Expressions of Belief

Casting about the Guardian website is always an interesting pastime. Today, on the “Comment is Free” parts, I came across a post by Jakob Illeborg titled “Danes battle the veil.” This is quite an interesting article about a Danish politician who wants to wear a hijab when she goes about her daily business. It all seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it?

The comment has a byline which reads “Religion’s role in society is preoccupying the people of Denmark as never before, but they should not restrict the expression of belief.” For me, from this point on things get a bit confused. The piece is further tainted (in my eyes of course, this is a blog not an impartial news piece!) by the opening paragraph:

The role of religion in modern society is preoccupying the Danes as never before. Ever since the prophet cartoon crisis, a heated debate has begun between atheists and moderate Christians on one side, who fear that Islam and democracy are an unholy alliance, and pragmatists on the other, arguing for a greater understanding of the many faces of Islam, who do not see Islam and the Qur’an as being incompatible with democracy.

Blimey. First things first, I want to examine the basic premise of the article. It seems churlish and rude to argue against the idea that people should be allowed free expression of their belief in a western, democratic society, but the reality is there is no “right” to express your belief. Personally I cant see how “they should not restrict the expression of belief” can be anything other than implying this “right” actually exists.

Now, we have two options when faced with a statement like the one Mr Illeborg has made. First off, we can either allow special pleading and say it really means expressions of belief for mainstream sects of the big four religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hindus). The fallacy of special pleading is commonly used by religious advocates and basically means they can use any argument they want against others (religions or ideas), but the same argument can not be used back against them. In this instance it is saying that those who wish to make expressions of belief which the author finds acceptable should be allowed to do so. In this light, it is not as reasonable as it first seemed.

It is possible that Mr Illeborg did not want to plead special case for this person (on the grounds she was a Muslim), in which case there is the idea that all expressions of belief must be tolerated and accepted by society. He we walk into the land of the reductio ad absurdum. For this example, please assume, that as a believer in the Divinity of My Cat, the way I express this belief is to walk around naked with a fake tail glued to my backside and I have to to throw mouse entrails at passers-by. Is this acceptable? Should I have the right to express my belief in any way I see fit? More importantly, should I be allowed to express my belief in a way the High Church of My Faith (still me, but the point remains) sees fit when it is so blatantly in contravention of societies “accepted norms?”

In reality, there is no right (implied or otherwise) which enshrines people to “express their faith” in whatever manner they see fit in public. What goes on in private is a different matter. Hopefully, this is really what Mr Illeborg was thinking, but if we re-word his piece with this in mind the line of reasoning pretty much breaks down.

Having addressed what seems (to me, blog remember) a major fallacy in the opening sentence, the first paragraph is crying out for examination. In a nutshell, the terms used seem to defy normal understanding. It is interesting the “atheists and moderate Christians” are placed on one side of an axis with “pragmatists” on the other and it leaves me with a bit of a mixed idea of how to read it.

Are we to read it that only moderate Christians object to an overt display of religious paraphernalia by a public servant? Are fundamentalist Christians happy with it? I suspect not. If we accept the axis as being Atheist / Moderate Christian vs Pragmatist, what are the pragmatists? Are they Fundamentalists? Jews? Muslims? Reading the article, it seems the pragmatists can be little other than Muslims as pretty much every other ideology is accounted for (with a few assumptions about Jews…).

The paragraph also carried a few more logical fallacies. The very concept that one side is opposed to Democratic Islam is in itself a variation of an appeal to ridicule (it is a stupid idea to be opposed to democracy in what ever form it takes…) and an appeal to fear (opposing freedom is a bad thing…) with no basis in anything I have seen elsewhere. I am sure that there are lots of Atheists (myself for one) who think any religious belief is incompatible with the democratic ideals, but I doubt Islam is singled out as being worse than any of the other monotheistic nonsense cults. There is also an minor appeal to ridicule by terming one side “pragmatists,” which is a term that tends to have more positive connotations than (for example) “appeasers” or “apologists” (both of which seem to me equally suitable).

The post does not improve very much as it goes on. For example, the second paragraph reads:

Now there’s a new debate raging. Last week, a young Danish politician of Iranian descent, Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, was selected as a potential candidate for parliament by Enhedslisten (the Unity List), a leftwing Eurosceptic party. Ms Abdol-Hamid, who is Muslim, insists she will wear her hijab (religious veil) if elected to parliament, and would refuse to shake hands with male colleagues in compliance with her religious beliefs. This has produced an outcry in Denmark from rightwingers fearful of allowing politicians into parliament who put the Qur’an above the Danish constitution, as well as leftwingers who feel hijacked by a Muslim agenda. The Danish Imams have unanimously endorsed Abdol-Hamid and advocate that the Muslim community vote for her in the next election.

Now, without wishing to support Islamophobic nonsense, it does strike me that being concerned about someone who has this (slightly warped) outlook on their religion is a reasonable reaction. She is obviously confident that the backing by the Imams will get her enough support that any “outcry” over religious extremism is unimportant when it comes to polling. I would be worried by that, but I am also more than aware it is just the same over here.

Personally, if she was a Born Again Fundamentalist Christian I would be just as concerned, so this is not an Anti-Islam mindset. If she has a higher authority to which she owes allegiance (irrelevant of what she calls the invisible sky pixie), then there is no way of knowing how she will behave in support of the secular laws (Danish constitution in this instance). Would she advocate removing rights for homosexuals or unmarried couples (as examples)? Would she advocate laws which allow husbands to beat their wives as long as there is no bruising (as advocated by some outspoken Imams)? Give me an atheist politician any day!

In all fairness to Mr Illeborg, his opinion piece is reasonably well written and the holes I have been picking are a bit “nitpicky.” Towards the end of his article, there are some very well made points which are certainly valid even under the close scrutiny I am trying to apply. He points out that in the UK we have a much more tolerant model, but I am not convinced by his claims it is “better” (how many Islamic terrorist attacks have Denmark undergone?) and, sadly, it seems that the tolerance is becoming more and more one-sided (here I mean theist – non-theist, rather than a particular branch of woo). He finishes with:

That is not to say that we shouldn’t object to totalitarian regimes that use Islam to oppress women and dissidents; of course we should. But restricting people’s right to express their religious beliefs is always counter-productive. The Danish radical rightwing politician, Soren Krarup recently compared the veil to the Nazi swastika and he was not expelled from the party. Not exactly a way of furthering good relations with Muslims in Denmark.

Sadly, this undid a lot of the goodwill his writing had regenerated in me. It is basically a repeat of the opening fallacy, but this time stated in a bolder fashion. I think Mr Illeborg is trying to maintain his “reasonable” approach throughout, which would explain the idea that there is even a requirement to further good relations with Muslims in Denmark, but it confuses me a little.

I very much doubt any rightwing party, anywhere, would expel someone for comparing the Hijab to the swastika and I am surprised more have not made this (erroneous) link (unless a lot have done so in private). What does intrigue me is the concept that a state is required to change it’s thinking to accommodate the ideas and beliefs of immigrants. I would rant on about this for a few days, but I am aware that some right wing leanings are starting to take hold in me and I need to stay back on the one-true-path. (Or else my feline overlord will punish me).

[tags]atheism, Belief, civil liberties, Denmark, Faith, hijab, Islam, Logic, Logical Fallacy, Politics, Reductio Ad Absurdum, Religion, Rights, Special Pleading[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Expressions of Belief

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