Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Asking The Wrong Question About Riots

Someone says, draws, writes, or films something offensive to devout Muslims. Riots break out in Muslim countries. People die.

We saw this movie yet again last week. And we had the usual discussion that follows, which mostly involves puzzled Westerners wondering where all this Muslim rage comes from.

But I can't help but wonder if we're asking the wrong question.

Throughout human history, the norm is clear: If I offend that which you hold sacred, you become enraged and burn my hut down, and if the offence is egregious, you burn my hut down with me and my family in it.

The creation of laws and states to en-force them didn't change the norm so much as make it more orderly. If I of-fend that which you hold sacred, you demand that the magistrate clap me in irons, torture me, or kill me using some colourful technique that maximizes the drama of the moment and the educational value of my death. This avoided the messiness of mob violence, and thus represented a genuine civiliza-tional advance. But sometimes the law would be incapable of delivering heads, or the magistrate unwilling, and in such cases the aggrieved parties would deem it perfectly reasonable to gather together and burn my hut down with me and my family in it, or, if my hut and I were not at hand, to burn and kill what and who was.

That is the story through most of re-corded history.

Just look at the books which the Abrahamic religions deem holy. "And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord," God says to Moses in Leviticus, "he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphem-eth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death." Note that God doesn't utter these words in response to some substantial provocation, like a blasphemous book, cartoon, or film. No, that is God's command when a single curse is uttered by one man - who will subsequently be set upon and stoned to death by a mob filled with righteous fury.

We can easily imagine how that mob looks because we saw many like it last week, on television.

Of course tolerance did appear sporadically in history, usually in trading societies where a rigid insistence on piety was bad for business. But tolerance al-most always meant putting up with the presence of heretics if they shut their mouths, lowered their eyes, and kept their obscenities strictly private. It did not mean heretics were permitted to criticize the righteous, much less mock the true faith. The magistrate would shut that down straight away, and with satisfactory suffering.

Even that extremely limited notion of tolerance was rare. The historian Will Durant helpfully calculated that, on average, during the reign of Henry VIII, 3.25 heretics were burned per year, which was positively restrained and surgical compared to the countless rampages and pogroms inflicted on deviants through history. The 13th-century Crusade against Cathar heretics in southern France, which butchered men, women, and children by the tens of thousands, produced a motto beloved of zealots everywhere: "Kill them all, the Lord will recognize his own," a monk said when he was asked how the Crusaders could distinguish evil Cathars from good Catholics.

And don't think this is solely about religion, narrowly defined. French revolutionaries were explicitly anti-religious but they, too, had a sense of the sacred and an array of symbols that expressed it, and in fighting the Vendean counter-revolutionaries they behaved like Crusaders wiping out Cathars. Bolsheviks, Nazis, Maoists. True Believers are like that, whatever the content of their belief. Offend that which they hold sacred and they'll burn your hut down.

Liberal democracies are not entirely innocent, however. Many Western countries have laws that punish those who deny the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide, or other facts of history we feel are sacrosanct. They even have blasphemy laws on the books, although they mostly gather dust: The last such prosecution in Britain occurred in 1922, when a British judge sentenced a man to nine months' hard labour for comparing Jesus to a clown.

This country actually has a law against blasphemy. It's section 296 of the Criminal Code, which deems "blasphemous libel" a crime punishable by up to two years in prison, unless the libel in question makes an argument about a religious subject in good faith and "decent language." The last attempted prosecution under Section 296 was in 1935 and the law would almost certainly be struck down as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms if the Crown at-tempted to prosecute, say, the producers of South Park for their many blasphemous libels expressed in language that is most assuredly not decent.

That's progress. But more import-ant is the transformation of the attitude that created blasphemy laws in the first place.

Today, in Western countries, and many others, if I offend that which you hold sacred, you call me a jerk, and if the of-fence is egregious, you refuse to talk to me or purchase my goods and services and encourage others to do likewise. It would never occur to you to burn my hut, much less my family.

This attitude of genuine tolerance is the foundation of any modern civilization, which is why the 1979 release of the Monty Python movie Life of Brian should be seen as a significant event in history. Many devout Christians were deeply offended by Life of Brian and yet calls for censorship and prosecution were few and unsuccessful (apart from certain medieval backwaters, including Norway and Ireland, which have improved considerably since then). And of course there were no angry mobs, riots, or huts reduced to ashes.

Instead, there was a debate on the BBC, which gave John Cleese the opportunity to note that "four hundred years ago, we would have been burnt for this film. Now, I'm suggesting that we've made an advance."

Precisely. Which is why we might learn more if we stopped asking why so many Muslims behave as people have al-ways behaved and started asking why we don't.

And while we're at it, let's bear in mind that an unknowable but certainly large number of Muslims do not riot or demand prosecution when they are of-fended. The "we" in the sentence above very much includes them.