Friday, November 16, 2007

Does being non-Muslim entail holding blasphemous beliefs?

Samizdata recently quoted an interesting article by Steve Edwards. At the time I first read the article, I thought it a cogent argument (as indicated in my comment at Samizdata), but now I'm not so sure.

Edwards attempts to demonstrate that being a non-Muslim logically entails holding beliefs that Muslims will find blasphemous on the ground that they entail holding less than flattering views of the Prophet Muhammad. As such, any laws against "gratuitously insulting" Muhammad will have the logical effect of proscribing any attempt by a non-Muslim to explain and defend their position, and should thus be rejected on freedom of speech grounds.

I reproduce the core of Edwards' argument below, interspersed with my own comments:

Commenting on the most ‘offensive’ of the cartoons, Shearmur suggests that such a ‘gratuitous insult to the Prophet’ Mohammad could be grounds for legal sanctions.[...] As mentioned before, he also proffers that ‘polite contestation of religious claims’ should be protected speech. What then, shall we make of any polite contestation of a religious claim that, by necessity, leads the interlocutor to make a seemingly ‘gratuitous insult to the (alleged) Prophet’?

A Muslim is somebody who believes that a man called Mohammad (who lived around the turn of the 6th-7th Century AD) was the last in a long line of prophets in the Near East, and who passed on certain revelations and instructions directly from God Himself. By logic, a non-Muslim is somebody who does not accept that Mohammad was any such prophet, and thereby rejects his teachings as not having come from God. (emphasis in original)

The first logical error arises here. Take Edwards' definition of a Muslim. He effectively defines a Muslim as someone who believes all of the following propositions:
  1. There once lived a man called Muhammad.
  2. He lived around the turn of the 6th/7th centuries.
  3. He was a prophet.
  4. He was also the last in a long line of prophets.
  5. He passed on certain instructions and revelations directly from God.
Logically speaking, on the above definition of a Muslim, a non-Muslim is anyone who regards at least one of the propositions above to be false, but Edwards defines a non-Muslim simply as someone who regards proposition 5 (and there by 3 and 4) to be false. Yet logically the non-Muslim may simply believe Muhammad was actually called Fred or that she(!) lived in the 18th century, or that he was not the last in a long line of prophets (e.g. he could be the only prophet or someone else was a prophet after him).

However arguably the above beliefs would all be regarded as blasphemous by devout Muslims, so perhaps this logical error does not undermine the more general claim that a non-Muslim must of logical necessity hold beliefs that a Muslim will find blasphemous.
Let us reflect further on the epistemology of a non-Muslim—if, contrary to Mohammad’s claims (assuming he has been represented correctly), we do not believe that he was any such prophet from God, what do we truly think of the man?

The answer must be one of three possibilities: either Mohammad was a liar, or he was deluded (that is to say, he was deeply mistaken), or he was mad.[...] These are the only possible conclusions of the intellectually honest non-Muslim. (emphasis in original)

Actually I disagree. The logical implication of not believing that Muhammad did receive instructions and revelations directly from God, is simply that Muhammad either lied or was mistaken. Whether the mistake was down to "madness" or "delusion" or some other issue (failure to comprehend what his body/mind were doing?) is something one need not commit to. So the question is then whether believing Muhammad was mistaken is blasphemous and liable to violate the proposed law against such blasphemy. I'll take it as read that viewing Muhammad as a liar will be blasphemous.
Let us ponder one of the three possibilities—that Mohammad was a liar. Would it be unreasonable then to posit that a man willing to deceive many thousands of people, perhaps out of hunger for power or self-aggrandisement, could be labelled as ‘evil’?

This is a bit of a straw-man. Believing that Muhammad was lying about the matter does not logically entail that he did so out of hunger for power or self aggrandisement. He may have genuinely believed that the religion he was founding would help mould a better society and was willing to lie in that cause. It could even be argued that the development of an Islamic empire, with some significant achievements to its credit, suggests that Islam did provide an advance on the Arab society that went before it, and thus Muhammad did bequeath a better society to Arabs (admittedly at the expense of a lot of battles and conquests).
If so, on what basis do we object to an extremely negative portrayal (either graphic or prose) of such an ‘evildoer’? Whether or not such a portrayal may appear ‘gratuitous’ or provoke widespread anger, it would nonetheless be a justifiable expression of dissent. Therefore, to place legal sanctions on any such piece of literature is to necessarily outlaw opposition to, and disagreement with, Islam to a logical denouement; this suggests we are implicitly calling for the abolition of the right to proclaim oneself a non-Muslim in clear and in certain terms. That is, one may still be a nominal ‘non-Muslim’ free of harassment, but one cannot explain and defend one’s position in any significant detail without committing the now-proscribed act of blasphemy.

As indicated above, I believe the argument fell down by this point. Believing Muhammad did not receive revelations and instructions from God does not entail believing he was a liar and believing he was a liar does not entail believing he was evil. Yet Edwards' argument seems to be based on these straw men.

However, I think the conclusion has legs and can be supported in a different manner. I shall explain why in my next post.

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