There’s an old Soviet joke in which an American tells a Russian: “In my country we have freedom of speech. I can stand in front of the White House and yell, ‘Nixon is an idiot!’ and nothing will happen to me.” The Russian replies: “In my country, we have the same freedom. I can stand in front of the Kremlin and yell, ‘Nixon is an idiot!’ and nothing will happen to me either.”
Updated for the 21st century, the joke might go like this: A Christian tells a Muslim: “In the West, we have freedom of speech. I can go to the Vatican and yell, ‘Christianity is a crock!’ and nothing will happen to me.” The Muslim replies: “We have just as much freedom in the Muslim world. I can go to Mecca and yell, ‘Christianity is a crock!’ and nothing will happen to me either.”
The fact is very few Muslim-majority countries are free countries. A Muslim who wants to speak his mind without fear, practice his religion as he chooses, and vote for or against politicians in fair elections is better off living in the West than in any of the more than four dozen nations that hold membership in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
But even in the West, freedom is an endowment, not an entitlement. Generation after generation must have the courage to defend what we used to call, without embarrassment, “the blessings of liberty.”
That means recognizing that a war is being waged against what we used to call, also without embarrassment, the Free World. This war is being waged by an enemy many are reluctant to name: Islamists. They are fighting not only with AK-47s and I.E.D.s in such places as Afghanistan and Somalia. They also are fighting with actions, ideas, and laws in such places as Europe and America. They are fighting a pitched battle against freedom of speech — the right without which other rights cannot be protected.
And, at this moment, the West is putting up a feeble defense. We are accepting government prohibitions on the thoughts we may express, we are allowing extremists to shout us down and shut us up, and we are self-censoring out of fear or faux-sensitivity. A few examples?
Start with the Dutch government’s prosecution of Geert Wilders, a member of parliament who has expressed unfavorable opinions of the Islamic faith and the Koran. Such views may cause offense. But they cannot be criminalized in any country that values freedom.
Would anyone consider prosecuting a Muslim or an atheist for making hostile comments about Christianity or Jesus or the Bible? In 1987, Andres Serrano offended many people with “Piss Christ,” his photograph of a crucifix submerged in a container of urine. Not only was he not prosecuted, he was awarded a prize in a contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (which speaks volumes not only about American freedom but also about the tastes of the “arts community”).
And when Louis Farrakhan, after a visit to Libya, called Judaism a “gutter religion,” was there anyone — no matter how outraged — who proposed sending the Nation of Islam leader to prison?
Those who defend the prosecution of Wilders contend that his statements amount to “hate speech.” And that, they assert, is dangerous and therefore must be outlawed. They point to the existence of “hate crimes” in the United States and say it’s more or less the same thing.
But it’s not. The idea behind “hate crimes” is that the law should differentiate between someone who hits you on the head because he wants your wallet and someone who hits you on the head because you’re black, Jewish, Muslim, or homosexual. The latter, it is argued, is worse than the former and so merits additional punishment. I have always been doubtful about that proposition. But more to the point: There has been from the start the concern that hate crimes would lead where they have led in the Netherlands and elsewhere: to justifying the criminalization of thought and expression — even in the absence of any act of violence.
Meanwhile, as Mark Steyn notes, a film titled The Assassination of Geert Wilders has been produced and promoted — by a Dutch government-funded radio station. No one is being prosecuted for hate speech as a result of that.
Another battle against free speech was called to my attention by Ali H. Alyami, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. He sent me a video of Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., at the University of California, Irvine. Alyami suggested I watch it because, he said, it represents a “threat to our freedom of expression.”
It shows a lecture hall in which Oren is to give a talk. Several students, many but not all foreign and Muslim, have taken seats around the hall. Every few seconds one rises and begins to shout at Oren. Guards lead that individual out. Oren begins again — and another individual stands up, shouts, and is led out. The goal is to prevent Oren from completing a single thought — and to prevent the audience from hearing what he has to say.
University officials insist such behavior is intolerable — but do you think they’ll actually take the tough measures necessary to prevent such brown-shirt tactics in the future? And what do such episodes say about the values the students are learning from their professors? Is there any reason to believe they — the students or their professors — understand anything about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights?
One more battle to consider before I let you go: Last year, Yale University Press published The Cartoons that Shook the World, a book about the controversy over the twelve drawings ridiculing Islamist terrorism which were published in a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, in 2005.
Soon after, the OIC demanded that the United Nations impose international sanctions on Denmark, and it circulated a dossier that contained not just the cartoons but examples of other European insults — most of which were fabricated. Especially memorable was a picture of a man wearing a pig mask, captioned: “Here is the real image of Mohammed.” It was eventually revealed that this was a photo of a Frenchman at a pig-squealing contest; nothing to do with Mohammed. Nevertheless, coupled with the cartoons, it enraged Muslims in many countries, some of whom took to the streets, rioting, setting fires, and assaulting anyone who looked European. More than 100 people were killed.
With this as backdrop, Yale decided to exclude the cartoons from the book on the cartoons, and to omit, as well, any images of Mohammed, including those by the 19th-century French artist Paul Gustave Doré and the 20th-century Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. Was that because Yale’s executives feared violence? Or, as Roger Kimball has suggested, was it out of deference to Saudi Arabian donors? Either way, it’s hard not to view Yale’s decision as an act of preemptive surrender.
The OIC, in its 1990 “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam,” declares that “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely” — but then adds: “in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Sharia,” which is to say Islamic law as interpreted by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and other despotic members of this international religious/political alliance.
Theirs is not a different view of freedom of speech: It is a death sentence for freedom of speech. And it is what they intend not only for the lands they now rule but globally. What does it tell us that they are finding so many people in the West willing — indeed, eager — to assist them?
– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.