The Real Villains

Sometimes I wonder why exactly I can’t find it in my heart to condemn Islam so starkly, clearly, and powerfully as Pat Condell:

Then I remember the answer: what Condell is describing here isn’t congruent with my own personal experience with Muslims. I’ve had Muslim clients, I’ve had Muslim friends, I’ve had Muslim attorneys as adversaries in cases I’ve handled, I’ve hired Muslims as expert witnesses in cases I’ve handled. In all those experiences, some of them have been friendly and nice, some of them have been kind of jerks and seemed untrustworthy, and some of them have been basically unremarkable. Many of them are immigrants from other parts of the world to the United States and of these, some have adapted better to the culture here than others. Some of them are smart, others not so much.

Put another way: in my own firsthand experience, the Muslims I have dealt with have acted pretty much like any other group of people one might care to identify. Demonization of them is not congruent with my own experience.

Like any other group of people, some of them are going to be assholes. Some of these assholes are going to be assholish about their religion and if one focuses on the media (particularly a partisan press) one might get the impression that there are a lot of assholish fundamentalist Muslims out there. And indeed, there are fanatics and some of those fanatics are dangerous and willing to use violence to achieve their ends. The word that comes most readily to mind when describing people within a society who use violence to achieve their ends is “criminals.” I believe criminals should be treated like criminals and their religion is not the primary reason why I condemn criminals — their harmful, lawless behavior is.

Now, bear in mind that Condell’s soliloquy here addresses an issue of what kind of behavior should and should not be criminalized. The root of what Condell is talking about in the video above is not criminal behavior by Muslims, nor should it be. It is assholish behavior by them. It is beyond rude and arrogant for a Muslim to think that he or she can live in and enjoy the benefits of a free society and still make use of the power of the government to prevent themselves from being offended by something someone else has to say. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion does not mean freedom from criticism. Freedom of speech means that the government tolerates the offensive things that people say.

Pat Condell is and ought to be free to condemn Islam without fear of governmental reprisal. That is what freedom of speech means. He also ought to be free from the fear of violent reprisal for his statements. That is what it means to be part of a peaceful, law-abiding society. If something in Condell’s speech offends you, you have two primary options which are acceptable in a free society: you may either 1) ignore him, or 2) rebut him.

Same as the Muslims who don’t like hearing their backwards religion criticized.

What I fear gets lost in a polemic like the one above is the proper focus of Condell’s diatribe. The real villains in the situation he’s describing in Austria are not the Muslims. They are the governmental officials who are punishing free speech, who invoke the judicial power of their nation to prosecute someone for the “crime” of criticizing someone else’s religion. In a nation that purports to respect freedom and individual rights, there is no other option to the government but to tolerate someone criticizing Islam. The Muslims are availing themselves of a governmental remedy that ought not to exist. It ought to be very obvious that the remedy for speech they dislike is more speech.

I do not think all of the criticisms and condemnations of Islam are valid. I think critics of Islam paint with too broad a brush — as though a critic of Christianity were to claim that every Christian is, wants to be, or at least admires and supports, people who assassinate abortion doctors. A Christian can condemn both abortion and the people who murder doctors who perform abortions; the vast majority of Christians condemn both.

Is this a logical and consistent position for them to take? I don’t much care, because real human behavior with respect to religion is that people pick and choose what commands of their holy books and clerical leaders they will follow and which ones they will ignore. The overwhelming amount of the time, they opt for morally good behavior.

So are there violent, awful, morally indefensible passages in the Koran. Damn skippy there are. Are there Muslims who nevertheless believe in an act upon these morally indefensible passages? Sadly, yes. Those people are, as I mentioned above, “criminals.” They should be treated like criminals. Their coreligionists, however, do not deserve to be treated like criminals until and unless they too commit criminal acts. And those in charge of the governmental powers need to be careful about the kinds of acts that they criminalize.

If I believed in God, I would thank Her that I am blessed to be a citizen of a country with a strong Constitutional guarantee of free speech. A prosecution against someone for speaking their mind about a social issue of the day here would quickly run up against a First Amendment challenge and the prosecuting authorities would be scrambling, hard, to justify their actions. If they pressed on, they would earn the rightful condemnation not only of those who agreed with the defendant’s political point of view, but others who would see creeping totalitarianism. Witness how Ezra Levant is a hero — not for criticizing Muslims, but for criticizing and standing up to his own government:

So. Why don’t I take on the evils of the Muslim faith? Because it is the abuse of government power which most offends me. Frankly, I expect that a manual of social mores come out of the late Bronze Age Middle East is going to contain all manner of utterly morally indefensible things, and that people who insist on taking those obsolete visions of society literally are going to act in morally indefensible ways.

Those sorts of evildoers can best be kept on the fringes of society where they belong is not through making sure that “their side” always loses in a political fight. The best and most enduring way to keep them out of power, keep them out of positions where they can do real harm to our society, keep them from actually imposing their views on those who do not wish to subscribe them, is to consistently and with principle insist that the government honor as inviolable, and to safeguard as the highest objective of its existence, the civil liberties of the individual.

Those liberties, our best and most enduring protections against the evil theocracy that a small number of fanatic, literalist Muslims would impose on the rest of us, will not be toppled through military conquest. Those liberties can, however, erode. The forces that erode them will not be forces that are obviously and apparently trying to subvert and transform American society. Rather, they will and can only be those forces that claim to be protecting, defending, and conserving that society.

To claim that this is a “Christian nation” and therefore that Christianity is entitled to special, favorable treatment by the government takes away the bulwark of separation of church and state. What will the Christian nation advocates claim if and when Muslims outnumber them at the ballot box and suddenly America is proclaimed to be a “Muslim nation?” They will have already established that the government may favor the majority’s religion — and should they then find themselves in the minority, there will not be the Constitutional guarantee against Establishment of a religion to protect their rights.

The real villains in Pat Condell’s diatribe are not the Muslims who complained loudly about being offended that someone in Austria publicly explains why they dislike Islam. The real villains in Ezra Levant’s videotaped discovery are not the imams who filed complains with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The real villains are those who would involve the government in those kinds of issues in the first place. We protect the rights of unpopular minorities not because we like what the minorities do, not because we would make them elites, not because we desire to see democracy subverted or overturned. We protect them because we must limit the power of the government, whether that power is used to an unpopular end or a popular one.

Why don’t I condemn Muslims more stridently than I do? Because as awful as 9/11 was, our nation is much too resilient and powerful to collapse because a few buildings were destroyed and some innocent people were murdered. Only we have the power to really destroy ourselves, and such destruction will not be an overt attack but rather a metamorphosis. The real threat is in our own city halls and statehouses, in Congress and the White House, at our own ballot boxes — a short-sightedness about the expediency of government action to address that which is unpleasant today, without regard for the future disasters that we invite by setting aside the safeguards to our liberties. An intelligent respect for everyone’s Constitutional rights, and an independent judiciary to safeguard them, are the best defenses we have available.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. I think one of the lessons I learned while in conversations about religion, etc., is that wherever you go: people are people. Outside of the odd loony, most people act within a particular point on the bell curve.Don't get me wrong, there are serious institutional wrongs that occur. For example, the inaugural post on my blog talked about a law in Mauritania, where the law is based on Sharia, that states that if a woman that is raped falls pregnant, then it wasn't really rape, because their 'holy' book says pregnancy can only occur in a consensual relationship.So the women end up jailed for adultery instead.However, that didn't lead me to conclude that all Mauritanians were evil, just that basing laws on a thousand year old book allegedly written mostly by a warlord with little knowledge of anything is most likely wrong. I think the US got that one right: laws should be decided for secular reasons alone.Islam as an institution has some serious problems in that regard, but individual Muslims tend to be people, just like other people.

  2. Dan, to those whose vision of the "American idea" places little premium on the concept of individual freedoms, DFW's column is nothing more pusilanimous and futile hand-wringing by a snobby liberal. For them, a culture and a government that values free speech is not nearly so important as a government that fosters and encourages a particular shared cultural ideal, so condemnation and prohibition of a disfavored religion (Islam) goes hand in hand with the government's primary mission of protecting our collective national identity. I do not see this as an evil motive, but I do not share it because I do not think the government's job is to protect our collective culture.I find DFW's thought experiment very intellectually challenging because I have always taken it as an article of faith that the choice between liberty and security is, in our era of advanced technology and great wealth, a false one. Wallace forces the issue: what if it isn't; what if, ultimately, we have to choose? It is evident what choice the Founders would have made — they were willing to spill blood for the cause of freedom. I would argue that we should live up to their example rather than give in to the seductive temptation of security obtained through authoritarianism, if only because authoritarian regimes are also demonstrably subject to periodic acts of violence at the hands of criminals (or "terrorists," if you prefer that term).Kaz, I think your nation there is, or ought to be based on recent events, experiencing a heightened awareness of the importance of free speech as a civic value; libel reform is one of many signs of this. Those who worry about "Islamisation" should embrace that ethic. Good luck to you and your fellow Brits in that and know that there are many here in the States who are cheering you on.

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