13 February 2012

Spinoza would have criticised the Saudi government

Followers of atheist, humanist and secularist news will know of the Saudi and Malaysian travesty of justice involving Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari, who posted so-called blasphemous tweets that enraged notoriously thin-skinned Muslims. Kashgari’s harassment in Saudi Arabia, subsequent deportation from Malaysia after seeking asylum there, and current prosecution for apostasy add up to an all too familiar scenario where touchy religionists call for an obscenely disproportionate punishment for the ‘crime’ of mocking their superstitions.

The New York Times philosophy website, The Stone, has a timely piece by Steven Nadler on 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza and his views on freedom of thought and expression (‘Spinoza’s Vision of Freedom, and Ours’). Nadler quotes Spinoza several times in a context I find relevant to Hamza Kashgari’s persecution by the Saudi state. Here’s one example:

It can be argued that the state’s tolerance of individual belief is not a difficult issue. As Spinoza points out, it is “impossible” for a person’s mind to be under another’s control, and this is a necessary reality that any government must accept. The more difficult case, the true test of a regime’s commitment to toleration, concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else of his time: “Utter failure,” he says, “will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions … The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.”

By Spinoza’s criteria, the Saudi theocracy is indeed a “most tyrannical government” – Saudi Arabia is the most socially conservative (ergo repressive) Muslim state, having laws and customs that even its fellow Muslim countries consider excessively restrictive. I’m only speculating here, but Kashgari may have fled to Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, because he knew it was a comparatively moderate state. But this fact didn’t save him from being deported by the Malaysian authorities, who are complicit in whatever horrible fate awaits Kashgari back in Saudi Arabia.

Spinoza would have argued for freedom of thought and expression in Saudi Arabia because, apart from the obvious consideration of basic human rights, he believed this freedom to be in the state’s own interest. Nadler explains:

Spinoza has a number of compelling arguments for the freedom of expression. One is based both on the natural right (or natural power) of citizens to speak as they desire, as well as on the apparent fact that (as in the case of belief per se) it would be self-defeating for a government to try to restrain that freedom. No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe (because they can), only now they will do so in secret. The result of the suppression of freedom is, once again, resentment and a weakening of the bonds that unite subjects to their government. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition. The attempt to enforce them is a “great danger to the state.”

The Saudi theocracy may delude itself that there is a homogeneity of thought among the Saudi people, that there are no dissenters or critics of Islam among the country’s millions of pious citizens. But Kashgari is certainly not the only Saudi to have a less than deferential attitude towards Islam and its founder. His punishment may cow other Saudi dissenters, but it could also have the opposite effect of arousing anger and resentment against the state.

Spinoza also had a practical reason for governments to support freedom of expression. As Nadler writes:

Spinoza also argues for freedom of expression on utilitarian grounds — that it is necessary for the discovery of truth, economic progress and the growth of creativity. Without an open marketplace of ideas, science, philosophy and other disciplines are stifled in their development, to the technological, fiscal and even aesthetic detriment of society. As Spinoza puts it, “this freedom [of expressing one’s ideas] is of the first importance in fostering the sciences and the arts, for it is only those whose judgment is free and unbiased who can attain success in these fields.”

While it isn’t the only factor, religious extremism in Muslim countries has contributed to their scientific and technological stagnation. The cultures that once kept alive and improved on the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians and Chinese have lagged behind in the sciences for the last few centuries, especially when compared to the discoveries and advancements made in the West and Asia. As Spinoza presciently observed, when the freedom to express, criticise, debate and improve ideas is curtailed, there are practical consequences that can negatively impact a society in various ways.

UPDATE: There is a Facebook group and a petition calling for Hamza Kashgari’s release. Do join and sign in solidarity with him and defenders of free speech everywhere.


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