Who tolerates anti-American preaching from Muslims?

By Razib Khan | September 15, 2012 10:45 am

Obviously the news over the past week has been filled with the events in the Middle East, and the broader Muslim world, in reaction to an anti-Muslim film. I think the most eloquent commentary is from The Onion (NSFW!!!), No One Murdered Because Of This Image. That being said, there are some serious broader issues here. A friend of mine who lives in India (he is Indian American, though raised for several years in India, so not totally unfamiliar with the culture) has expressed to me his frustration with having to defend American liberalism in a society where American liberalism is an abstraction, rather than concrete. The frustration has to do with the fundamental divergence in basic values. For example, his interlocutors have argued to him (he is a practicing Christian of libertarian political orientation) that if someone committed an act of blasphemy against his faith of course he would react in anger and violence. And yet of course the clause “and” is false, though he is greeted with skepticism when he asserts he wouldn’t react violently. As a matter of fact I can attest to the reality that he wouldn’t react angrily necessarily, because in interactions where I’ve made casually blasphemous comments he’s only rolled his eyes. Just as Americans have a vague, even misleading, understanding of the broader historical forces which engender resentment of American hegemony in the broader world, so many non-Americans lack a proper awareness of the broader historical forces, and cultural reality, of the particular American radicalism and extremism in the domain of free expression.

I say radicalism and extremism because that is exactly what free speech near absolutism is. Over the course of human history blasphemy has been understood to be unacceptable in most human societies, and often entails extreme sanction. The American, and to a lesser extent Western, elevation of liberty of speech over the sacred values of the community is a peculiar counter-cultural trend which has become normative. But that doesn’t mean that it’s normal or natural. I stipulate here the term “sacred values of the community,” because though blasphemy connotes violations of religious norms, obviously outrage can be triggered by violations of sacred communal norms more generally. Imagine, for example, if someone violated Lenin’s Tomb during the 1950s in the Soviet Union. Jonathan Haidt has alluded to this issue. Someone who reacts calmly to “Piss Christ” might not react so calmly to “Piss Martin Luther King.”

This points to the second issue. Not only is there is a human universal of offense at violation of sacred norms, but those sacred norms vary from culture to culture. So, for example, I have pointed out to followers of the Abrahamic religions that the core documents of their own faiths and the dominant interpretations are often gravely offensive and hostile toward those of other religious traditions. There is a certain incommensurability of offense across cultures. What may be sacred to one culture may be offensive and blasphemous to another. To give an example, the institutions of sacred prostitution has cropped up repeatedly over human history. Many religious people would consider prostitution in the service of gods or God blasphemous, whereas others might consider it an exalted act. Similarly, blood sacrifice, whether of humans or animals, has been central to many religions, and taboo and blasphemy in the context of others. In contrast to this there are acts and violations which seem relatively universal in interpretation. This is clear when offended people make analogies to insulting one’s mother; this is generally communicable across societies, because emotional family ties are fundamental. And the collective paroxysms of rage, anger, and violence, due to violations of communal honor probably draw from the same cognitive reflexes as those which are triggered by violations of family honor.

But let’s put the shoe on the other foot here. Would Americans tolerate anti-American preaching from Muslim clerics in this country? We can explore this with the General Social Survey with the SPKMSLM variable. It asks:

Now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States.

If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

The question was asked in 2008 and 2010. Since the sample sizes are large I’ll limit to non-Hispanic whites first.

Now in tabular format.

Non-Hispanic whites, 2008 & 2010
DemographicAllow Muslim clergymen to preach hatred of US
< HS19
High School38.2
Junior College45.3
18-34 years old49.3
35-64 years old48.5
65-* years old33.4
No religion61.1
Word of God26.6
Inspired Word of God48
Book of Fables66.1

The exact row variables in the GSS:

SEX DEGREE WORDSUM(r:0-4″Stupid”;5-8″Average”;9-10″Smart”) POLVIEWS(r:1-3″Liberal”;4″Moderate”;5-7″Conservative”) AGE(r:18-34;35-64;65-*) RELIG BIBLE

I then decided to run a logistic regression. I wanted to see which variables predict attitudes toward speech on this issue. I expanded the data set to include Hispanics and non-whites.

Below positive values in the “B” column include opposition to allowing a Muslim cleric preach. Therefore, a negative value favors freedom of speech in this case.


Log Likelihood =  -533.697
Pseudo R-sq  = 0.151

What’s striking to me is that once you account for education and intelligence, income and socioeconomic status don’t matter. That makes sense since the former are related causally to the latter. The sex difference here is pretty robust. Once you account for other variables race is not so important, but Hispanic identity is. I would suggest here that assimilation to American values is the determining factor, but nativity (BORN variable) doesn’t seem to matter when I checked. It is not surprising to me that political ideology (very liberal to very conservative) doesn’t matter when you account for other variables, especially religion. Well educated conservatives who are not religious tend toward social libertarianism. So once you account for religion and education, ideology isn’t as predictive, similar to race.

There are other similar variables in related to free speech. One pattern is clear. American cultural elites are particularly protective of free speech, while the lower orders tend to have attitudes which are more “relaxed,” and would be more in keeping with other parts of the world. Why? One can imagine many reasons, but this republic was founded by prominent and powerful men who were traitors, and who valued their own personal individual liberty. This is not an uncommon tendency; liberty of thought has been one of the privileges of aristocracy throughout human history. One aspect of ancient Greek democratic populism which rankled aristocrats was that the community might censor and restrain the freedoms of those who traditionally had more license to violate communal norms.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Geography, GSS

Comments (35)

  1. Whimsy

    In my rather removed opinion, I see the violent backlash by a certain group of Muslim people in areas of the Middle East that has become relatively insensitive to violence due to its high level of exposure in the recent past to this purposefully insulting (if not hateful) message made in the grand ol’ US of A (a place which is highly sensitive to anti-Semetic sentiments – to the extent that can be considered a hate crime) is not really a rational or expected response to the rather pathetic “movie”. This – like the Koran burning episode by that pastor in Florida – are stings that function as tipping points for a highly disenfranchised, disrespected, and repeatedly abused community of people who are perhaps justified in feeling like they are discriminated against by America and its Middle East policies. It would be obvious even to those classified as “Stupid” in your poll that the lives of the people of these countries are not equal to Americans – and are dispensible. They have seen drones, have been shocked and awed and been herded into ghettos – stripped of their future and a voice – all for the benefit of American interests. They are treated like the “axis of evil” and derided – anyone watching Fox News from overseas would feel that the video is a representation of how Americans feel about these people and their faith (something that is completely internalized by those who strongly identify with their religious identity). So the violence is an outlet for all the felt injustice – it stings with extra painful salt in their gaping wounds that are far from being healed. So one can wax poetic until blue in the face about “free speech in America” – of different cultural values – of some pigs being more equal than others, but what we need now is a bit of empathy and perspective taking skills.

  2. Reed

    Whoa. I’ll never look at a Ganeesha statue the same way again.

    Yeah, no question tolerance is imposed downward from the elites in the west. Brings to mind surveys showing public approval of capital punishment in many European countries. I’ve been hanging around some “respectable” charismatic christians lately. The kind who believe in demons and speaking in tongues but have college degrees and feel sort of awkward bringing it up. You still hear some strange things. I was invited to a talk by Walid Shoebat, a Palestinian christian convert, at a local Pentecostalist church. He made an intricate argument from scripture that the antichrist must certainly be a Muslim. Best suspect was Recep Erdogan (?). There were many comments and questions from the audience indicating how terrified and angry they were that Sharia was to be imposed on America. The speaker agreed this might be imminent and foretold the coming horrors of their inferior dhimmi status. Muslims are embedded in our society and their goal is to dominate it, etc. Normally I am pretty cynical about the hypocrisy of the intellectual classes when it comes to tolerance and diversity. But I found myself thinking what a relief that these people are restrained by a liberal society. Half of them have probably been through corporate diversity training. Near the end a muslim visitor stood up to try and talk some sense. Everyone listened politely and the speaker sort of respectfully disagreed and moved on.

  3. What does the question ‘would you tolerate x?’ mean, when we don’t know how intolerance would be expressed? Mildly harrumphing? Writing to the local paper? I doubt whether violence is understood as an implication of the question by those answering it.

  4. Ed

    It’s mostly the ultra-conservative Muslims that are acting out violently. Ordinary (middle ground) Muslims are upset, but not on murderous rampages. The U.S press seems to think that the Islamic world’s hostility has no justification, some might disagree.

  5. Darwin's Chihuahua

    Contrast the behaviour of the Dalai Lama and his government in exile. He would not approve of any violent opposition to extreme hardships for his country and his people no matter how much violence and hatred are perpetrated against Tibet and Tibetans. Other Buddhist societies are similar, though not able to carry out this extreme devotion to ahimsa. Many, though not all, Indians have similar religious and cultural values, devoted as they are to the concept of equanimity and backing it up with one kind of meditation or yoga practice. Cultural and religious values and practices, as pointed out by Razib, tend to make a huge contribution to the actions taken in response to the initial offence. I am thinking here of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books, in which she said of her culture (Somalian) that they were taught to strike first and not wait until someone else started a fight. Quite the opposite of what many of us in North America learned, which was to never start a fight but to finish it (in other words, to win). The trend to violence may have its roots more in culture than religion. After all the world of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, Jews were an integral part of the Spanish Muslim (Moorish) world in which convivencia (coexistence, interdependence, cooperation, if not “idyllic tolerance and open-mindedness – Joel L. Kramer, Maimonides: the Life and World of One of Civilizations Greatest Minds) was practiced. The Almohads, “a North African Berber dynasty committed to a fundamentalist version of Islam…ended what was left of ethnic and religious co-existence in Spain. The Almohad movement originated in the teaching of a Messianic figure, the Mahdi Muhammed ibn Tumart (ca. 1080 – 1130)” see p. 35 in above reference. Sound familiar? Perhaps history can supplement our understanding of the complex modern situation. And perhaps we can find clues in modern societies that manage to deal with current threats that would help how we as a society can respond – and how we can manage our actions so that we are less likely to provoke a violent response. If possible, it would seem that the Buddhist practice of metta, or something similar, could be a place to begin.

  6. ackbark

    re: “No One Murdered Because of This Image”,

    I have the impression there will always be something Muslims can imagine is a provocation as long as any other religion, or really anything else at all, continues to exist.

  7. This – like the Koran burning episode by that pastor in Florida – are stings that function as tipping points for a highly disenfranchised, disrespected, and repeatedly abused community of people who are perhaps justified in feeling like they are discriminated against by America and its Middle East policies.

    @1 I think I agree with the general thrust of your argument; certainly, we Americans shouldn’t feign surprise at the fact that many people in the Middle East hate us. However, I would want to change your characterization: “highly disenfranchised, disrespected, and repeatedly abused.” I look at the pictures coming out of these protests, and I see a lot of well-groomed young men wearing nice Western clothes.

    These guys look like they walked right out of an American Eagle.

    This could be a Rage Against the Machine concert if you just took out the Arabic flags.

    The Germans and Japanese were, after WWII, much more disenfranchised, bombed over, and disrespected than these people are . . . And yet my wife’s German Oma married an American GI in the 1950s, just a decade after her sister was killed by an American bomb; my white buddy’s Japanese wife was gladly given away by her father who had been interned whilst his brothers fought the round eyes in the Pacific.

    I know the comparison isn’t entirely fair, but my point is that I don’t honestly believe that these young men in Libya, Sudan, Tunisia, and everywhere outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, have ever been “wronged” by the U.S. in a visceral, “Americans killed my family and blew up my house” sort of way. I could understand hatred then. But I think that, for these young, jobless men, the U.S. is just the easiest scape-goat to blame, when really, America is only one part of a larger problem, a more complex knot of global economics and geopolitics. The YouTube video is just a tangible pretext for anger against this larger, knottier, amorphous problem.

  8. Joe Q.

    An idea from a columnist in our local newspaper: those protesting come from societies where the government has traditionally placed extreme restrictions on the media (including the Internet). To them, for a movie / book / website to be allowed by the government means it must be condoned in some way by the government. Otherwise, why would it be available?

    The basic divergence in values implied here is in freedom of expression. The protesters see governmental permission to blaspheme as government endorsement of blasphemy. The whole nation becomes guilty.

  9. Luke Raines

    I don’t believe that anyone should have the right to preach violence regardless of their religious backgrounds.

  10. #1, wow, with no due respect, a very stupid comment 😉 stupid people oppose free speech on all sorts of variables. #5, i actually mildly disagree with the thrust of your comment. i think we overemphasize the power of religious ideas, as opposed to the organic and contingent development of religious cultures. e.g., the mid-to-late tang destroyed the power of buddhism in china, and oda nobunaga and his successors eviscerated the militarized monasteries. but in places like burma and sri lanka a national buddhism still motivates people toward chauvinism. i suspect that the dalai lama’s equanimous position is partly just a constraint of the fact that military or violence action against PRC is basically futile.

    An idea from a columnist in our local newspaper: those protesting come from societies where the government has traditionally placed extreme restrictions on the media (including the Internet)

    there is rioting in india and bangladesh too. india has long had to place limits on religious speech because of the danger of communal rioting.

  11. i’m honestly not sure what i would qualify as because i hate preachers like that and want them to die but i will defend even extreme forms of speech. so, honestly, i really *don’t* tolerate it but i will because i have to (while hoping they get deported.)

  12. Rachel

    I think this survey demonstrates a fundamental flaw in the questioners’ understanding of free speech. I can support a person’s right to free speech without agreeing to give them a forum in which to express their views – in fact, that’s what the “marketplace of ideas” is all about. If, as a private citizen, I think someone’s ideas are wrong, offensive, etc. – if for whatever reason I don’t want to hear them – I am in no way violating free speech by refusing to do so, or refusing to lend you my resources in order to share those ideas with others. Your right to free speech doesn’t translate into my obligation to listen to you, publish your views in my newspaper, or give you time and space to speak in my place of observance. It just means that if you want to say something and someone else is willing to listen, the government can’t stop you.

  13. #12, most non-stupid people understand the point you’re making. the background of these questions is that you have an institution that may sponsor someone, and the broader community wants to squelch the speech. this isn’t rocket science.

  14. Rachel

    Fine, but it’s ok for the broader community to voice the opinion that they don’t want this to happen in their community, or, for example, to threaten to boycott the institution if they sponsor the speaker. This is something that happens all the time but people still view as a violation of free speech (for example, when people boycotted Chick-fil-a for its stance on gay marriage).

  15. #14, stupid people do. the issue at hand is local gov. action. this is the context of these questions (along with questions of the form: “should school districts be allowed to hire and atheist/homsoexual”).

  16. #14, i’m pretty sure that 90+% of smart people are pretty OK with voicing opposition to offensive speech. and yet above they think offensive speakers should be allowed to speak.

  17. Ganesha

    I write this to add my own perspective of India. I was in India for the first thirty years of my life. Though born in a Hindu family, I have been a open atheist for a very long time.

    I have spoken irreverently of gods and religions, but I was always well tolerated in my circles. For two reasons, I suppose: I was an equal-opportunity blasphemer — so no one took it personally, and I spoke mostly with educated city-dwellers. If I had been careless about the second part, I don’t doubt I would have received some nice “counterarguments” from a lynch mob. Religious conflicts are still very common there. I don’t dare post the Onion NSFW cartoon on my blog or facebook page. My own damn government is likely to act on it.

  18. Scott Reilly

    On Morning Joe a couple of days ago, the panellists were unanimous in the opinion that the person who made the film should be persecuted. It now seems that the decision to put limits on free speech is due to the magnitude of the response rather than how objectively offensive the material itself is. If an anti-American cleric held a rally where he was preaching hatred of the US and there were no reaction, you could be sure his right to do so (again if he wished) would be upheld. If people rioted and murdered as a result, then probably not.

    After the massacre in Norway, Andrew O’ Sullivan shifted blame away from Breviek and onto writers like Mark Steyn and Bruce Bawer whom Breviek had cited in his manifesto, as though killing dozens of people were the natural reaction of someone who had surrounded themselves in this kind of literature. Unfortunately this seems to reflect an awkward shift in liberal thought.

    The Life Of Brian is now considered a cult comedy classic and The Monty Python cast are all but national treasures in the UK. Had Christians rioted in the streets and killed dozens of people rather than appearing on TV all hurt and offended, the Monthy Pythoners might (incorrectly) be viewed very differently indeed.

    Sorry, little of this is related to the topic. I suppose I see no problem with any kind of hate speech considering the very worst kind of it is contained within the texts of the Abrahamic religions and protected under the opaque label of religious freedom. Surely, if you believe that a film or cartoon insulting the prophet constitutes hate-speech and thus should be banned, then gay-rights activists, feminists and organisations of ex-Muslims and ex-Jews (since apostasy carries with it the death penalty in both Islam and Judaism) all well within their right to lay siege to publishing houses and demand that these books never see the light of day. Consider the following utterances:
    1. Homosexuals should be killed
    2. Anyone who leaves the faith should be killed
    3. A husband can and should beat his disobedient wife
    4. Muhammad was a bad man who, if he even existed at all, was in all likelihood a liar and a control-freak.

    If you were going to legislate against any of these, which would you choose? Or better yet, which one is the least problematic for humanity at large? One casts aspersions over a man who has been dead for 1400 years. The others have real-world consequences for millions of people living now. A charge of hate-speech by anybody who upholds the infallibility and legitimacy of these books hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

    Again, sorry for going off topic, or never really being on topic.

  19. #18, please link to the morning joe clip. i want to see if you are characterizing it appropriately, or misleading me.

  20. April Brown

    I wonder if the “WTF????” reaction from the West to the hyper sensitivity that led to the riots can in any way be compared with the sense of confusion and irritation in Muslim communities towards Western governments that crack down on full veiling and female circumcision. I’ve looked over the comments threads on articles about France outlawing the niqab (er, however you spell it, the full face veil) and articles about the horrors of female circumcision, and there is a weird mirror to the emotions of the current situation. Westerners being disgusted, angry, and sometimes calling for the violent execution for these oppressors of women, and Muslim commentors who are all, “what’s the big deal?”

  21. #20, we need to be careful of analogies…but i think you have a point personally. though i think it is more appropriate in the case of the niqab, which is a form of dress. female circumcision isn’t just symbolic, it is often a major public health concern.

  22. rec1man

    MF.Husain painted dozens of Hindu deities in a vulgar manner like the Onion picture of Ganesha

    Cases were filed against him, and he self-deported himself out of India to avoid jail time.
    The Shiv Sena trashed his house in Mumbai

    In Gujurat, a commie painter who painted Hindu Goddesses in similar fashion got nearly lynched by BJP activists

    The Onion picture is actually vulgar. Several Dravidian leaders have publicly slippered pictures of Hindu gods and gotten away with it. The youtube islam movie is more mocking than vulgar

    You could mock Hindu gods all day long, like the christian missionaries do. Mostly they get away with it. Sometimes they do it in front of rural audiences and get thrashed

  23. wes

    If one group of people are allowed to murder those who offend it, and everyone complies, how long before segments of the other religions begin to copy that behavior? That is what scares me. Someday, some subgroup of Christians will realize that, in effect, aggression works. If we allow intimidation to be normalized, we are leaving a horrible legacy to our kids.

  24. http://youtu.be/wtQH8-kOehs
    this is a decent example of “tolerance situations”

  25. marcel

    This is a bit lazy of me, since I could go to the GSS myself and look it up, but…

    In the regression above, how is sex coded? I’m guessing that Female is the higher value, esp. since that is now the norm in most of the data with which I deal, but it’s not obvious.

  26. marcel

    Nevermind the question above. I see it is answered in the next post.

  27. Sue

    While I understand and appreciate the satirical point that the Onion cartoon was making, I couldn’t help wincing at the Abrahamic macho sub-current exhibited by the artist; wiry Christian and Jewish male icons being serviced by a hermaphrodite (?) Ganesh who even gay-fists an equally corpulent Buddha while being singularly left unobliged. Perhaps even the Onion considered that Virgin Mary going down on the elephant-headed god a step too far?

    That paragon of Qatari secular artistic freedom, M. F. Husain, similarly found inspiration in nude Hindu female deities copulating with animals, but scrupulously painted Christian and Muslim figures fully clothed.

    If equal opportunity satire (or artistic freedom) routinely falls short due to inherent biases, then it may be better to tolerate and treat all religious icons with equal respect – including those of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Great Prophet Zarquon.

  28. #27, i used photoshop to sketch out muhammed behing sodomized by a camel on my blog once, fwiw.

  29. Sue

    As for who among Americans tolerate anti-American preaching from Muslims, this appears to be a straw man example. The reaction might be deportation for non-citizens or closer monitoring by the FBI. The equivalent action in a Muslim country would result in mass violence, mayhem, and death; noticeably taking place across the Muslim world at the very moment, and abetted or sanctioned by mosque and state.

    Your Indian Christian friend’s observation in India is puzzling because American-styled liberalism in this context has existed among the non-Abrahamic dominant faiths there for millennia. Who exactly were his interlocutors? The rise in intolerance in India today is a reaction to the quick-to-get-offended prickly behavior exhibited by India’s Muslim minority, aggressive proselytizing by Christian evangelical missionaries, and the perverse form of one-sided secularism practiced by the Indian establishment elite. It is not easy for sections of the Dharmic faiths to follow the Golden Rule in the face of unrelenting Abrahamic aggressiveness. Just look at the trash heap of history where other holistic pagan faiths were dumped in the Middle East and in Europe.

  30. As for who among Americans tolerate anti-American preaching from Muslims, this appears to be a straw man example

    huh? it’s not a straw man, a straw man is mischaracterizing an opponent’s position. i’m not mischaracterizing an opponent. i’m describing a general skepticism of free speech. use english correctly or i’ll ban you. i spent some time trying to understand what you were saying, and i wasted time.

    American-styled liberalism in this context has existed among the non-Abrahamic dominant faiths there for millennia.

    not really true. this only looks true as a contrast.

  31. bill

    How are “stupid” and “smart” defined or derived here?

  32. AG

    Ability to see thing from different angle, especially from opposition, needs intelligence. As primitive animals can only see thing from their own angle.

  33. Jim R

    #11, #29, #30 The answer to this question might be confounded by the assumption that a radical Muslim cleric is foreign. I bet a lot of people would be comfortable deporting such a person if they were not a permanent resident, but wouldn’t be comfortable otherwise banning the offensive speech.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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