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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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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.