Notes & Comments February 2015
On some uses of “but”
Reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks reveal the limits of free speech.
Crowds gather in Paris after the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. via
[W]hat Americans call “liberalism” is the ideology of Western suicide.
—James Burnham, Suicide of the West
Last month, The New Criterion featured an extensive symposium on “Free Speech Under Threat.” Wide-ranging though the eight contributions to that special section were, the horrific massacres in Paris a few weeks ago remind us that there is still more to say.
Free speech does not exist in isolation. It is part of a constellation of freedoms that include, for example, the freedom to apostatize and the idea that all are equal before the law. Those ideas are, or were, bedrock principles in the modern secular West, but they are foreign to all major allotropes of Islam. Apostasy is a capital crime for Islam, in principle everywhere, in brutal fact in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Equality is also foreign to Islam, for which an assumed existential disparity between Muslim and infidel is central, as indeed is the disparity between man and woman.
In the aftermath of the Paris shootings, there has been a lot of moralistic posturing about solidarity with the victims and the mightiness of the pen compared with the sword. As the Australian commentator Andrew Bolt pointed out, however, the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had fistfuls of pens. The brothers Kouachi had a couple of Kalashnikovs. That was all it took. As for the herds of “Je Suis Charlie” marchers in Paris and elsewhere, it is worth noting how very few actual “Charlies” there were. It is one thing to carry a placard. It is another to take a stand by, for example, publishing a caricature of Mohammed. The Jyllands-Posten, which published the original “Danish Cartoons” a decade ago, was not Charlie. They declined a request to reprint the images because, they said, “violence works.” The New York Times, The Daily News, The Associated Press: neither they nor any other news outlet of note were Charlie either. At best, they published only pixelated images of the cartoons. The eminent free-speech lawyer Floyd Abrams, who defended the Times when it published The Pentagon Papers, wrote a disgusted letter to the Times, castigating it for its pusillanimity. (Publishing material damaging to the U.S. government is one thing: the Left applauds. Publishing material that might be personally risky is something else entirely.) As Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, observed on Meet the Press, by blurring the face of Mohammed, such papers “blur out democracy, secularism and freedom of religion and they insult the citizenry.” (Some of his colleagues put it more bluntly: “We vomit on these people who suddenly say they are our friends,” said one of the cartoonists.)
It is important to understand the place of free speech in the economy of Islam. In brief, there isn’t any. This is something that the London-based Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary explained with admirable clarity in USA Today a few days after the Paris shootings. “Contrary to popular misconception,” Choudary began, “Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone.” Accordingly, “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people’s desires.”
Choudary’s exegesis is quite correct, embarrassing though it might be to the “Islam means peace” narrative. And he is ominously clear, too, about the implications of this view. “In an increasingly unstable and insecure world,” he wrote, “the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.” Choudary’s point was that, at the end of the day, the bloodshed was France’s fault. They knew what to expect. “Why,” he asked, “did France allow the tabloid to provoke Muslims?”
While you ponder that amazing question, note how much overlap there is between The New York Times’s response to the Paris shootings and Choudary’s. The Times omitted the free-speech angle, but in an editorial in the aftermath of the Paris shootings it came down hard on France. The “profiles” of the killers—i.e., the fact that they hailed from poor immigrant families—constituted “an indictment of the decades-long failure of France to address long-festering alienation and exclusion among too many Muslim immigrants” and their children. Three Muslim men murder nearly twenty people. The Times blames France.
Not all Muslims are as categorical as Anjem Choudary about free speech. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, for example, the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for a decade, put it this way: “Freedom of speech is one thing, but usage of your freedom should not be to offend others or advocate hate speech or provoke people to violence.” Note that little word “but.” Freedom of speech is one thing, but . . . But what?
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents fifty-six Muslim countries plus the Palestinian Authority, has been a tireless advocate for the imposition of laws against blasphemy for years. As the journalist Asra Q. Nomani noted in a disturbing piece in The Washington Post, the OIC has underwritten “an honor corps that tries to silence debate on extremist ideology in order to protect the image of Islam. It meets even sound critiques with hideous, disproportionate responses.”
Nomani, a secularized but devout Muslim, knows whereof she speaks. She’s received death threats, been called a “Zionist media whore,” and “many other unprintable insults.” “Observant members of the flock,” she observes,
are culturally conditioned to avoid shaming Islam, so publicly citing them for that sin often has the desired effect. Non-Muslims, meanwhile, are wary of being labeled “Islamophobic” bigots. So attacks against both groups succeed in quashing civil discourse. They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells, avoiding important discussion.
Indeed, as the commentator Robert Blitt recently observed, the OIC has seen to it that any insult—which means any perceived insult—has to be suppressed. “Translated into practice,” he notes, “this toxic vision breeds contempt for freedom of religion and expression, justifies the killing of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and casts a pall of self-censorship over academia and the arts.” As Andrew McCarthy observed, “Islam need not be lampooned for caricatures to run afoul of sharia.” Any description can call down the Mullah’s wrath. So it was hardly surprising that, even as the crowds were parading around with their “Je Suis Charlie” placards, that Oxford University Press announced that it was henceforth banning “pork-related material” from its children’s books. Yes, that’s right, say goodbye to characters like Piglet and Wilbur and the Three Little Pigs. A company press release said it was part of an effort to avoid offending “Jews and Muslims,” but when was the last time the Jewish lobby complained about Winnie the Pooh? What was particularly nauseating was the justification offered by an OUP spokesman: “Many of the educational materials we publish in the UK are sold in more than 150 countries, and as such they need to consider a range of cultural differences and sensitivities.” Do you see any such accommodation for, say, Buddhist or Christian sensitivities? No, “cultural differences and sensitivities” is the OUP’s current translation of “Muslim intimidation.”
Dear Reader: does this all sound surreal? It is surreal. But it is also, and increasingly, the way we live now. And it is worth noticing the large element of hypocrisy involved. “We Muslims, we never insult Christians, Jesus Christ, Moses,” Ihsanoglu said in an interview, “nobody in our countries produces films mocking Jesus or Moses.” It was about ten minutes after we read this that a headline from Italy caught our eye: “Muslims Destroy and Urinate on Virgin Mary Statue.” We could produce many more examples. So could you.
The issue, however, is not only or even mostly about Islam and free speech. At the end of the day, the issue centers around the status of free speech in Western countries that gave birth to that indispensable auxiliary to political liberty. How’s that faring? We’ve come a long way from 1964 and the “free speech movement” at Berkeley—about the same distance traversed in Animal Farm from “All Animals Are Equal” to “But Some Are More Equal than Others.” Let us introduce you to Tanya Cohen, a feminist commentator who thinks that the U.S. needs to “get tough on hate speech through the law.” Through the law, n.b. “I am a strong believer in the unalienable right to freedom of speech,” Cohen wrote in a widely quoted (and widely mocked) column. She then lists some of the sorts of unpopular speech of which she approves (“pro-LGBT speech in Russia,” for example) and concludes with this: “But”—there’s that little word again—“but we must never confuse hate speech with freedom of speech.” Cohen elaborates: Speech that “offends or insults in general, along with speech that voices approval of anti-democratic, anti-freedom, and/or totalitarian ideologies and propaganda for war” are among the things that do not get the Tanya Cohen seal of approval.
Note that both Cohen and Ihsanoglu avail themselves of the popular neologism “hate speech.” The law has long had statutes against speech that incites violence, gratuitously crying “Fire” in a crowded theater, etc. “Hate speech” is like that other item in the lexicon of leftist redress, “social justice.” It is a weapon masquerading as a moral imperative. The adjective is cognitively vacuous but emotionally charged: it injects an intoxicating dose of moral self-righteousness that clouds the head even as it sets the heart aflutter. Tanya Cohen, like Ihsanoglu, is “a strong believer in free speech,” but not speech that “offends or insults in general,” etc. In other words, she is a strong believer in free speech, except that she isn’t.
The pathetic Tanya Cohen is hardly alone in the West in having given up on free speech. We pick her simply because she happened to be in the news. The Harvard student who wants to replace academic freedom with “academic justice” in order to outlaw research that justifies “oppression” is her soul mate, as is the Rochester Institute of Technology professor who believes that those who disagree with him about climate change should face jail. “I am for free speech, but not ‘hate speech’ / speech that offends Mohammed / speech that insults Greens / speech that mocks, satirizes, ridicules, and laughs at some PC icon,” etc. Then you are not for free speech at all, and your “but” is merely a species of capitulation pretending to redemptive conceptual nuance. Free speech is by nature offensive speech, at least potentially. If it couldn’t offend, if it couldn’t insult, it also couldn’t enlighten. Remember Molly Norris? She’s the Seattle-based artist who in 2010 suggested denominating May 20 “Everybody Draws Mohammed Day.” A contest to do just that duly followed. Then came the death threats. Norris is still in hiding, with an assumed identity, more than four years later. Recently, her name popped up on al Qaeda’s most wanted list in the jihadist magazine Inspire. The list also included Stéphane Charbonnier, the former, now the late, editor of Charlie Hebdo.
The epigraph from James Burnham’s Suicide of the West that prefaces these remarks may seem hyperbolic. In what sense is liberalism “the ideology of Western suicide”? In the course of his analysis, Burnham quotes the nineteenth-century French writer Louis Veuillot. Quand je suis le plus faible, je vous demande la liberté parce que tel est votre principe; mais quand je suis le plus fort, je vous l’ôte, parce que tel est le mien. “When I am the weaker, I ask you for my freedom, because that is your principle. But when I am the stronger, I take away your freedom, because that is my principle.” In other words, it’s the old Leninist credo: demand freedom, toleration, and diversity when out of power; practice suppression, control, and elimination of opponents when in power. What is our principle? Anjem Choudary and his friends understand what they are about. Do we?
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 6, on page 1
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