Vinoth Ramachandra

Freedom or Fanaticism?

Posted on: September 20, 2012

Stupidity breeds stupidity. That’s the only lesson one can draw from yet another exhibition of scurrilous anti-Islamic propaganda (in the US and later in France), followed by mob hysteria and the shedding of innocent blood in Libya and Egypt. Who takes the trouble to watch such trash? And are not those who broadcast it to the Arab world, whether they be “Muslim”, “Christian” or “secularist” rabble-rousers, also culpable for the ensuing murders?

Violence is fueled by ignorance. And ignorance about “human rights’ as much as ignorance about Islam (not to mention Christianity) is rife in the Western mass media. Fundamentalist secularists, paradoxically joined by some American fundamentalist preachers, can only see the issue as one of “freedom of speech”. In a pluralist society people have the right to make movies and print cartoons which other people may find offensive. No subject should be taboo.

But the most difficult decisions we make are not about right and wrong, but choosing between competing rights. Error has its right of expression, but every person, including the dead, has the right not to be misrepresented or vilified. Laws against libel and slander recognize this in every civilized society. And publicly insulting those who cannot answer us back (especially the dead, children, the mentally disabled, and those in other societies) is the hallmark of the coward. Those who replace debate with insults are every bit as fanatical as those who resort to violence instead of counter-argument.

The language of “tolerance” is selectively applied in the US and Europe today. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is tolerated, but not anti-Gay rhetoric, for example. Indeed, anybody even expressing a personal opinion that he or she believes that homosexual acts are expressions of a disordered sexuality are hounded out of a job or refused an opportunity to express their views in the media an even in academic fora. As for anybody who expresses mockery at blacks or women, there is no way he can run for public office. The media outrage will be deafening. Why, then this self-righteous hypocrisy when it come to hate speech against Muslims or Christians? (Jews in the US, being the benefactors of many universities and owners of media cannot, of course, be touched)

Furthermore, one can enjoy a right and yet choose not to exercise it. Wise newspaper editors do this all the time. Some article, cartoon or photograph may not be in the public interest, or run counter to the paper’s own views, or fan the flames of social conflict by exposing a particularly vulnerable community to derision and contempt. And that is the position many Muslims find themselves in, especially in the US and parts of Western Europe, after Sept 11 2001.

At the height of the controversy about the Danish cartoons a few years ago, a Danish woman theologian, Lissi Rasmussen, wrote: “The fact that almost on a daily basis the media portray one-sided, negative stories about immigrants in general and Muslims in particular (reproduced by politicians and by public opinion), affects the Muslim minorities who feel unwanted, insecure and unconfident. This may lead to detachment also among well-educated, second-generation immigrants and become an excuse for avoiding responsibility.  It has resulted in an ingrained mistrust of the media and political processes, a lack of interest to integrate into the Danish society and taken away the energy to reflect critically and contextually on Islam.”

So, stupidity breeds stupidity, and fanaticism breed rival fanaticisms. No doubt the Internet cannot be controlled and it is better for governments not to try. But responsible service providers seek to protect their customers from unsolicited mail, aggressive advertising and computer hackers. The best way to combat lies is by speaking the truth. The best way to promote respect for others is by practising it ourselves. Governments can provide incentives for better inter-religious instruction in schools rather than clamping down on all such instruction in the name of a mythical “neutrality”. Responsible TV broadcasters and newspaper editors can invite the ablest spokespeople from religious communities to express their tradition’s perspectives on public issues, rather than focusing all the time on the “lunatic fringe’ that all such communities (including rabid atheists) have.

Ignorance about the history of Islam is rife in American church circles. I meet university students, even professors, who are amazed when I share with them how much Western universities owe to the madrasas and teaching techniques of early Muslim scholars in what (from an Eurocentric angle) is termed the Near East. Or how much Western classical literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, owes to Islamic poetry and piety. When the conversation turns to American support for anti-democratic Middle Eastern tyrants, including Saddam Hussein, Mubarak and Assad,  and the many Muslims who have died promoting democracy in their nations, that’s when their eyes glaze over. What are American seminaries doing about broadening the education of future pastors?

So too with misguided Christian attempts to “reclaim Europe”. Montgomery Watt, the renowned Islamics scholar, noted in 1972: “Because Europe was reacting against Islam, it belittled the influence of the Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman heritage. So today the important task for our Western Europeans, as we move into the era of the one world, is to correct this false emphasis and to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world.” One can respectfully criticize Islam without belittling its contributions to Western civilization.

15 Responses to "Freedom or Fanaticism?"

Thank you for your passionate, and articulate commentary on this issue. I notice that many in the evangelical community in the USA believe themselves to be victims of media/government bias while at the same time speak as aggressors and oppressors toward the Muslim community.

Their contradictions of thoughts concerning rights and religion, combined with ignorance by the political and media elite are negatively influencing pubic perceptions by simplifying important and complicated relationships between people groups and cultures.

Evangelicals in the USA need to be reminded that their faith began as a relationship and that it is through relationships, not media megaphones, political policy or military might that they can participate in the redemptive work of God.


As an evangelical in a very conservative state, my observations do not line up with yours. I see Christians who respect Muslim people, but not Islam itself. Actually, it goes far beyond simply respecting them, but reaching out to them in numerous ways. I’m sorry you haven’t witnessed this behavior yourself.

That comment was for Dennis more than Vinoth. Just as we evangelicals are reminded constantly not to judge all Muslims based on the actions or words of a few, I’d like to discourage Dennis from making statements which paint evangelicals with a broad brush.


You admonishment is well received and my comments are not intended to be an indictment of all Evangelicals. My articulation could be seen as such.

Throughout my life I have had the opportunity to travel internationally and engage in learning communities where , as a white westerner, I was the minority. In these contexts I began to see how my own cultural, economic and political views influenced my judgements and decisions. I found that the church leaders I encountered outside the USA were not only aware of their own biases but also understood my perspective. More accurately, my concern is with the expressions of Evangelical culture not the Evangelical faith. It seems to me that Evangelical culture in the USA has not cultivated a sensitivity to the effects of context, culture, poverty and power dynamics on people groups. I think we will do well to understand these issues as we work to communicate the Gospel.

Thanks for your gentle encouragement.



I certainly agree with the spirit of this article. Hatred and intolerance are not becoming on anyone. Constantly provoking and ridiculing Islam unfortunately results in more excuses for provoking and ridiculing Islam due to the extremists in many Muslim countries looking for ways to vent their rage about Western interference. It is a vicious cycle, but one we can break in our own spheres of influence by simply living a life of love and truth.

Dennis and James,

Great example of polite and direct dialogue seeking to clarify and communicate. I rarely see that in online forums.

Living in a pluralistic society enables me to respect one another and also give space for each others opinions. But the moment we start living in cultures that are dominated by one world view, intolerance is showcased. With the recent backlash, I am sure nationals living outside their own country will understand this better than those in their own.

[…] many comments from biblical bloggers, but for my money none so deeply thought through as this on Freedom or Fanaticism? from the always stimulating and often provoking Vinoth […]

“One can respectfully criticize Islam without belittling its contributions to Western civilization.”

Unfortunately, Koranically faithful Islam will not allow for criticism. I live in a Muslim country and it is completely off-limits to analyze or critique the Koran or Mohammad. Cartoons and cheaply made C rate movies are one thing but when you can’t even question the history or validity of a religion’s founder and founding documents something is terribly remiss.

No amount of crediting Islamic intellectuals or Middle Eastern cultures with their rightful contribution to world civilization wil ever stop the violence and hatred in many of these people’s hearts that are fanned into flame by the Koran and it’s supposed recorder.

Surely you must know this. If not, come live in my “neighborhood” for a while.

My comments were addressed to Christians living in the West.

In any case, I don’t know what you mean by “Koranically faithful Islam”. There are many Muslims in Muslim lands who openly criticised the mobs who took to violence on the streets to “defend Islam”. And in the world’s most populous Muslim populations (Indonesia and India) there has long been a vigorous tradition of self-critique, as well as Muslims willing to debate with non-Muslims rather than espousing violence. The radicalisation of Muslims is largely a result of two centuries of brutal humiliation by Western powers and local despots propped up by the US.

Thanks so much for this post Vinoth.

@Anon —

I suppose the question is — what does the Koran truly teach? I tend to think most Christians — for example — in the west do not know this answer. Also … either the fire of radical Muslims is increased by the oxygen of the Koran OR due to the problems caused by western intervention and the support of tyranny — possibly both. We would do well investigating these issues more comprehensively.

I would like to add a few points to the above discussion.

1) Anon, maybe for security reason, you have not disclosed your identity but I am curious if you a foreign (western) missionary living in a Muslim country or a citizen of Muslim country. I am curious because you mention “live” in a Muslim country…

2) I would like to add to Vinoth’s list, reasons for the radicalisation of Muslims. In any society where there is a dictator ruling with the backing of the West or otherwise, there is a breakdown of law and order in local situations. A culture of thuggery becomes normalized. For example, members of Robert Mugabe’s clan go about stealing and killing without having to worry too much that the arm of the law would arrest and punish them. Some years back an Egyptian Christian friend of mine was badly beaten. The thugs wanted to steal his mobile phone but later changed their story that they punished the Christian for trying to convert people. My friend when he came to the West refused to let his beating story be used in Christian circles as “proof” of Islamic terrorism in Egypt but truthfully described it as a local law and order problem. It is from him that I learnt that one must be careful making attribution to “Koranically faithful Islam” for local lawless behavior and violence.

3) Two books that might help you in your approach with building bridges with Muslims where you live. i) ‘Allah: A Christian Response’ by Miroslav Volf. ii) ‘Dialogue and Difference: Clarity in Christian-Muslim Relations’ by Christian W. Troll.

Finally please also refer to Vinoth book ‘Faiths in Conflict?: Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World’. It has a whole chapter on Islam.


Thanks so much Philip for the contribution to this conversation. I suppose I am still confused. You (and others) seem to contend that the reason the west has problems with islamic extremism is not necessarily because of what the Koran teaches, but rather because of centuries of western oppression and hypocracy. That may be true, but what about in other parts of the world? I am thinking of in Pakistan for instance and the recent shooting of the Pakistani girl for being “too secular”. This reaction seems to be extreme and more in line with what some believe the Koran teaches. It seems to stem from a desire (by some) to impose Sharia — for example — rather than from a desire to fight against western meddling in Muslim affairs. If what I state is true, then couldn´t some of the problem with Islamic fundamentalism and extremism exist because of a very conservative interpretation of parts of the Koran?

Also … I have read about 50% of Volf´s “Allah …”. I really enjoy his positive take on where Christian and Muslim relations can go, but I do (honestly) question some of his theological assumptions. Thanks again for the post.

I support your views, Vinoth. I’ve been trying to say the same thing to others, but perhaps, from within my own passion, hadn’t put it as succinctly as you.

There’s a very good chance I’m going to be blasted by Christian extremists, but as an agnostic (for those who need ‘labels’ to define people), I won’t lose any sleep over it.

I don’t condone murder, no matter whose little tin gods’ name it’s been committed in. I’m fed up with western media lying to its audience, creating, fabricating, and feeding frenzied Christian (and other) maniacal insanities, by twisting and sensationalising every detail so as to build a ‘case for hate’ against Muslims – or any other race or nation they care to target with their malice.

There are faces and names behind all forms of media. One only needs to discover them and expose them for the Mongers of Hate they are.

It baffles me as to why there isn’t a single Western government who doesn’t muzzle and control these malicious mouthpieces. They contribute nothing towards peace.

I haven’t read the Koran. I don’t personally know a Muslim, but I think I’m safe in assuming their blood is red like ours. I think I’m safe in assuming they feel physical and emotional pain like we do. I think I’m safe in assuming that they love, laugh and cry like we do. I think I’m safe in assuming they’re naturally inclined towards some form of spirituality, like we are. I think I’m safe in assuming they feel naturally protective of their children and families, and want the best for them in life, like we do. I think I’m safe in assuming they’re mostly intelligent, reasoning, logical, beings, just as we like to think that most of us are.

The more ‘storms of hate’ the media is allowed to whip up, the more bloodshed there will be. No, the media isn’t solely responsible, but it IS responsible for feeding ignorance, fear, hysteria, and hate – it’s a massive contributor, instigator, and facilitator of bloodshed.

If everyone turned their backs on the media and refused to support it by not buying or reading newspapers and magazines, not turning on televisions or radios – simplistic as it sounds – it could potentially go far in helping to calm the storm so all sides can find and develop a solution together. As things currently stand, there are no winners; only losers.

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September 2012
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