One of the greatest achievements of the Enlightenment in Europe and the United States is the principle of free speech and reasoned criticism. Democracy is underpinned by it. Our courts and parliaments are built on it. Without it, scholars, journalists, and advocates would be trapped, as their ancestors had been, in a verbal prison. It is enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, in the words
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Without full freedom to express ourselves in speech or in print, none of us could criticize a religion, an ideology, a political party, a law, an academic theorem, or anything else we might feel to be misguided, flawed, or even dangerous. Through it, we are free to worship as we choose, to preach as we see fit, to stand up in a parliament to oppose the government, to satirize the pompous, to take elites down a peg or two, to raise the oppressed to dignity, or to say that anything is nonsense.
Sir Karl Popper, the philosopher, wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies in defence of democracy, freedom and free speech. In Popper's open society, all people have to be able to think and express themselves freely, without fear of punishment or censorship.
Closed societies are totalitarian and depend on claims to absolute truth. The citizen is not free to challenge the ideas of the state. Theocracies, including past and present Islamic states, rest for their authority on the rigid application of infallible scripture and divinely revealed laws.
The chief threat to free speech today comes from a combination of radical Islamic censorship and Western political correctness. Over the past century and more, Western societies have built up a consensus on the centrality of freedom of expression. We are allowed to criticize any political system or ideology we care to: capitalism, socialism, liberalism, communism, libertarianism, anarchism, even democracy itself. Not only that, but -- provided we do not use personalized hate speech or exhortations to violence -- we are free to call to account any religion from Christianity to Scientology, Judaism to any cult we choose. Some writers, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, have been uncensored in their condemnations of religion as such.
It can be hard for religious people to bear the harsher criticisms, and many individuals would like to close them down, but lack that power. Organizations such as Britain's National Secular Society (established in 1866) flourish and even advise governments.
It used to be possible to do this with Islam as well. In some measure it still is. But many Muslim bodies -- notably the 57-member-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) -- have been working hard for years to render Islam the only religion, political system and ideology in the world that may not be questioned with impunity. They have tried -- and are in many respects succeeding -- to ring-fence Islam as a creed beyond criticism, while reserving for themselves the right to condemn Christians, Jews, Hindus, democrats, liberals, women, gays, or anyone else in often vile, even violent language. Should anyone say anything that seems to them disrespectful of their faith, he or she will at once be declared an "Islamophobe."
I am not talking here about hate literature comparable to the ubiquitous anti-Semitic writing so freely available on the internet. Much milder things have fallen and continue to fall afoul of Islamic defensiveness. We know some of the more obvious: a novel, a bunch of cartoons, some films, some political speeches, and a few blogs which have resulted in savage floggings, imprisonment, torture, death threats and murders. There is plenty of vulgar anti-Muslim comment online, just as there is plenty of everything in the public arena. But Muslim sensibilities have become so tender now that even fair, balanced, and informed questions about Muhammad, his early followers, the Qur'an, various doctrines, aspects of Islamic history, the behaviour of some Muslims, even the outrages committed by them, are rejected as Islamophobic.
Politicians and the media rush to disavow any connection between jihadi violence and Islam, and hurry to protect Muslims from the anticipated anger that massacres might provoke. Officials are not wrong to urge against reprisals or hatred targeting ordinary, uninvolved Muslims. But many often seem too quick to avoid pinning blame on actual Islamic laws and doctrines that inspire the jihad attacks.
Just after the horrendous slaughter in a gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12, U.S. President Barack Obama made a speech in which he described the attack as an "act of hate" and an "act of terror". Not "Islamic terrorism" or even the misleading phrase "Islamist terrorism". Like almost every world leader, he declares, with gross inaccuracy, that "Islam is a religion of peace". It is politically expedient to deny the very real connection to jihad violence in the Qur'an, the Traditions (ahadith), shari'a law, and the entire course of Islamic history. Obama and many others simply deny themselves the right to state what is true, partly for political reasons, but probably more out of fear of offending Muslims in general, and Muslim clerics and leaders in particular. We know only too well how angry many Muslims can become at even the lightest perceived offence.
The list of threats, attacks, and murders carried out to avenge perceived irreverence towards Islam, Muhammad, the Qur'an or other symbols of Islam is now long. Even the mildest complaints from Muslim organizations can result in the banning or non-publication of books, distancing from authors, condemnations of alleged "Islamophobes" by declared supporters of free speech, the cancellation of lectures, arrests, and prosecutions of men and women for "crimes" that were not crimes at all. There are trials, fines and sentencings for advocates of an accurate and honest portrayal of Islam, its sources, and its history.
Danish author Lars Hedegaard suffered an attack on his life and lives in a secret location. Kurt Westergaard, a Danish cartoonist, suffered an axe attack that failed, and is under permanent protection by the security services. In 2009, in Austria, the politician Susanne Winter was found guilty of "anti-Muslim incitement," for saying, "In today's system, the Prophet Mohammad would be considered a 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. The phrase "child molester" was based on the fact, recorded by Muslim biographers, that Muhammad had sexual relations with his new wife A'isha when she was nine years old.
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 defence of something we would normally penalize.
The stories of the bounty placed on Salman Rushdie's head by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the threats and attacks against the artists who drew the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, or the murderous assault on the editorial team at Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 are well known. Accustomed to free speech, open blasphemy, and satire, at home with irreverence for individuals and institutions, and assured of the legality of those freedoms -- threats and attacks like those terrify us. Or should.
But even more terrifying is the way in which so many politically correct Western writers and politicians have turned their backs on our most basic values. There are many instances, but the most disturbing has to be the reaction of Pen International, the internationally acclaimed defender of free speech everywhere, to Charlie Hebdo. 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. In 2015, PEN's American Center planned to present its annual Freedom of Expression Award during its May 5 gala to Charlie Hebdo. The award was to 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.
When, however, this was announced, six PEN members, almost predictably, condemned the decision to give the award to Charlie Hebdo, and refused to attend the gala. Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi 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 Carey speaking out when a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, was tortured to death for weeks in France, or when Jews in Toulouse were shot and killed. 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 later morphed into something like one hundred and forty-five. By April 30, Carey and the others were joined by another one hundred and thirty-nine members who signed a protest petition. Writers, some distinguished, some obscure, had taken up their pens to defy the principle of free speech in an organization dedicated to free speech -- many of whom live in a land that protects free speech in its First Amendment precisely for their benefit.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation had succeeded in winning a UN Human Rights Council resolution (16/18, 2010) that makes "defamation of religion" (read: blasphemy in the eyes of its followers) a crime. But the OIC knows full well that only Muslims are likely to use Western laws to deny free speech about their own faith. Five years later, in December 2015, the US Congress introduced House Resolution 569, intended to combat hate speech and other crimes. Insofar as it addresses matters of genuine concern to us all, it seems beyond reproach. But it contains an oddity. It singles out Muslims for protection three times. It does not mention any other faith community.
The greatest defence of our democracy, our freedom, our openness to political and religious debate, and our longing to live in Popper's open society without hindrance -- namely freedom of expression -- is now under serious threat. The West survived the totalitarianism of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union without any loss of our freedoms. But today, a new enemy has arisen, global in its reach, more and more often militant in its expression, rooted in 1.6 billion people, seated at the UN and other international bodies, and already partially cowing us into submission to its repressive prejudices. Since the edict against Salman Rushdie, there is no way of calculating how many books have been shelved, how many television documentaries have never been aired, how many film scripts have been tossed in the waste bin, how many conferences have been cancelled or torn down, or how many killers are waiting in the wings for the next book, or poem, or song or sport that will transgress the strictures of Islamic law and doctrine.
Denis MacEoin PhD is a specialist in Islamic affairs. He is currently writing a study of concerns about Islam in the Western world.