A spate of terrorist attacks has hit Europe in the past month, not only in Manchester and London but also in Paris and Brussels, where incidents this week were mercifully terminated before they could do any real damage. In Britain, a man seeking vengeance rammed a van into a crowd exiting a mosque, giving rise to real and justified fears of an anti-Muslim backlash. The incidents have left the Continent, and especially Britain, in a state of nervous agitation, fearful of a prolonged period of social unrest and heightened tensions between Muslim communities and their secular neighbors.
On the issue of free speech, the response from authorities has been sad but predictable. Reports the New York Times: “In a coordinated campaign across 14 states, the German police on Tuesday raided the homes of 36 people accused of hateful postings over social media, including threats, coercion, and incitement to racism. Most of the raids concerned politically motivated right-wing incitement.” In Sussex, in southern England, a man has been charged with “publishing written material intending to stir up religious hatred against Muslims” on his Facebook account in 2015; he faces a year in prison. The Sussex police say they hope the lengthy sentence will deter those looking to “spread messages of fear and hate” on the Internet.
There are two things that come to mind in the wake of this suppression. The first is that Americans should never forget the value of free speech. Free speech — not its anodyne, Continental form — is by and large a uniquely American institution. It simply does not exist in Europe. Those who yearn for an America that looks more like the orderly, regulated, universal-health-care systems of Western Europe should keep this fact in the back of their mind always.
The second thing to say is that the crackdown on free speech is not occurring in absentia. The ongoing suppression interacts with decisions taken or not taken in other domains of policy and public debate. The most important of those decisions is that politicians and the culture more broadly have chosen not to inquire into the specifically Islamic roots of terrorism. To decline to blame Muslims en masse for terrorism is well and good and should continue. But the unwillingness to ask how Islam may provide a wellspring of justification for terrorist actions is harder to rationalize. It comes with a certain set of implications and corollaries.
Because someone still has to be blamed. Humans are incapable of accepting acts of terrorism — or just about any human action that causes mass suffering — as quasi-random acts governed by processes too byzantine for us to understand. We still feel the need to pin the blame on somebody or something, so that through punishment we may eradicate the chance of another attack.
In this case, the refusal to query the role of Islam in inspiring terrorism — a refusal regarding which my argument is agnostic — has directed the blame in the opposite direction, toward those people who make it their business to propagate their hatred of Islam and those who follow it. Not only does this blame-shifting fulfill the political need to shore up Britain’s international image — nobody likes a country of racists — and display the requisite concern for Muslim communities. It also fulfills the psychological need to force someone — anyone — to take responsibility for the heinous crimes.
Responding to a terrorist attack by jailing entirely innocent men who express unwelcome views only radicalizes the opposition and reduces the size of the acceptable center ground.
In fact an entire ideology, that of right-wing xenophobia and racism, can be blamed, and its proponents punished. The energies that might have been directed toward Wahhabi extremism flow instead toward the elimination of an ideology expressing similar hatred but boasting considerably less power to incite actual violence. The logic motivating this suppression is precisely the one that authorities neglect to use in the case of Islam: that certain sorts of rhetoric, however anonymous and innocuous, have a radicalizing effect on the environment and can effect physical violence; therefore they must be prohibited.
That strategy is likely only to backfire. Responding to a terrorist attack by jailing entirely innocent men — they are nearly all men — who express unappealing and unwelcome views does little more than radicalize the opposition and reduce the size of the acceptable center ground. When a government tells its citizens that they may not hold certain views, those views do not fancifully dissipate; rather, they come to be articulated only by their most radical proponents, thereby polarizing the political climate and stifling the expression of more-moderate and constructive opinions. Had the present system of legal enforcement existed in the 1960s, Enoch Powell may well have faced prison time for his infamous “rivers of blood” speech. But that would not detract from the attraction of his ideas, or from their popularity: It would only ensure that they became the property of characters far more unsavory.
But that it will backfire does not mean it cannot do its damage. The terms in which the authorities conducting widespread suppression of free speech emanating largely from the right are jarring. “Our society must not allow a climate of fear, threat, criminal violence, and violence either on the street or on the Internet,” says the president of the German Federal Criminal Police Office. That would not sound out of place in an Orwell novel, not only for its totalitarian mindset but also for its absurd juxtaposition with the situation on the ground: Idiots spewing their vile thoughts on Facebook are conflated with Islamic terrorists killing hundreds.
Europe has responded to the rise of terror with the tactics of suppression. That these tactics won’t work will become obvious soon enough. But until then, there is plenty of reason to fear.