Support for people who criticize their own Western democratic societies is now all too apparent among many Western intellectuals, academics, members of the media, international organizations, and religious groups which, while refusing to challenge cases of injustice, particularly in Muslim countries, instead criticize and condemn the state of Israel at every turn, despite the continuing physical and rhetorical aggression against it.
Intellectual support for, or acquiescence in, tyrannical regimes and unjust rulers is familiar in history. It runs from Plato supporting the tyrant of Syracuse; Seneca praising Nero; Aristotle advising Alexander the Great, and it extends to modern times with individuals such as Martin Heidegger approving, for a time, Hitler, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who, in 1947, justified the fraudulent Moscow Trials which condemned the Russian critics of Stalin.
The Dean of Canterbury in Britain for over 30 years, Hewlett Johnson, embodied a deluded, fanatical mind at work: safe in his ecclesiastical position, and suffering no penalties for his utterances and actions, Johnson was a life-long admirer of both Communism in theory, and the Soviet Union in action. He defended the Nazi-Soviet Pact of September 1939 -- the prelude to Hitler's start of World War II. Johnson's undying admiration for Communism led him to defend both the arrest in 1949 on false charges, of Cardinal Mindzenty by the Hungarian secret police, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary -- for which he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1950, and the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1951,
As George Orwell, familiar with such "fellow travelers" of the Soviet Communist regime who, in their irresponsible fashion, supported or excused that regime despite its tyranny and brutality, and at no cost to themselves, wrote, "So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot."
These critics, consciously or not, are now allying with groups and states the open, ultimate, objective of whom is the destruction of the state of Israel. In fairness, people with this mindset have, in recent years, also supported worthy causes, such as sanctions against the apartheid state of South Africa and calls for its abolition. Such support, however, could hardly be considered courageous: no one had to pay any price for it; on the contrary, there were benefits, both ideological and personal, such as enlarged self-esteem or glory in success.
What is important is that the compassion shown by these individuals has not been present in the face of gratuitous attacks on democratic values, or in the face of aggression, physical and rhetorical, against the state of Israel. Nor have Western Europeans, at least, been willing to face the real problems currently exponentiating there,such as the mass immigration of people from other cultures, who have failed to be successfully integrated into Western societies, as well as the rise of Islamism. The critics of their own democratic societies rarely discuss the real difficulties, both demographically and politically, of the multicultural societies of Britain and France, or what the significance might be of over half the Muslims in Britain believing that it was actually the CIA or the Israeli Mossad which were responsible for the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
What can explain this failure by self-proclaimed high-minded people to respond not only to the physical violence against a tiny democratic ally, but also to the attacks on free speech, or the attempts to prevent criticism of some activity supposedly based on religious principles, such as Christians continually being burned alive in their churches in Nigeria by the fundamentalist goup, Boko Haram [literally: "Western Education Is Forbidden"], or the the possible judicial murder by Iran of Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani for refusing to recant his conversion to Christianity, or Iran's illegal, ongoing threats of genocide against a fellow member of the United Nations?
Part of the explanation, at least regarding Europeans, may be due to what Walter Laqueur, in After the Fall, called a "crisis of lack of will, inertia, tiredness, self-doubt, a lack of self-confidence." Other people, who are perhaps seeking fame, or acceptance as politically correct, or even material rewards, or who are simply ignorant of political reality, pay no price for their appeasement of the actions and language of countries and groups that are critical of, and actively threaten, democratic values.
Some Westerners may be deluded by feelings of guilt for the actions of democratic countries in the past, such as the brutal takeover of the Congo by Belgium. No one, of course, wants to be accused of "racism" or intolerance towards minority groups, or of supporting Western "imperialism." But while these critic of democracies often express concern about abuses of power in their own countries, they are more quiescent about the much greater abuses in non-Western countries. Rarely do they protest the violations of human rights in Arab and Muslim countries, such as that women are officially worth only half of what a man is worth in inheritance or judicial disputes; or (with a straight face) that the presence of four male witnesses four male witnesses is required to testify that a woman was not the victim of a rape, not to mention their silence and staggering absence of over, for example, honor killings, religiously-sanctioned wife-beating, and female genital mutilation; or the wholesale jailing of journalists currently under way in, among other places, Turkey and the Palestinian Territories.
Another explanation for this quiescence is that discussion of the issue of Islamist actions, such as the murder in November 2004 of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, or the threats against writers such as Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the current Dutch MP Geert Wilders; or the condemnation of the Danish journalists -- especially the courageous editor Flemming Rose, responsible in 2005 for the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad -- would lead to greater support for right wing parties, which would then call for restrictions on immigration, or mass deportation, or economic and educational discrimination against Muslims.
This can hardly explain, however, the refusal of well-known fellow writers, such as John Le Carre, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and Roald Dahl, to defend Salman Rushdie after his book, The Satanic Verses, was condemned by the Ayatollah Khomeini in a fatwa [religious edict] that called for the faithful to kill both Rushdie and his publishers. Why would these supposed upholders of the principle of free speech not protest the decision of the UN Human Rights Council to punish criticism of Islam, or its continuing efforts, backed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, internationally to criminalize all discussion of Islam in an ongoing series of a series of meetings called 'The Istanbul Process'?
Why would they not challenge the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, which states that Sharia law is "the only source of reference" for the protection of human rights in Islamic countries -- a statement that is totally contrary to the UN Declaration of Human Rights of December 1948? Why do the high-minded progressives acquiesce in the attacks on Enlightenment principles?
A more probable explanation for such behavior is an attitude of appeasement, reminiscent of the refusal by some in the 1930s to recognize and counter the emerging reality of Hitlerism. In the present, this entails a politically correct acceptance of the "culturally relativist" position which holds that the demands of Muslim authorities and Muslim habits, values, and customs are appropriate -- a view that apparently cannot bear to imagine that possibly all cultures and religious expressions might not be equal. This view often amounts to toleration of the intolerant.
The most plausible explanation for silence in democratic countries, however, is fear. Westerners fear being accused of racial prejudice or "Islamophobia." Publishing houses have been wary out of fear of physical violence and economic boycott, of issuing books, such as the novel, The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones, a work that might "offend" some in the Muslim community, which often sounds as if it believes there should be a new Right Not To Be Offended. The behavior of Random House on this issue was not a profile in courage. Both the media and many in the academic and entertainment world have engaged in self-censorship; upholders of the principle of free speech have been unwilling or reluctant to discuss some of those topics, such as jihad or the impact of Sharia law, that might be considered offensive to Muslims or to developing countries. Silence, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali said in a speech in Berlin on May 11, 2012, becomes an accomplice to injustice. She might have added that silence also tends to embolden extremists.
An increasingly dangerous development is the silence or whitewashing by Western commentators of Arab and Muslim deviations from human rights. These commentators refrain from criticism, or sometimes they even justify hatred and injustice -- perhaps out of the cowardly fear that they might "lose access" to these autocrats, or perhaps out of the concern that they, too, might be physically attacked; suffer material loss, or even be accused of the charges so frequently propounded in international gatherings of "racism," "Islamophobia," or "orientalism."
We have been through this before -- when a quiet, unconcerned policy of appeasement towards the criminal behavior of non-democracies in the 1930s was considered an inadequate response to Hitler and Nazism. It is time to apply lessons from this disastrous policy to the present attacks on Israel and other democracies by non-democratic forces. Genuine believers in political and intellectual freedom must not be hesitant to denounce attempts to stifle such freedoms; and they must not appease those countries and groups who make such attempts.
Michael Curtis is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.