Thursday, May 26, 2005

On the sacred and the profane

Christopher Hitchens writing in Slate on the Quranic abuse at Abu Ghraib points out the inconsistency in attitudes towards the sacred: those incensed by the Newsweek report because of the desecration of their holy book do not extend the same principle to others who might hold the US flag to be sacred since "(o)ver the last week, the flag of the United States of America has been cheerfully incinerated by grinning crowds in several cities." And the inconsistency could hardly be have been illustrated better since in many cases the flags were burned during protests prompted by the Quranic abuse scandal.

At the same time, American liberals who treat conservatives who want a constitution amendment banning flag-burning as reactionary fools are the same people who are dismayed by the insensitivity to what others consider holy, oblivious to the fact that it is exactly the same principle at work; both groups want what they consider sacred to be protected by law - or by force of arms if necessary.

That Hitchens has to point this out at all is rather depressing. If one wants to live in a free society, there is simply no way in which the state can protect what everyone holds to be sacred from being profaned - not least because in multi-faith societies, these clash. From an orthodox Muslim point of view, the Christian claim that Jesus was Very God incarnate is surely blasphemous? From the Christian perspective, Mohammed must be a false prophet because the traditional position of the church was that God has spoken His last word through His Son - the succession of prophets having ended with John the Baptist.

A liberal polity can protect people's right to consider days, objects, rituals sacred but cannot insist that others share this reverence without ceasing to become free. I think it was Oakeshott who said that unless the state makes a distinction between a crime and a sin - there can be no freedom.

Or to put it more mundanely, it's one thing not to eat a ham-sandwich because of your religious faith; it's quite another to insist that ham-sandwiches should be, therefore, banned.

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