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Faith, Fanaticism, and Freedom of Speech

Some opinions are contrary to human society.

11:00 PM, Jan 25, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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London
TWENTY YEARS AGO THIS month an Islamic organization in Great Britain staged a 1,000-strong rally of rage: with BBC cameras rolling, Muslim protestors burned copies of The Satanic Verses, the 1988 work by British novelist Salman Rushdie criticizing Mohammed. Death threats and a fatwa from the Iranian government anathematizing Rushdie forced the author into hiding. "I have come to feel that what happened with The Satanic Verses was a kind of prologue," he later told The Times, "and that now we're in the main event."


The effort to silence criticism of Islam has become a main event not only in Muslim lands, but increasingly in the democratic West. Last month the London-based Centre for Social Cohesion released a report cataloguing the plight of European Muslims and ex-Muslims who have dared to challenge the forces of extremism. The study, Victims of Intimidation: Freedom of Speech Within Europe's Muslim Communities, recounts the careers of 27 leading detractors. All of them -- politicians, journalists, academics, and artists -- have experienced "significant and credible threats of violence" from Islamists and radical Muslims because of their criticism of Islam.


Mansur Escudero, an Islamic leader in Spain, has felt the wrath of extremists despite his aggressive advocacy for Muslim immigrant groups. Escudero was the secretary-general of the country's largest Muslim organization when the Madrid train bombings, orchestrated by an al Qaeda terrorist cell, killed 191 people and wounded over 1,700. His organization, the Islamic Commission, eventually issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden and calling him an apostate -- probably the first Muslim group to do so. As the fatwa summarized it: "The accomplishment of terrorist acts under the pretext of 'defending the oppressed nations of the world or the rights of Muslims' has no justification in Islam." Escudero, who has received numerous death threats, nevertheless defends the fatwa as a "call to conscience" for Spanish Muslims.


Many of the most daring and outspoken critics of Islam are women. In Germany, Turkish immigrant Ekin Deligoz has instigated a national debate about religious freedom in her role as a parliamentarian. Elected to the Bundestag in 1998, she began calling on Muslims to integrate fully into German society and to stop wearing the headscarf. Hateful emails and letters, fueled by Turkish newspapers, began arriving by the boatload, forcing German authorities to put Deligoz under police protection. In Norway, the Somali-born Kadra Noor has drawn national attention to the problem of genital mutilation among Muslim women in her work as a reporter and activist. In April 2007 she was beaten by a gang of Somali men, who accused her of offending the Quran. Noor has received multiple death threats and lives under police protection. In Italy, Nosheen Ilyas, a newspaper columnist born in Pakistan, has publicized the plight of Pakistani immigrant women denied education and work opportunities by the men in their households. Though she considers herself a devout Muslim, she receives threats like this one: "At the first opportunity we will slit your throat and cut your tongue out if you do not put a halt to your activities."


Douglas Murray, director of the Centre for Social Cohesion and the report's co-author, argues that these acts of intimidation create an impression -- a false one -- that Muslims in Europe oppose freedom of expression. The reality, as the report suggests, is that many prominent European Muslims have "suffered threats, violence and systematic intimidation from extremists" because of their public calls for reform.


If so, they're not getting much help from liberal political elites. Last month the United Nations General Assembly approved a "defamation of religions" resolution -- pushed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- complaining that Islam is "frequently and wrongly associated with human rights violations and terrorism." It went on to urge all member states "within their national legal framework" and "in conformity with international human rights instruments" to combat discrimination, intimidation, and acts of violence in the name of religion. It also called on a U.N. rapporteur to "examine the situation of Muslim and Arab peoples" to monitor attacks against their houses of worship (presumably in Western countries).


The resolution, which names only Islam and Muslims as targets of defamation, is a transparent effort to squelch exactly the kind of speech and advocacy undertaken by the critics profiled in the Centre's report. In a breathtaking omission, the U.N. document makes no mention of the appalling levels of persecution against dissenting Muslims and non-Muslim minorities in much of the Arab world.


It now looks as though a significant number of European and other Western governments are weakening in their resolve to defend the bedrock doctrines of liberal democracy, namely, freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. In a nod to their Muslim populations, countries such as the Netherlands, France, and Italy are considering legislation to ban "hate speech" against religious groups. (Earlier this week a Dutch court ordered the prosecution of lawmaker Geert Wilders, a fierce critic of Islam, for statements that "can amount to inciting hatred" of Muslims.) Meanwhile, Islamic states with blasphemy laws that criminalize religious dissent -- such as Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan -- are essentially being invited to impose their culture of repression on the rest of the international community.


This is what happens when an airy notion of "multiculturalism" replaces weightier concepts of national identity, rooted in the moral norms and religious truths that uphold human freedom. European "tolerance," al la the enlightenment, is degenerating into a tacit endorsement of religious repression. Voltaire must be spinning in his grave.


The irony of the situation has not escaped the notice of some of Islam's most outspoken critics. Maryam Namazie, founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain, warns that "tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings" is becoming the pattern in Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe. "Human beings are worthy of the highest respect," she writes, "but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance."


An earlier generation of European thinkers, still attached to Christian ideas about civil society, endorsed the wisdom of that view. John Locke, who did as much as any early enlightenment figure to defend freedom of conscience, nevertheless understood that some would seek to destroy freedom under the cloak of perverted religion. In his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke boldly demanded that the secular state keep its nose out of the affairs of the church. That didn't stop him, though, from insisting that government work vigilantly to curb the influence of religious doctrines that threatened the natural rights of its citizens. "No opinion contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society," he wrote, "are to be tolerated by the magistrate."


If the dogmas of radical Islam, which sanction violence against anyone for expressing critical views about the Quran, don't qualify as opinions "contrary to human society," then what does? European elites don't appear capable of answering that question, and their epistemological doubt is creating a political vacuum that religious extremists are ready to fill.


Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and a PhD candidate in history at the University of London. He is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.