It’s been a rough, tough, dismaying week for those Europeans who like to believe that the pen is mightier than the scimitar. Yes, an additional number of publications reprinted those pesky cartoons, one selling out its print run when it did so, but these were brave, temporary gestures, as evanescent as the paper on which they were printed, as futile as fists waved in the face of a storm.
While the Danish prime minister was stubbornly sticking to the principles of free speech and a free press, principles which he had, perhaps naively, and certainly optimistically, thought would find support from governments across Europe, his words were nearly drowned out by hints, murmurings, and shouts of appeasement from the gray, shrunken statesmen of Brussels, Paris, London, Stockholm, and many other capitals–take your pick–of a continent that once saw itself as the home of Enlightenment.
Freedom Fighters, Both For and Against
Of course, there were exceptions to the dismal, despairing rule, and, naturally, one of them was the Somali-born Dutch MP, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, fearless and furious, , one of the few politicians in Europe who still says how things really are:
Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers the caricatures in the cartoon affair. These intellectuals live off free speech but they accept censorship. They hide their mediocrity of mind behind noble-sounding terms such as “responsibility” and ” sensitivity. ” Shame on those politicians who stated that publishing and re-publishing the drawings was ” unnecessary, “” insensitive, “” disrespectful” and ” wrong.” I am of the opinion that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark acted correctly when he refused to meet with representatives of tyrannical regimes who demanded from him that he limit the powers of the press. Today we should stand by him morally and materially. He is an example to all other European leaders. I wish my prime minister had Rasmussen’s guts… I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny. Demanding that people who do not accept Mohammed’s teachings should refrain from drawing him is not a request for respect but a demand for submission.”
Indeed it is, and judging by the reaction of Dutch prime minister Balkenende, he’s ready to grovel. He didn’t, he sniffed, have “much use” for Hirsi Ali’s contribution, a view that would not have been shared by Theo van Gogh, the director with whom she worked on the movie, Submission. Of course, van Gogh is dead now, butchered by a Muslim extremist offended (ah, that word again) by his film. Interestingly, if one recent poll on a related matter is any indication, the Dutch people themselves are likely to take a very different line from their prime minister. Eighty-four percent, apparently, believe that Hirsi Ali should make a sequel to Submission, even if many of them were far from being fans of the original movie. They are smart enough to understand that, if it is to mean anything, free speech must include freedom of speech about those with whom you disagree.
It was this freedom that van Gogh was testing, it was this freedom that Jyllands-Posten is testing, and it is this freedom that the Dutch foreign minister will be compromising when he travels this week to the Middle East alongside Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, for talks aimed at reducing the tension over the cartoons, a pointless and humiliating exercise that can only reinforce the dangerous impression held by many of the region’s Muslims that Europe’s governments somehow control Europe’s newspapers and can thus be blamed for their contents.
The fact that such a mission is unlikely to take much account of the opinions of Dutch voters should surprise nobody. Europe’s leaders have long tended to prefer the top-down and the technocratic to the views of electorates they see as atavistic, irrational, and prone to disturbing nationalist enthusiasms. This is why they had the arrogance to prescribe multiculturalism as an appropriate response to mass immigration, an idea of remarkable stupidity that goes a long way toward explaining the predicament in which Europe now finds itself.
Of course, we don’t yet know what this delegation to the Middle East will be saying, but comments made in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph by the EU’s sinisterly named Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice reveal some clues. Saying that millions of Muslims felt “humiliated” by the cartoons, and referring to a supposed “real problem” faced by the EU in reconciling freedom of expression with freedom of religion (actually, there’s no “problem” at all, unless fanatics choose to make one), he suggested that the press should adopt a voluntary code of conduct. By agreeing to this “the press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right.” Why the “Muslim world” outside Europe, much of which is represented by dictatorships, mullah-states and kleptocracies, should have any say in the contents of the continent’s supposedly free press was not discussed.
In fairness it should be mentioned that the commissioner, Franco Frattini, subsequently put out a vague, ambiguous, and confusing press release purportedly intended to clarify his remarks, but once you have cut through the waffle, checked out the full text of the original interview, and grasped the fact that he was already talking about some sort of code before the current crisis, the commissioner’s intentions become all too clear. One way or another, he wants the press muzzled.
And Frattini is not alone. The president of the EU’s “parliament,” and thus a man supposedly dedicated to the freedom of debate, could bring himself to defend free expression only “within the boundaries of respect for the religious beliefs and cultural sensitivities of others.” Javier Solana meanwhile, paved the way for his trip by telling Al-Arabiya television that “respect does not stop at countries’ borders and it includes all religions and specifically what concerns us here, our respect for the Islamic religion.” As so often in the last week, the idea that “respect,” if it is to mean anything other than capitulation, has to flow both ways, seems not to have merited a mention.
And not so ambiguous…
Of course, there is something more than a little disingenuous about the manner in which European politicians like to portray themselves as defenders of the right of free speech even as they reduce it to rubble. The Swedish government, at least, was being more straightforward when, just before the weekend, it arranged to shut down a website that had run one rather innocuous cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. Tellingly, the website belonged to the newspaper of a political party of the hard right, yet another sign of how the establishment’s refusal to enter into any serious debate over multiculturalism has handed the issue over to Europe’s rougher fringe, who can only gain as a result. It’s telling too to read how the Swedish foreign minister reportedly excused her government’s actions: “We are already seeing reactions in certain countries who have responded to the Swedish Democrats [the political party in question] having these pictures on their website, and this could naturally have grave consequences for Swedish people and Swedish interests.” What, I wonder, is the Swedish for “submission”?
The Swedish authorities are unusual only in the directness of the measures that they have taken, and in the frankness with which they have explained the motives behind them. Other, more discreet, governments are probably content to let their laws take their course, something that will come as cold comfort to anyone who still believes in controversy, debate, and the free exchange of ideas. The development of Europe’s state-sponsored multiculturalism has gone hand-in-hand, as it had to, with the enactment of laws that chip away at free speech (and have gone further, far further, than understandable restrictions on direct incitements to violence), but which have, ironically, encouraged and inflamed those that they were meant to appease.
Jacques Chirac was quick to condemn the republication of the Danish cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, an iconoclastic French weekly, as an “overt provocation“, but was able to leave the dirty work to others. The French Council of Muslims, a body set up with official support, is reported to be organizing the prosecution of poor Charlie, quite for what remains unclear, but doubtless the Council’s lawyers will be able to find something useful in France’s laws against “hate speech” or any number of other offenses dreamt up by the enforcers of multiculturalism. The prosecution, like that of the author Michel Houellebecq may well end in failure, but any prosecution, successful or otherwise, comes with a cost in time, worry, and lawyers’ fees, a cost that will make other authors, editors, and publishers think twice before publishing anything that might irritate the imams. And France is by no means alone in this respect. Many European countries can boast, if that’s the word, similar laws on their own statute books, and even in Britain, traditionally a defender of free speech, the House of Commons recently came within one vote of passing a law that would almost certainly have made publishing the cartoons a criminal offense.
If the law doesn’t do the trick, perhaps intimidation will. The threat of violence, and sometimes more than the threat, has run through the hysteria and bombast of recent days, and it has involved far more than the torching of a few embassies, appalling though that was. Sometimes the threats, usually of trouble from Europe’s Muslim minorities, were explicit, and sometimes they were more subtle, a hint here, a comment there, that “provocations” such as the cartoons could further radicalize Islamic populations worldwide, further complicating the war on terror, and bringing the prospect of a terrifying “clash of civilizations” ever closer. If European governments are incapable of resisting such pressure, and, after the last week, it seems clear that they are, how many writers and artists can be expected to run the risk of Muslim wrath? Underlining that point, The Liberal, a small British political periodical, withdrew one of the Danish cartoons from its website after being warned by the police that they could not guarantee the safety of the magazine’s staff.
At least the magazine was able to acknowledge what had happened by leaving a blank space marked “censored” on its website. After the events of these last days, we can be sure that other acts of censorship or self-censorship will pass insidiously and in silence, unnoticed, un-mourned, or, at best, explained away as a gesture of that “respect” that Europe’s elites are now so eager to proclaim.
And as for the Danes, they must be feeling very, very alone. The notion of European solidarity has been revealed as the myth it always was. Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It’s in Danish only, but one phrase (“Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”) stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
Fine words. Is anyone listening?