendation algorithms to recommend the conspiracy theory to other users. This means that, when there’s a rush of interest, as precipitated in this case by the Covid-19 crisis, large numbers of users may be driven towards pre-existing conspiratorial content and narratives.

The more people fear something, the more likely an algorithm will be to offer them palliative conspiracy theories, and the echo chamber grows even more.

Both of the studies previously mentioned suggest that there is a predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories that transcends political alliance, but where does that predisposition come from? It seems most likely that conspiracy beliefs are driven by anxiety, paranoia, feelings of powerlessness, and a desire for authority. A desire for authority is especially evident at gatherings of flat-earthers, a group that consistently mimics the tone and language academic conferences. Conspiracies rely on what Barkun called “stigmatized knowledge,” or “claims to truth that the claimants regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error — universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like.” People feel cut off from the traditional locus of knowledge, so they create their own alternative epistemology, which restores their sense of authority and control.

Conspiracy theories are also rooted in a basic desire for narrative structure. Faced with a bewildering deluge of competing and fragmentary narratives, conspiracy theories cobble together half-truths and outright lies into a story that is more coherent and exciting than reality. The conspiracy theories that attempt to explain coronavirus provide a good example of this process. The first stirrings of the virus began in the winter of 2019, then rapidly accelerated without warning and altered the global landscape seemingly overnight. Our healthcare system and government failed to respond with any measure of success, and hundreds of thousands of Americans died over the span of a few months. The reality of the situation flies in the face of narrative structure — the familiar rhythm of rising action-climax-falling action, the cast of identifiable good guys and bad guys, the ultimate moral victory that redeems needless suffering by giving it purpose. In the dearth of narrative structure, theorists suggest that Bill Gates planned the virus decades ago, citing his charity work as an elaborate cover-up for nefarious misdeeds. The system itself isn’t broken or unequipped to handle the pandemic because of austerity. Rather, it was the result of a single bad actor.

Terrible events are no longer random, but imbued with moral and narrative significance. Michael Barkun argues that this is a comfort, but also a factor that further drives conspiracy theories:

the conspiracy theorist’s view is both frightening and reassuring. It is frightening because it magnifies the power of evil, leading in some cases to an outright dualism in which light and darkness struggle for cosmic supremacy. At the same time, however, it is reassuring, for it promises a world that is meaningful rather than arbitrary. Not only are events nonrandom, but the clear identification of evil gives the conspiracist a definable enemy against which to struggle, endowing life with purpose.

A group of outsiders (wealthy Jewish people, the “liberal elite,” the immigrant) are Othered within the discourse of theorists, rendered as villains capable of superhuman feats. The QAnon theory in particular feels more like the Marvel cinematic universe than a coherent ideology, with its bloated cast of heroes teaming up for an Avengers-style takedown of the bad guys. Some of our best impulses — our love of storytelling, a desire to see through the lies of the powerful — are twisted and made ugly in the world of online conspiracy forums.

The prominence of conspiracy theories in political discourse must be addressed. Over 70 self-professed Q supporters have run for Congress as Republicans in the past year, and as Kaitlyn Tiffany points out in an article for The Atlantic, the QAnon movement is becoming gradually more mainstream, borrowing aesthetics from the lifestyle movement and makeup tutorials make itself more palatable. “Its supporters are so enthusiastic, and so active online, that their participation levels resemble stan Twitter more than they do any typical political movement. QAnon has its own merch, its own microcelebrities, and a spirit of digital evangelism that requires constant posting.” Perhaps the most frightening part of this problem is the impossibility of fully addressing it, because conspiracy theorists are notoriously difficult to hold a good-faith dialogue with. Sartre’s description of anti-Semites written in the 1940s (not coincidentally, the majority of contemporary conspiracy theories are deeply anti-Semitic) is relevant here. He wrote that anti-Semites (and today, conspiracy theorists)

know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because by putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good arguing but of intimidating or disorienting.

This quote raises the frightening possibility that not all conspiracy theorists truly believe what they say, that their disinterest in evidence is less an intellectual blindspot than a source of amusement. Sartre helps us see why conspiracy theories often operate on a completely different wavelength, one that seems to preclude logic, rationality, and even the good-faith exchange of ideas between equals.

The fragmentation of postmodern culture has created an epistemic conundrum: on what basis do we understand reality? As the operations of governments become increasingly inscrutable to those without education, as the concept of truth itself seems under attack, how do we make sense of the forces that determine the contours of our lives? Furthermore, as Wood points out, mistrust in the government isn’t always baseless, so how do we determine which threats are real and which are imagined?

There aren’t simple answers to these questions. The only thing we can do is address the needs that inspire people to seek out conspiracy theories in the first place. People have always had an impulse to attack their anxieties in the form of a constructed Other, to close themselves off, to distrust difference, to force the world to conform to a single master narrative, so it’s tempting to say that there will probably never be a way to completely eradicate insidious conspiracy theories entirely. Maybe the solution is to encourage the pursuit of self-knowledge, our own biases and desires, before we pursue an understanding of forces beyond our control.

What is the Cultural Cost of Urban Development?

Photograph of the historic city center of Perpignan, France

In the Saint Jacques district of Perpignan, France, a group of Catalan Gypsies (“les gitans”) made a stand last August for the preservation of their deteriorating historic neighborhood.  The city wanted to demolish and replace hundreds of buildings for the sake of the health and safety of these residents, but the residents argued that their cultural connection to the architecture was worth more than the benefit of modern buildings. The city backed down, but there is no reason to believe that the issue is settled. As buildings in cities all over the world begin to show their age, and as municipal governments realize that these picturesque neighborhoods are among their most treasured assets, the challenge of balancing heritage and progress is becoming increasingly relevant. What should cities be doing to preserve their cultural monuments while people are living inside? Continue reading “What is the Cultural Cost of Urban Development?”