On giving propagandists a platform

I always had mixed feelings about debates on invitations to controversial speakers. Every case is different I guess, and should be discussed as an individual case. At the same time, I think that inviting someone as a speaker at a university or public institution should be justified in the light of the fact that such a forum provides the speaker with an authoritative platform. Some even believe that such an invitation produces epistemological evidence in favour of the invitee’s position.* In any case, my feelings were mixed but, I thought, fairly balanced. You can always see pros and cons, and try to listen carefully to the other side, or so I thought. In this post, I want to do two things: I want to protest against the invitation of Paul Cliteur to Groningen; and I want to talk about something that I completely underestimated: the ambiguous weight of stating the obvious.

When I noticed that Paul Cliteur is invited to Groningen’s annual night of philosophy to give a lecture on “Theoterrorism and the Cowardice of the West”, I was not only shocked by the fact itself but also surprised by the vehemence of my own reaction. I feel that, unless I note my disagreement, I am complicit in endowing the speaker with extra authority, simply by being part of Groningen University. Arguably, we should note disagreement not only on behalf of those targeted by propaganda, but also in solidarity with those who feel intimidated to do so publicly. (Not long ago, a number of colleagues from Amsterdam received death threats after politely protesting against a lecture by Jordan Peterson.) Often protest or disagreement is construed as an attack on free speech. (“Nowadays we can’t say that anymore”, you hear them say all the time, while they say whatever they want.) But the opposite is the case: the very idea of free speech must comprise the right to disagreement or protest against speech. Cliteur is an active politician and a professor of jurisprudence, who has written quite a number of texts with all the ingredients of what I’d call right-wing attitudes: claiming a conspiracy of “Cultural Marxism”; nationalism; anti-Islamism, you name it. I don’t want to categorise him too readily, but he strikes me as a Dutch version of Jordan Peterson in Canada or of Thilo Sarrazin in Germany. – But what was I actually reacting to? There is a great number of claims that I find objectionable. But often the problem of propagandistic tales is not that they contain explicitly objectionable things; rather, it’s how they recontextualise “obvious” observations.

A problem with people like Cliteur is that they make outrageous claims, while sounding perfectly reasonable. Here is an example: Cliteur clearly and sensibly distinguishes between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (a political ideology based on religious doctrines). So he does not say that religion entails terrorism or that religious people are potential terrorists. But then Cliteur introduces the term “theoterrorism” to label terrorists who motivate their acts by reference to their religion. Indeed, one of his main claims is that he is almost alone in taking terrorists’ reliance on their religion seriously. He portrays others as reverting to misguided explanations and himself as seeing what their true motivation is:

“Many people are reluctant to engage in this kind of research. They are concerned with something quite different: protecting religious minorities from discrimination and the “stereotyping of their religion.” Or they have the ambition to explain why the essence of Judaism, Christianity or Islam is averse to violence. I fully recognize the importance of that type of commentary from a believers perspective. But it is not the kind of approach that makes it possible to understand the theoterrorist challenge. I fear these well-meaning people are dangerously mistaken. The greatest contribution you can make to the peaceful coexistence of people of good will is to make a fair assessment of the role religion plays in contemporary terrorism, and not to suppress or censor people who dare to address this issue.”

What’s going on here? While he pretends to be looking for an alternative explanation of terroristic acts, he does in fact claim a link between religion and terroristic acts. Religious beliefs, then, are taken as the proper reasons (if not the causes) for people to commit terroristic acts. This way the difference between Islam and Islamism, while maintained verbally, is in fact nullified. Thus, Cliteur can evade the charge of hate speech against religious people, but he might be said to celebrate his way of linking terrorism and Islamic beliefs as a scientific discovery.

Linking religion to terrorism in this general way is bad for all sorts of reasons. Believe it or not, many people are religious without ever entertaining so much as a trace of a terrorist inclination. But two further aspects are striking about Cliteur’s claim: Firstly, no one ever denied that the terrorists he cites referred to religious attitudes. There is nothing spectacular about this. Secondly, Cliteur makes no move to invoke any solid evidence for this claim. But if his point were supposed to have the status of a proper explanation, then he would need to rule out alternatives. Compare: I could tell you that I go shoplifting on a regular basis because Father Christmas told me to. Now people might speculate about my motives. But you could just tell everyone: “People, Martin’s reasons have been staring us in the face ever since. Father Christmas told him so!” While no one might deny that I said so, the reference to Father Christmas might not in fact be the best explanation of my actions. Cliteur’s point amounts to no more. He links (Islamic) religion to terrorism; he presents this claim as new while at the same time giving himself the air of stating the obvious, and he provides no evidence or ways of ruling out alternative explanations for the phenomena he picks out. It is obvious that certain terrorists invoked religious beliefs; it is far from obvious that the invoked beliefs or the religion in question explain their acts.

Although this is bad enough, it does get worse. In his little essay on theoterrorism, Cliteur asks what “the West” should do. He sees Dutch values and free speech and just about everything threatened. At the same time, he claims that all the available strategies in the West have failed. Again, without providing evidence. It is obvious that terrorism hasn’t gone away; it is far from obvious that the available strategies were not effective (e.g., against cases we don’t know about). Now what do you actually do if you claim that people are threatened by terrorism but that none of the attempted solutions work? The party Cliteur supports has a well-known list of answers, consisting of the now common right-wing ideas rampant in Europe and the US. In conjunction with the politics Cliteur supports, the brand of nationalism that recommends itself as the answer is not too difficult to guess.

While he is careful enough not to call a spade a spade, his pamphlet on theoterrorism might be read as a legitimisation of both legal and illegal means to overcome what he calls the “cowardice of the West”. The claim that Western measures fail seems to call for new measures.

“But does the west’s defense do the trick? … So as long as the western countries persist in their assault on Islamic sacred symbols, Muslims are not only mandated but religiously and morally obligated to take revenge in the name of Allah, so the theoterrorists contend.”

By building up his case as a threat to the Abendland, by suggesting that “Muslims are … obligated to take revenge”, Cliteur eventually alludes to ‘obvious’ measures without stating them explicitly. It is this unspoken call to arms that is the most dangerous part of such political pamphlets. Inciting strong reactions without explicitly stating them immunises such propaganda against any critique that relies on explicit statements. “Oh, I didn’t say that”, is a common phrase of such people. They are all quite misunderstood.

Giving a platform to such incitements strengthens them. Yet, de-platforming might turn their protagonists into martyrs. Thus, rescinding an invitation might be just as problematic as making it to begin with. That said, what should worry us perhaps even more are the voices of those who were not invited in the first place. There are many more interesting and pertinent speakers for a night of philosophy.

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* Clarification in response to some misrepresentations on social media and the news: I’m not saying that “providing a university platform for controversial figures is tantamount to endorsing (or supporting) their positions”. I rather claim that it lends some authority to their position A student newspaper misrepresented my position earlier. Unfortunately, that text was then shared widely. (Added on 27 March 2019)

Since the misrepresentations are continuously repeated, I devoted another blog post to them.

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20 thoughts on “On giving propagandists a platform

  1. I’m wondering whether one solution to this case (the invitation of contention person at public event) may consist in putting the guy in debate with someone else. One thing is to have a pulpit with no peer to counterbalance the view offered, another thing is to have a debate between two opposed but equally standing voices. Usually, certain kind of advocates do not like debates (for obvious reasons). But debates are the essence of free speech, aren’t they? Then if you decline invitation to attend a debate all is fine. What is troublesome is to provide a person with a platform to enforce idea assuming that the audience will figure out the potential counter arguments etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yes, I agree: a debate would be an entirely different matter. Actually, I’ve scanned the web for debates on youtube and in newspapers, but didn’t find much beyond the usual kind of interview. Two caveats re debates, though:

      (1) The “cultural marxism” reference provides a narrative to contextualise debates as inherently “leftish” and useless. This way, opposition can be (not saying it has to be) instrumentalised as showing that opponents shun the ‘obvious’ and continue ‘debating’ and exchanging arguments, a practice branded as part of the “cowardice”.
      (2) If you really get to argue, I would expect to run into what is called “deep disagreement” or clashes of intuitions about values rather than strength of argument or evidence. But I’d love to see counter-examples.

      As it stands, the platforming is generating a huge audience for this person; tickets are sold out already. Ironically, thanks to many attractive talks by people of our faculty.

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  2. “Religious beliefs, then, are taken as the proper reasons (if not the causes) for people to commit terroristic acts. This way the difference between Islam and Islamism, while maintained verbally, is in fact nullified.”

    That conclusion doesn’t seem to follow. Indeed, one might argue that the key difference between Islam and Islamism is precisely that (only) the latter takes religious beliefs as proper reasons for terrorism.

    “By building up his case as a threat to the Abendland, by suggesting that “Muslims are … obligated to take revenge”, Cliteur eventually alludes to ‘obvious’ measures without stating them explicitly.”

    Cliteur does not suggest that Muslims are obligated to take revenge. Rather, he writes that Islamic terrorists believe that Muslims have this obligation. Here is the full quotation: ‘So as long as the western countries persist in their assault on Islamic sacred symbols, Muslims are not only mandated but religiously and morally obligated to take revenge in the name of Allah, so the theoterrorists contend’. Ignoring those last four words leads to attributing an Islamist claim (namely, that Muslims are obligated to take revenge) to Cliteur himself. This is uncharitable to an extreme.

    “While he is careful enough not to call a spade a spade, his pamphlet on theoterrorism might be read as a legitimisation of both legal and illegal means to overcome what he calls the “cowardice of the West”. The claim that Western measures fail seems to call for new measures.”

    The failing measures, here referred to, amount to pretending that Western governments occupy a neutral space with regard to offensive speech. I quote: ‘[t]he makers of offensive cartoons, mocking films, provocative novels and incendiary works of art, [Western political leaders] say, represent a highly personal view, not that of the state’. What do those measures fail to do? They fail to appease Islamists. And why does that defense fail to appease Islamists? Because, as Cliteur points out, there is nothing value-free or neutral about the West’s refusal to outlaw or deplatform offensive views: “Why don’t the U.S. and other western countries that condone the vilification of religious symbols change their constitutions? Why not bring their legislation in accordance with sharia law? Apparently they are unwilling, are they not?”

    So are illegal means of dealing with Islamists legitimized by Cliteur’s observation that terrorists are not appeased by the West’s claim that protecting offensive speech amounts to a neutral position? Taken by itself, clearly not. Such legitimization will need a much more involved story. A story, moreover, that cannot be extracted from Cliteur’s essay.

    “It is this unspoken call to arms that is the most dangerous part of such political pamphlets … “Oh, I didn’t say that”, is a common phrase of such people. They are all quite misunderstood.”

    Perhaps the most uncharitable reading of Cliteur’s essay reveals indeed his true position. Or maybe this hermeneutical guideline is inspired by the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, student. Here are some quick replies:
      (1) You write that “(only) the latter takes religious beliefs as proper reasons for terrorism”. – This is exactly the line of explanation that Cliteur tries to counter. Here is why. You either say (a) terrorists are driven by an unknown factor X or that (b) they are driven by their religion R. “Theoterrorism” is the idea that religion (Islamic doctrine) is the driving force for terrorists. So it equals (b). If you say it’s (a), then you are in effect saying that it’s not R but X that matters. But if you say that, then you’re saying that religion is not the explanatorily relevant factor and deny “theoterrorism”.

      (2) You say I’m uncharitable in leaving out the qualification “so the theoterrorists contend”. – I’m not. Firstly, I quote that qualification myself. Secondly and more importantly, for someone reverting to “theoterrorism” that qualification is question begging. As I said above, the very idea of “theoterrorism” is that religious belief is explanatory for terroristic acts.
      (By the way: One might want to argue that the qualification has been added as a rhetorical device specifically for the reason of cancelling the crucial implications of “theoterrorism” in later discussions. That would be a typical move. If I were to argue in this way, you could reply that I am being uncharitable. – In any case, either the idea of “theoterrorism” has the said implications or it has not. If not, then it would be better to admit that “theoterrorism” doesn’t amount to an explanatory idea and hand over to experts on terrorism again.)

      (3) Sorry, but I’m not sure I get your point about the “neutral space”. Trying to locate your point in Cliteur’s text, I found that the site is down.

      (4) On hermeutics: I doubt that it matters whether we get at “his true position”. What matters to me is what his ideas are, how his texts work and how they affect the political debate. Construing interlocutors as “enemies” seems to be another move inspired by his ideas.

      If you reply again, I invite you to address my main charges: (I) The lack of evidence and (II) the lack of ruling out alternative explantions (such as the unkown factor X). As it stands, your objections would only work if you were to deny the idea of “theoterrorism”.

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      1. Thank you for the replies, Martin! Before I address them, and your main charges, allow me to first clarify my interpretation of Cliteur’s essay.

        I take his thesis to be that the freedom of speech, and specifically the right to offend religious sensibilities, has become contested. He identifies two threats to the freedom of speech: offended theoterrorists and ‘a confused political and intellectual elite’. The former threat is taken to be obvious: we have all seen the Charlie Hebdo events. The latter threat is diagnosed as stemming from the failure of Western political leader to convincingly distance themselves from cartoonists in their citizenship. Appeasing religious terrorists thus requires cracking down on free speech. Those are the ‘new measures’ that Cliteur fears. Moreover, the introduction and debate over so-called ‘hate speech laws’ in the West demonstrate that his fear is not unfounded.

        Contra Cliteur, I think that Western political crackdowns on free speech appear to be motivated by a concern for protecting marginalized groups rather than the attempt to appease terrorists. That is where I myself would take issue with his position, and a plausible case for the accusation of propaganda might be supported by it. What I do not find supported is any suggestion to address religious violence by illegal new measures, or an ‘ unspoken call to arms’.

        To your first point of reply, I would start out by saying that the analytical category ‘religious’ is itself essentially contested. JZ Smith’s classic article “Religion, religions, religious” drives that point home rather well, and goes so far as to argue that ‘religion’ should not be treated as a first-order category at all. Recognizing the impossibility of demarcating the religious from the non-religious, scholars of religion have tended to favor a discursive approach to religion. For the purposes of our conversation, I want to stress two points: (i) there is no neutral ‘fact of the matter’ whether something is religious or not, (ii) to claim or deny that a phenomenon is religious is to take and strengthen a discursive position.

        To illustrate, Islamists attempt to legitimize their political position by claiming the authority of Islam for their purposes. A fervent anti-Islamist might end up reproducing their claims by affirming that Islam legitimizes terrorism. As such, Islamophobes and Islamists reinforce each other. Likewise, by maintaining that ‘Islam has nothing to do with Islamism’, one can try to sever the Islamist from its source of legitimacy. These are both possible discursive moves, and they can directly affect the world. Within this framework, scholars of religion do regard religious violence as a proper object for study. Moreover, they can describe in detail how Islamists succeed (or fail to succeed) in claiming ‘religious authority’ for their ends.

        I elaborate this point somewhat, because your demand for ‘evidence’ seems to commit itself to a some sort of neutral or essentialist notion of religion that will not be forthcoming. For this reason, to assert that terrorist motivations are either motivated by religion or not, is not helpful in general. Pertaining to this topic, it becomes even more problematic, because Islamists distinctly resist making your distinction between religion and politics in the first place.

        Now I suspect that Cliteur will face similar objections – I have only read the essay you provided a link to. However, his definition of theoterrorism may allow him to sidestep it. He writes “Theoterrorism is the type of terrorism that legitimizes violence by referring to ‘God.’ The theoterrorist thinks and claims that the violence he exerts on the nation-state is done ‘in the name of God’.” This definiton of theoterrorism as does not commit Cliteur to the claim that theoterrorism is de jure legitimized by religion, in any normative sense. Nor does it seem to commit him to a demarcation criterium for religion. It just stipulates that the theoterrorist is engaged in the discursive practice of legitimizing terrorism by referring to theistic concepts. Whether he legitimization succeeds or is justified, those questions can be avoided.

        Indeed, Cliteur seems to state this explicitly: “Arguably, the theoterrorist may be wrong in thinking he is a divinely appointed angel of vengeance. But it is perfectly possible not to enter into a discussion with theoterrorists or religious believers on whether or not the terrorist is right in his convictions.”

        In other words, all that matters here is that Islamist terrorists (rightly or wrongly) believe that their (weaponized strand of) Islam legitimizes their actions. Cliteur is not committed to much more than the assertion that theoterrorists (sincerely) discursively contruct religion and religious authority to justify violent action against those who offend religious sensibilities. Unlike your ‘Father Christmas told me to shoplift’ story, there is an established Islamist discourse that lays claims religious authority and legitimacy for malicious purposes. Therefore, the claim that these discursive moves sometimes succeed in convincing people warrants considerably less skepticism than your toy example would.

        As for your ‘unknown factor X’, it is fully consistent with Cliteur’s position that the rise of theoterrorism can be explained in part by socio-political factors: poltical conflicts, cultural colonialism, alienation, marginalization, discrimination, poverty, and so on. I would welcome measures that address those issues and I agree that Cliteur’s political party might not be too helpful in this respect. At the same time, we can recognize that (i) often the moral justification of theoterrorists is based on Islamic sources of authority that are construed as religious, and (ii) Islamists resist making a distinction between the religious and political. Therefore, in order to make the case that they are not driven by religious considerations, you need to impose your etic, outsider categories onto their psychologies. It is not at all clear that this will result in the most accurate representation of what is going on, even if it is politically more beneficial.

        Finally, to your fourth point: “On hermeutics: I doubt that it matters whether we get at “his true position”. What matters to me is what his ideas are, how his texts work and how they affect the political debate. Construing interlocutors as “enemies” seems to be another move inspired by his ideas.”

        I, too, am interested in these things. On my reading of Cliteur’s essay, he does not emerge as a dangerous propagandist suggesting illegal ways of addressing Islamism. I do fear that he might be strengthening Islamist claims, while representing them. However, that risk exists independently of the question whether the representation is accurate. The most accurate representation might also happen to be the most politically inflammatory.

        Your blog post did strike me as fairly hostile in tone, and seemed to construe Cliteur as an ‘enemy’ rather than a mere interlocutor with whom one disagrees. If you are interested in encouraging a dissenter to voice her opinion to you, that might not be the best strategy. As for me, I appreciate your passion 🙂

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  3. “Often protest or disagreement is construed as an attack on free speech. (“Nowadays we can’t say that anymore”, you hear them say all the time, while they say whatever they want.) But the opposite is the case: the very idea of free speech must comprise the right to disagreement or protest against speech.”

    There is a big difference between disagreeing and preventing someone from speaking (in whatever context). Also you’re turning things around when it comes to free speech.

    Try to follow along here

    Person A wants to say X
    Person B wants to say Y, where Y is defined as ‘A should not say X’

    Under free speech, we would have both A and B being able to say X and Y respectively.

    However, imagine if now B says Y before A says X, and with that manages to prevent A from saying X, that would be an attack on free speech in the eyes of A.

    You are reasoning that if now A calls out B for preventing A from saying X, it is an attack on the free speech of B, but note that this situation only exists after the event of B saying Y has already taken place.

    The gist here is that we want to let both A and B talk but this is not guaranteed as it depends on the contents of X and Y.

    Now, if you were to take the position of person B, you cannot possibly defend free speech while actively trying to prevent someone else from speaking.

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    1. Thanks , 792, for your comment. You seem to be arguing that I do not intend to simply disagree but try to prevent Cliteur from speaking. You’re right that this *would* be an attack on free speech, if your analysis were correct.
      I’m not sure it is, though. So please let me make two clarifications.

      (1) My note of protest is not intended as an attempt to stop the lecture from happening. “Protest” is said in many ways. What I hope to convey is my personal opnion: I think it’s not good that Paul Cliteur is invited. BUT I didn’t think for one second that my opinion would result in stopping the event from taking place. I just think that it is not a good thing, and I want to express that. My protest is a speech act among many others, including yours and Cliteurs.
      (2) But there is a second potential misunderstanding that I want to address: Even if the lecture *were* cancelled (for whatever reason), this would not be an attack on free speech. Like all of us, Cliteur has a right to voice his opinion. That said, it is not a right to be invited to give a lecture or speak at a public event of this sort. Think of it this way: my right of voicing my opinion does not entail your or anyone’s duty to listen to me or invite me to give a lecture. If you block your ears or refuse to read what I write, this does not infringe free speech.

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  4. @Student: Many thanks for your nuanced and indeed interesting comment. I’m sorry if I came across as hostile. Especially online, it is sometimes difficult to judge one’s own tone. Anyway, I am grateful for the specifics you add. Since I have to be brief, I would like to focus on what I consider an agreement between us.

    You call religion an “essentially contested concept” and I wholeheartedly agree with that characterisation. Now if this is applicable, then I wonder all the more why Cliteur hopes it could do the explanatory work he seems to hope it does. If, as we both seem to believe, religion is not a natural kind with a sort of essence, then how could one claim that it is explanatorily prior across the board?
    As you say yourself, Cliteur clearly runs into this objection, but you also show that there might be a way to “sidestep” it. But the sidestepping leaves us with a factor or rather a messy set of factors X, among which religion is just *one*. That claim I could agree with. But if this is what Cliteur’s idea amounts to, then a number of questions arise again:
    (1) How can he save the claim that religion is a *decisive* factor? – You seem to say that, by demanding evidence, I treat “religion” like a natural kind again. I doubt that: we need some sort of empirical ground for sayng something is decisive.
    (2) On what grounds can he contradict existing research invoking rival explanations (facor X)? – You say that Cliteur’s point is compatible with other explanations. But if this is correct, why try and contradict empirical research on terrorism? – To answer this last question, he invokes the leftist “agenda” of scientists (“protecting religious minorities”). Now if *that* is supposed to be an answer, then I’m afraid we’ve come full circle.
    In your last reply you seem to agree with these worries to a point and state that you are interested in exploring those issues yourself. Again, I agree that this should be done and actually is done.

    Now you might call me uncharitabe again, but my impression is that Cliteur decidedly dismisses the current work in this field, solely on the basis of a supposed agenda. Leiden, his academic home, hosts “The Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI)”, a huge network of people working on the matter. Why not at least try to engange with their work?

    You say you don’t see his claims as dangerous: If you ask me, I find the dismissive attitude towards our scientific endeavours quite dangerous, not least because it might entail a diversion of attention from crucial factors that we should look at rather carefully.
    There is currently a lot of scepticism against sciences and science-drives practices, concerning discussions, for instance, of climate or vaccianations. The general dismissal of research on terrorism strikes me as a similar move. As for other dangers, I agree – and I say this in the original post already – that Cliteur does not call to arms explicitly. What I fear is a division of (political) labour: Cliteurs tries to make the case for a link between religion and terrorism. He doesn’t say “do X”, he just says “everything fails”. It will not be him but others who will readily take up the “challenge”. And I doubt that those people will have much patience and time for our nuanced discussions.

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  5. I think it is not good that you have a position at a university. I think you are a propagandist with a controversial opinion. I therefore protest against you having a position at the University, i hope the university react appropriately.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pingback whatever you want. It makes no sense at all.
      Your prejudice is already visible in the third word of your title. Which, in fact, resembles you more than him. Hence my reaction.

      Let the man speak, you can comment on what he says later.
      Do not cry upfront. Grow up.

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