Marek Sullivan presented his thoughts on Religious pain and the limits of secular tolerance at the communication skills seminar series on the 8th of May, 2018. Marek is a fourth year D. Phil student in the faculty of Theology and Religion whose focus lies upon the long running debate between religious and secular worldviews.
Marek began his talk with an image of the infamous political slogan used during the campaign of the current U.S president – ‘Fuck your feelings’. How exactly did we get to such a political climate that the use of such a slogan was deemed acceptable and unharmful in a presidential campaign? According to Marek, the power of the slogan rests on the implicit attack on ‘feeling’ itself. It represents the age-old debate of freedom of speech vs personal injury, whereby many seem to simultaneously advocate for the right to freedom of expression when it involves a foreign religion whilst at the same time squashing the notion when it comes to their own religion.
Marek used one example in particular to illustrate the argument of his essay – the case of the 2005 Danish cartoon depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in a newspaper. In Islam it is a long-upheld tradition to not depict Muhammad visually in any form and violating this is seen as blasphemous. Marek explained the protests and outrage that occurred globally following the publication of the cartoon, paying particular attention to the other side of the debate with the critics of the reactions of Muslims. Such critics push for Muslims to ‘choose not to be offended’ and engage in proper reading practice to view the cartoons simply as images that are not representative of the real world. However, Marek pointed out that as Saba Mahmood argues, such images are seen as a physical attack on the body in a religion where symbols and icons are embodied to a greater level than in the protestant worldview and the relationship between religiosity and bodily harm is far more complex. Mahmood argues that when looking at the world through a protestant lens, there is a tendency to perceive non-protestant modes of religious offence as illegible and separate religion from the body, whilst seeing protestant religious offences as legitimate.
Interestingly, when it comes to race, there are several legal precedents one can turn to such as European hate speech rules to squash any offensive discourse. However, despite race and religion being so closely intertwined, one is able to have the same discourse whilst evading legal action – under the label of it being ‘religious’ rather than racial – attacking brown bodies under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’ rather than ‘racism’. This rejection of emotion and offenses on religion are supported two-fold – first, by those who are religious who view Islam as a threat to their own faiths, and second, by those who are not religious at all and hold secular values. Either way, often race is deeply embedded in these positions, whereby those of minority races are associated with religions where their ‘pain’ is not considered valid.
To further explain this discrepancy between whose pains are worth listening to, Marek explains the case of Lautsi v Italy. The European Convention of Human Rights ruled that a crucifix placed on a classroom wall did not constitute a violation of secularism or religious equality, because this particular sign was part of the history and culture of Italy, and therefore a passive rather than an active or aggressive sign. Whereas the Second Chamber had ruled that the crucifix could be ‘emotionally disturbing’ for pupils from minority backgrounds, the Grand Chamber found that there was ‘no evidence’ of pupils being influenced by its display. It’s clear that the concept of religious pain and personal injury are only applicable to those who’s values align to the political majority.
It would appear, that for any progression forward, we should not attend to the slogan of ‘fuck your feelings’ and be more considerate of the emotional responses of minorities, not only catering to those belonging to secular or majority religious populations in the Western democratic society.
Bhavya Dutt is a current MSc student in the Centre for Criminology
*Photographs taken by MSc student Tanongsak Mahakusol.