• "If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name." — Salman Rushdie, former President of PEN.

  • Today, a genuine fear of retribution for a "blasphemous" statement has subdued the will to stand up for one's own beliefs, values and the right to speak out. This fear has made most of the West submissive, just as Islam -- in both its name [Islam means "submission"] and declarations -- openly wants.

  • This time, the condemnation had not come in a fatwa from Iran's Supreme leader, but from a Western academic. If we do not reverse this trend, censorship, blasphemy laws, and all the other encumbrances of totalitarians, will return to our lives. The bullies will win.

  • If Geert Wilders and others are being accused of hate speech, then why isn't the Koran -- with its calls for smiting necks and killing infidels -- also being accused of hate speech?

  • The mere criticism of a religious belief shared by many people mainly in the Third World has been linked, with no justification, to their genuine prejudice against the inhabitants of the developed world.

Anyone who has had much to do with publishing, or anyone who cares about books and free speech, will be familiar with the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, an enduring champion of the First Amendment and the public's right to read whatever they please -- without the interference and censorship of self-appointed guardians of inoffensiveness and sexual purity.

Every year, the ALA mounts Banned Books Week, a nationwide celebration of our freedom to read. And every year it issues an unnerving list of Frequently Challenged Books. Unnerving because of the pettiness and obsession betrayed by the people who try to have books banned in local libraries, school boards, and even bookshops. For years, most of the attempts to ban books have come from fundamentalist Christian groups; the reasons have mainly been sex, offensive language, or "controversial issues," whatever they are. God forbid that anyone in the United States be exposed to "controversial issues."

This year a new note has entered Banned Books Week. Elizabeth McKinstry, a graduate student at Georgia's Valdosta State University (which earlier in April witnessed students trampling on the American flag) launched a petition about ALA's anti-censorship poster, calling it "Islamophobic." There is nothing on the poster, however, that relates in the slightest way to Islam. The poster shows the top of a woman's head, then her clothed chest and arms. She is not wearing Islamic dress on her head, and her arms and hands are bare. In front of her face, she holds what looks like a book bearing the text "Readstricted." Her eyes can be seen looking through the cover where it bears the universal symbol for "Restricted" (a red circle with a white bar). That is all.

In her petition, McKinstry writes, "This poster uses undeniably Islamophobic imagery of a woman in a niqab, appears to equate Islam with censorship, and muslim (sic) women as victims." She goes on to demand that the poster be "removed immediately from the ALA Graphics store, and the ALA Graphics Store and Office of Intellectual Freedom should apologize and explain how they will prevent using discriminatory imagery in the future." To make matters worse, she goes on to write: "Whether the poster was intentionally or accidentally a racist design, it is still racist and alienating."

Not only is this possibly an example of political correctness in overdrive, but the greater irony lies in that McKinstry is studying for an MA in library and information science; works as a library associate, and is a member of the ALA. Here we see a distortion of thinking that is grotesque: a person claiming to be "progressive," trying to ban an anti-censorship poster in an organization that works to end censorship.

* * *

PEN International is known worldwide as an association of writers. Together they work tirelessly for the freedom of authors from imprisonment, torture, or other restrictions on their freedom to write honestly and controversially. This year, PEN's American Center plans to present its annual Freedom of Expression Award during its May 5 gala to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The award will be handed to Gerard Biart, the publication's editor-in-chief, and to Jean-Baptiste Thorat, a staff member who arrived late on the day when Muslim radicals slaughtered twelve of his colleagues. This is the sort of thing PEN does well: upholding everyone's right to speak out even when offence is taken.

This year, however, six PEN members, almost predictably, have already condemned the decision to give the award to Charlie Hebdo, and have refused to attend the gala. Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi have exercised their right to double standards by blaming Charlie Hebdo for its offensiveness. Kushner expressed her discomfort with the magazine's "cultural intolerance." Does that mean that PEN should never have supported Salman Rushdie for having offended millions of Muslims just to express his feelings about Islam?

Peter Carey expressed his support, not for the satirists, but for the Muslim minority in France, speaking of "PEN's seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population." We never heard him speaking out when Ilan Halimi was tortured to death for weeks, or when Jews in Toulouse were shot. He seems to be saying that the French government should shut up any writer or artist who offends the extreme sensitivities of a small percent of its population.

Teju Cole remarked, in the wake of the killings, that Charlie Hebdo claimed to offend all parties but had recently "gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations." But Islam is not a race, and the magazine has never been racist, so why charge that in response to the sort of free speech PEN has always worked hard to advance?

A sensible and nuanced rebuttal of these charges came from Salman Rushdie himself, a former president of PEN: "If PEN as a free speech organization can't defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name. What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them."

Those six have now morphed into something like 145. By April 30, Carey and they were joined by another 139 members who signed a protest petition. Writers, some distinguished, some obscure, have taken up their pens to defy the principle of free speech in an organization dedicated to free speech, and many of whom live in a land that protects it precisely for their benefit with a First Amendment.

Another irony, at least as distasteful as the one just described, took place on April 22, when Northern Ireland's leading academic institution, Queen's University in Belfast, announced the cancellation of a conference planned for June. The conference, organized by the university's Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, was about free speech after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. You could not make this up. The reason given was that the institute had not prepared a proper risk assessment. Risk? Risk to what? To free speech? What a silly thought! No, it turned out to be risk of an Islamist attack in Belfast, a city long weary from terrorism. Finally, on May 1, the university reversed its decision and announced that the event will go ahead.

The following day, the University of Maryland, many miles to the west, banned a showing of the film American Sniper after complaints from Muslim students. Whether the film was good or bad, free speech was snuffed.[1]

The oddity is that today, newspaper headlines, news websites, radio and television news bulletins are packed every day with stories about the chaos in the Middle East, the threat of Iranian access to nuclear weapons, the march of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Taliban, al-Shabaab, and dozens of other terrorist groups across the region. This year's Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket slayings, the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe (closely linked to Islamism), demonstrations filling the streets with chants such as "Hamas, Hamas Jews to the Gas," and all the other atrocities and social disjunctions that arise from the revival of fundamentalist Islam.

America and Britain have fought, with allies, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as of this writing, the United States is carrying out air strikes against ISIS in Syria.

Such news stories are not occasional, they are everyday. Stories of this kind are seldom crowded out by anything but the most important news items, such as a major airline crash or significant domestic political events. Such stories are even more visible than Cold War geopolitical new ever was, due to the immense proliferation of news outlets since the 1990s. The citizens of the U.S., Europe, Canada, Australia and (above all) Israel do not face a remote threat from a distant country, but daily threats of being blown up in their own streets almost every day. The British security services announce almost daily the likelihood of a terrorist event.

But where are the novels? Where are the Le Carrés and Ludlums, the Flemings and Clancys? The number of novels dealing with Islamist, terrorist, or state-sponsored threats to the world's stability (and hence to our own stability and safety) are so few in number, I cannot remember even one. Back to the comfort zone.[2]

This bears thinking about. Is it just a matter of fashion, or are there deeper reasons for this apparent neglect of the most important political and military issues of the present day? Is the literary issue a canary in a coal mine of much greater extent?

The answer is yes. Western culture, once built in part on the principle of free speech -- a principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment and promoted in all liberal democracies -- has been weakened by attacks on the right of everyone to right to speak openly about politics, religion, sexuality, and a host of other things.

The first blow to free speech came in 1989 with demonstrations and riots over British author Salman Rushdie's controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses; and fears grew when Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Rushdie.

Many people died in riots or were murdered because of association with the book. Bookshops were firebombed in the U.S. and UK; publishers were attacked; booksellers often refused to stock the novel; editors wrote to authors like myself, asking us to decide whether some forthcoming publications dealing with Islam could be safely published, and free speech was under attack.

The most harmful blow, however, came when some Western so-called intellectuals and religious leaders condemned Rushdie and supported a ban on his novel. Immanuel Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, opposed the book's publication.[3] The Archbishop of Canterbury called for a law of blasphemy that would cover other religions than just Christianity, opening up the spectre that religions, even violent ones such as Islam, could be privileged above other societal actors in a democracy.[4] Sadly, this pattern of betrayal by Western thinkers has been repeated ever since.

What impact has this had? Here is a simple example: Early in 2012, a controversy stormed up in church circles in the United States. Three well-known Christian publishers, Wycliffe Bible Translators, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) and Frontiers were accused of having pandered to Muslims in their new Arabic and Turkish translations of the New Testament. The translators had replaced terms such as Father (for God) and Son to conform to the Koranic doctrine that God did not have a son and was not a father of anyone. In the Frontiers and SIL translation into Turkish, "guardian" replaces "Father" and "representative" or "proxy" is used for "Son." Such considerations did not deter earlier Bible translators into Islamic language from an honest statement of a fundamental Christian doctrine. But today, a genuine fear of retribution for a "blasphemous" statement has subdued the will to stand up for one's own beliefs, values and the right to speak out. This fear has made much of the West submissive, just as Islam -- in both its name [Islam means "submission"] and declarations -- openly wants.

Since then, the attacks from Islamists on this most basic of Western principles -- the central plank in the platform of true democracy and the feature that most distinguishes it from totalitarianism of all forms -- have multiplied, culminating in the slaughter carried out by Muslims extremists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015.

Beneath the sporadic physical assaults lies a deeper layer of coercion: the fear lest anyone commit that apparently most unforgiveable crime of all, "Islamophobia!" It now seems that almost anything non-Muslims do may result in such accusations -- a bigotry that has also become conflated with racism. The mere criticism of a religious belief shared by people mainly in the Third World has been linked, with no justification, to their genuine prejudice against the inhabitants of the developed world. But since it is Muslims who have been allowed to define "Islamophobia," often at whim, even the mildest remarks can lead to serious accusations, lawsuits, and criminal attacks.[5]

In the case of Sherry Jones's novel The Jewel of Medina, historically "revised" to be sympathetic to Islam, Random House in 1988 cancelled the novel's publication. Its spokesperson stated that the publishing house had been given "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."[6]

This time, the condemnation had not come in a fatwa from Iran's Supreme Leader, but from a Western academic, whose identity is not known to me. On September 28, 2008, British extremist Ali Beheshti and two accomplices set fire to the house of the owner of the UK publishing company that had bought The Jewel of Medina. Fortunately, nobody was killed. But the vise of subjugation to Islamic dictats was tightening round the neck of the free world.

* * *

Rushdie knew he was being controversial; for those who protested, the attacks on him, however reprehensible, had a bizarre justification. Condemnation from Western academics, journalists, interfaith clerics, and politicians shows not how successful intimidation has become, but how timid and craven we have become. To surrender with such spinelessness can only mean that we have entered the first stages of the decline of the Enlightenment values that made the modern West the greatest upholder of human rights and freedoms in history.

Criticism of Islam and everything else will -- and should -- continue, produced by courageous writers and journalists. Certainly, we know how many times politicians in the United States and Europe have delusionally tried to persuade us that Islamist violence "has nothing to do with Islam."

There have been many attacks and murders already. Perhaps the best known of these -- until the Charlie Hebdo murders -- was the murder of Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, on November 2, 2004. Van Gogh had directed a short film called Submission, written by Muslim dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had worked extensively in women's shelters in the Netherlands, where she had observed that most of the women were Muslim. Van Gogh's killer, a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri, now serving a life sentence, has described democracy as utterly abhorrent to Islam. (This view, for anyone who cares about the continuation of the West, is held by many Muslims. For them, democracy, made by man, is illegitimate, compared to shari'a law, made by Allah, and therefore the only form of government that is legitimate.) In court, Bouyeri said that 'the law [shari'a law] compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet."

The threat of murder has become ever more real. It is no longer possible to dismiss death threats from Muslims as the work of "lone wolves," "deviant personalities," or attention seekers. It is the use of death threats that has given radical Muslims the power to deter most writers, film-makers, TV producers, and politicians from tackling Islamic issues. The threat of calling people "racist" as a tool for suppressing critical voices has cast a dark shadow over normal democratic life. Some have died for free speech about Islam; others have faced ostracism, imprisonment, flogging and the loss of a normal life. [7]

Salman Rushdie lives under constant guard. Molly Norris, an American artist who drew a cartoon of Mohammed and proposed an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," has lived in hiding since 2010. On advice from the FBI, she changed her identity and cut off all links with family and friends. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders has been tried for "hate speech," barely acquitted, and is now being tried for "hate speech" again.

These are just a few of the casualties who have paid a heavy price for their willingness to treat Islam as any of us might treat other subjects or other faiths. No Christian scholar will be tried for arguing that the Gospels contain contradictions, no Reform Jew will be arraigned for criticism of ultra-Orthodox beliefs, no politician will be brought before the law for denouncing the ideologies of Communism or Fascism. You can say that Karl Marx was misguided or that a U.S. president is terrible, and on and on, without dreading for a moment an assassin's footfall or being locked up for your remarks.

Theo van Gogh (left) was murdered by an Islamist because he made a film critical of Islam. Salman Rushdie (right) was lucky to stay alive, spending many years in hiding, under police protection, after Iran's Supreme Leader ordered his murder because he considered Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses "blasphemous."

Incidents such as these or UK Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband's promise to make Islamophobia a hate crime (without even defining Islamophobia) illustrate the most dangerous result of Islamic agitation and asserted victimhood: it has caused us to turn on ourselves, to abandon our commitment to free speech, open academic enquiry, and the readiness to question everything -- the very qualities that have made us strong in the past. When Western so-called intellectuals such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash condemn a Muslim apostate such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her criticisms of radical Islamism, or when Brandeis University withdraws its offer of an honorary degree for Ms. Ali when Muslim students object, we see our intellectual foundations shake. [8]

It is also necessary to ask, if Geert Wilders and others are being accused of hate speech, then why isn't the Koran -- with its calls for smiting necks and killing infidels -- also being accused of hate speech?

If we do not reverse this trend of submission, censorship, blasphemy laws and all the other encumbrances of totalitarianism will return to our lives. The bullies will win, and the Enlightenment will fade and pass away from mankind. Political correctness and shari'a law will rule. How tragic if a senseless fear causes us to do this to ourselves.

Denis MacEoin is a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies. He has an MA in Persian, Arabic and Islamic Studies from Edinburgh University, a PhD in Persian Studies from Cambridge (King's College) and an MA in English Language and Literature from Trinity College, Dublin.


[1] If you are old enough to remember the Cold War, you will also recall the remarkable outpouring of literary engagement with the issues it provoked. Not just dissident narratives like Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago or novels such as his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, but the many spy thrillers by mainly British authors like John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), and many others, Trevor Dudley-Smith ('Adam Hall'), and Jack Higgins. Later, several Americans came to match the popularity of their British counterparts: Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Nelson DeMille, and others. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union as a threat, Cold War themes rapidly died out.

[2] There have been several films such as The Siege or the more recent American Sniper, and TV shows such as Homeland and the BBC's award-winning drama The Honourable Woman. In 2014, a new drama appeared on BBC America and is due to play in the UK this April: The Game is set in the 1970s and tells a story of spies fighting the Cold War.

[3] The Times, 4 March 1989.

[4] Michael Walzer, "The Sins of Salman," The New Republic, 10 April 1989.

[5] The most notorious of the many cases involving perceptions of blasphemy started November 25, 2007, when an English kindergarten teacher at a school in Sudan, Gillian Gibbons, was arrested, interrogated and finally put in a cell at a local police station. Her crime? She had allowed her class of six-year-olds to name their teddy bear "Muhammad." From this innocent mistake, matters got worse for Gibbons. On November 26, 2007, she was formally charged under Section 125 of the Sudanese Criminal Act, for "insulting religion, inciting hatred, sexual harassment, racism, prostitution and showing contempt for religious beliefs." Sudan's top clerics called for the full measure of the law [death] to be used against Mrs. Gibbons; and labeled her actions part of a Western plot against Islam.

On November 29, she was found guilty of "insulting religion" and was sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment and deportation. The next day, approximately 10,000 protesters, some of them waving swords and machetes, took to the streets in Khartoum, demanding Gibbons's execution.

In the end, Gibbons was released from jail and allowed to return to Britain. But her case put the fear of savagery in many people's hearts, as they recognized that it take nothing more than a slip of tongue to bring down death on oneself.

In yet another irony, Sherry Jones, an American writer who said she wanted to bring people together, wrote a novel entitled The Jewel of Medina, a story of the romance (if that is the word) between the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride A'isha, who came to be his most beloved wife. This was a noble project designed to show that Westerners are not all "Islamophobes," and written in sentimental prose to reassure Muslims of Jones's warm feelings towards their prophet. Random House bought the story for a large fee. Influenced by the leading apologist for Muhammad, the anti-historian, Karen Armstrong, Jones even bowdlerizes the tale, delaying consummation of the marriage until A'isha had fully attained puberty (despite what the Islamic historians tell us, which is that marriage was apparently consummated when A'isha was nine).

A publication date in 2008 was set and a nationwide tour planned – a promotion few new authors get. But neither Jones nor one of America's oldest and biggest publishing houses had reckoned with the fallout from The Satanic Verses.

[6] Cited Nick Cohen, You Can't Read this Book, rev. ed., London, 2013, p. 72.

[7] Danish author Lars Hedegaard has suffered an attack on his life and lives in a secret location. Kurt Westergaard, a Danish cartoonist, has suffered an axe attack that failed, and is under permanent protection the of intelligence services. In 2009, Austrian, a politician, Susanne Winter, was found guilty of "anti-Muslim incitement," for saying, "In today's system, the Prophet Mohammad would be considered child-molester," and that Islam "should be thrown back where it came from, behind the Mediterranean." She was fined 24,000 euros ($31,000) and given a three-month suspended sentence. In 2011, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, a former Austrian diplomat and teacher, was put on trial for "denigration of religious beliefs of a legally recognized religion," found guilty twice, and ordered to pay a fine or face 60 days in prison. Some of her comments may have seemed extreme and fit for criticism, but the court's failure to engage with her historically accurate charge that Muhammad had sex with a nine-year-old girl and continued to have sex with her until she turned eighteen, regarding her criticism of it as somehow defamatory, and the judge's decision to punish her for saying something that can be found in Islamic sources, illustrates the betrayal of Western values of free speech in defense of something we would normally penalize.

[8] This backing away from our Enlightenment values has been documented and criticized by many writers, notably Paul Berman in his 2010 The Flight of the Intellectuals, Britain's Douglas Murray in Islamophilia (2013), or Nick Cohen in You can't read this book (2012)

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