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Speaking of Islam By: Lee Harris
The Weekly Standard | Thursday, February 07, 2008


The English-speaking peoples are justifiably proud of their tradition of free speech. When Thomas Macaulay reviewed the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he observed that the victorious English Whigs had shown how "the authority of law and the security of property" could be reconciled with "a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known."

Since Macaulay's day, many of the other nations of the world have also figured out how to reconcile liberty of discussion with the general welfare, until a point has been reached where we in the West have completely forgotten what a remarkable achievement our ancestors bequeathed to us. Even a devout Whig like Macaulay, writing midway between us and the Glorious Revolution, recalled a time when unrestricted liberty of discussion could not be made compatible with domestic tranquility. Today, on the other hand, most of us have lost any awareness of the painful fact that, under certain conditions, a society might be forced to make a tragic choice between two incompatible goods, namely, free speech and the public welfare. Yet the events of the last several years should have awakened us from our dogmatic slumber, for when it comes to speaking of Islam, there is troubling evidence that our cherished liberty of discussion may not be compatible with security of life and limb, not to mention the security of property.

It is only by keeping these sobering facts in mind that we can hope to put into perspective the strange drama unfolding in Canada--a drama that contains elements that might have been borrowed from the theater of the absurd, making it uncertain whether we are dealing with a surreal farce or an all too real tragedy.

On January 11, 2008, in a small drab government office in Alberta, a hearing was held to investigate a complaint brought against Ezra Levant, a Canadian publisher, author, and libertarian activist. The case, in truth, had its origins two years earlier in Denmark, where the daily news-paper Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published a set of cartoons lampooning the prophet known to Muslims as Muhammad. As most of us remember, after a delay of several months, and with an assist from a road-show to the Middle East organized by unhappy Danish imams, the so-called Danish cartoons set off havoc in various corners of the Muslim world, leaving a death toll of around 100 people, many of whom were shot by police in their attempt to quell the riots. In the aftermath, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the cartoon controversy was the worst international crisis for his country since World War II, when Denmark was invaded by the Nazis.

Ezra Levant had nothing to do with the original cartoon debacle. His magazine, the now defunct Western Standard, decided to reprint the cartoons in order to let its readers see and judge the drawings for themselves. When the cartoons appeared on February 14, 2006, there were no riots, deaths, or international crises. But, not long afterwards, Levant found himself in hot water. Syed Soharwardy, representing the self-proclaimed Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, filed a complaint with the Calgary police, alleging that Levant was inciting hatred against him--a crime in Canada. These criminal charges, according to the Calgary police, are still under investigation. In addition, Soharwardy lodged a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights and Citizen Commission.

In a related case, four Muslim law students affiliated with the Canadian Islamic Congress have filed complaints against author Mark Steyn for publishing an excerpt from his bestselling book, America Alone, in the Canadian newsweekly Maclean's. These complaints, filed in December 2007, will be heard by the British Columbian Human Rights Tribunal and by the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

There has been remarkably little interest shown in these cases by the American media, usually so alert to perceived violations of the right to free speech, and it is perhaps too easy to speculate why the editorial boards of our leading newspapers and magazines have not gotten up in arms over these attacks on their Canadian colleagues. Could it be that they are not as keen on defending our right to speak ill of Islam as they are to defend our right to speak ill of virtually everything else? On the other hand, the Canadian cases have caught the attention of the blogosphere, especially but not exclusively among those to the right of center. After Levant made the videotape of his appearance before the Alberta Human Rights Commission available on YouTube, it was inundated with viewers, most of them enthusiastically sympathetic with his defiant response to the order to appear before the commission. There is also a Free Mark Steyn! website dedicated to information about his pending case and to defending other "Canadians from the thought police and 'human rights' commissars."

So what are we really dealing with here? A grave threat to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of free speech, as some seem to think, or a cautionary tale of bureaucratic folly in a nanny state running amok?

Before the commencement of his hearing, Levant read a statement in which he refused to recognize that the commission had the authority to summon him before it to answer questions relating to Soharwardy's complaint. Levant vehemently asserts that he, like everyone else, has the unconditional right to engage in speech that is offensive and unreasonable. The defiant and pugnacious attitude that Levant took has been widely echoed by his supporters, and there has been a uniform tendency to lump the various Canadian tribunals and commissions together under the heading of kangaroo courts, intent on violating what Levant, in his opening remarks, called his "inalienable" right to freedom of expression, further sanctioned, in his words, by "the 800-year tradition" of English common law on the subject.

Macaulay would have been quite surprised to learn that from the 12th century onward there were no restrictions on speech under English common law. As a Whig, Macaulay might have reminded Levant that it took the Whig revolution to secure anything like the kind of liberty of discussion that we take for granted. During the reign of James I, Macaulay might have noted, there was a heated controversy over the degree to which members of the House of Commons could freely speak their minds during a session of Parliament, and even those members of the House who pushed to protect their own right of free speech recognized that there were obvious limits beyond which it would be improper to go. No member of the House of Commons could urge the overthrow of the monarchy, for instance, or make speeches that endangered the general welfare.

In 17th-century England, no one doubted that it was often in the public interest to curb men's tongues. During the reign of Charles I, for example, the archbishop of Canterbury William Laud decided to hand down a ruling that forbade ministers to discuss the sublime mysteries associated with Calvin's doctrine of predestination. They could not preach it, nor could they preach against it. They could not mention it at all. This was clearly an infringement on the right of free speech, but for Laud it was an infringement that was amply justified in the interests of domestic tranquility and social harmony. For Laud, what was at stake was not so much the promotion of his own theological opinions as the suppression of the furor theologicus that had caused so much devastation in England and throughout Europe in the aftermath of the Reformation. What Laud wanted to achieve was not the victory of his own narrow theological opinions, but the eradication of all theological divisiveness, along with the rancor and the violence that came with it. His goal was to bring about uniformity of religious opinion and practice by weaning the English population away from violent disputations over inherently unsolvable mysteries.

If Macaulay represented the Whig approach to liberty of discussion, Laud could be said to represent the Tory approach. For Macaulay, free speech was the foundation of mankind's "intellectual improvement," so that any state that interfered with the free expression of ideas had impeded the growth of knowledge and the ethical uplift of the race. In addition, for the Whig, free speech was the ultimate bulwark against governmental or ecclesiastical despotism. For the Tory, on the other hand, the state not only had a legitimate right to interfere with free speech under certain conditions, it had a duty to interfere. If liberty of discussion threatened to incite men to violence, or caused them to take the law in their own hands, then the state, representing the general welfare and not merely its own selfish interests, had to curb this so-called liberty. Liberty yes, license, no. When preaching sermons about predestination becomes tantamount to shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater, then such sermons must cease.

It is easy, looking back, to take a smug attitude toward the men of those times, and to preen ourselves on how much farther we have advanced in the recognition of the importance of basic human rights than our ancestors. But what we forget is that we are the heirs of a profound cultural transformation that made free speech less dangerous to the social order than it was in previous centuries. We were all brought up in a world in which it was safe to speak our minds--safe both for us, and for the other members of our community. There was a tacit compact by which we all agreed to play by the same set of rules. I could say pretty much whatever I wanted to say, provided I allowed you the same liberty. Furthermore, I agreed that I would not become too upset if you offended me, provided you agreed that you would not become too upset if I offended you. Of course, most of us would watch what we said, in the interest of not causing others too much offense, but we would not fly off the handle if now and then someone went too far over the line. We might grumble and complain; we might even decide not to speak with the person who offended us, but we would not stab the offender to death, or behead him, or riot in the streets in protest against him, or burn down buildings to indicate to the world the fury of our resentment.

Levant, and other defenders of the classical Whig position, do not seem to realize that this tacit social compact is presently breaking down in the very nations that prided themselves the most on having achieved it. Today, because of Islam, the furor theologicus that we in the West thought we had put behind us is reemerging and can flare up in any part of the world. A cartoon or a film documentary that Muslims find offensive can set off a chain of reactions that lead to riots, bloodshed, the murder of innocents, and international crises. To continue to maintain, in the light of these troubling facts, that the state has no business watching what its citizens say is to indulge in a wistful anachronism. Even the most dedicated libertarian must surely realize that at some point the other members of his society may not be willing to pay the social costs of his freedom of expression. One may of course wish for a society to stand firmly behind those who have the courage to speak their minds; but it is simply naive to expect the general population to support them beyond a certain point. The question is, How close are we to that point?

Let us consider several well-known examples.

First, let us go back to the publication of the original cartoons in the Danish magazine. It is highly likely that the Danish government would never have heard about these cartoons if they had lampooned Zoroaster, the Buddha, Moses, or Jesus of Nazareth. Caricatures of these revered figures might have offended certain readers, causing them to write angry letters to the editor, or even to cancel their subscriptions; but nothing would have happened to make the Danish government weigh in the balance the individual right of free expression versus the general welfare of their nation. On the other hand, if the fallout of the Danish cartoons was indeed the worst thing to happen to Denmark since the Nazi invasion, then what patriotic Dane could be happy to see his country embroiled in an international uproar because of an editorial decision at a newspaper?

Second, consider the well-known case of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh. His protest film about the oppression of women in Islam outraged Muslim sensibility in Holland and led a lone fanatic to stab van Gogh to death in the streets of Amsterdam. The Dutch, who had achieved their celebrated tolerance after enduring the worst form of the furor theologicus, were stunned by this violation of the tacit compact by which they had managed to balance the desire for freedom of expression with the desire for social harmony. The effect of van Gogh's murder was chilling, since it revealed the breakdown of a fragile civil ecology that permitted the strong-minded and stubborn Dutch to live at peace with one another despite their differences.

The consequences of this breakdown were also evident in the Dutch treatment of the brave Somali-born woman who had conceived and scripted the offensive film. Van Gogh's murderer had pinned a death threat against Ayaan Hirsi Ali to his victim's chest, declaring to the world that she was a target of possible attack. For obvious reasons, the neighbors who lived in Hirsi Ali's apartment building were disturbed to think that they were living next to someone who might become the object of a terrorist attack, possibly in the form of a bombing. By speaking out courageously against radical Islam, Hirsi Ali not only put herself at risk, but, as her neighbors saw it, she had also (quite inadvertently) put them at risk. But why should her neighbors be forced to live under the same death threats that Hirsi Ali had received? They had said nothing controversial themselves, and deeply resented the idea that they might be called upon to pay the price for a courage that they had never dreamed of displaying.

Those of us who have the luxury of living risk-free can easily ridicule the paranoia of Hirsi Ali's Dutch neighbors. But their feelings were no doubt akin to those of a group of hostages held by masked men with guns, who suddenly discover that they have a hero in their midst, intent on speaking his mind to the gunmen who are holding them. The other hostages might momentarily admire the hero, but they will probably also wish that he keep his heroism to himself, since by speaking his mind he is exposing his fellow hostages to the danger of getting shot.

In the case of Hirsi Ali, her neighbors were satisfied when she moved out of the apartment block, and the Dutch government was eventually satisfied when Hirsi Ali moved out of their country. But suppose she had not moved. Then what? Might not the day have arrived when her neighbors asked the government to protect them by gagging her? If the person who is exercising his freedom of speech is endangering the lives of other people in his society, how long will it be before an appeal is made to quiet him by whatever means are available? Indeed, how long can such a state of affairs go on before it has an intimidating effect even on those who are by no means lacking in the courage to risk their own necks?

For example, when Pope Benedict XVI gave his Regensburg Address in 2006, there was also a Muslim backlash, less lethal than that of the Danish cartoons, but still more than enough to create serious ethical reservations in the mind of anyone of stature who undertakes to make a public criticism of Islam. If certain words can literally kill, then morally responsible men and women will naturally be hesitant to say them aloud, leading to a self-censorship that can make timorous those who are not -otherwise short on courage.

In the bloody aftermath of the Regensburg Address, many journalists in the West assailed the pope for "causing" the mayhem and held him personally responsible for the death of a Catholic nun murdered in Somalia by Muslim fanatics. This attack on the pope was certainly unjustified, and yet, if we are completely honest with ourselves, we must recognize that there is a hard unpleasant kernel of truth in it. If criticism of Islam sets off riots and leads to the death of innocent people, then those who are prepared to make these criticisms must also be prepared to face the moral hazard they are running by doing so.

Fortunately, in the case of the Western Standard, there were no riots or deaths. It is true that Levant appears to have offended at least one Muslim, namely, the man who has filed the complaints against him. But Soharwardy did not stab Levant to death, or blow him up--and, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, this is "greatly to his credit." Soharwardy may not be an Englishman, like the able seaman of the Pinafore, but at least he is behaving like one, vigorously availing himself of the law and its loopholes in order to get his way, and thereby avoiding the violence that so often accompanies expression of Muslim anger in other parts of the world. Canadian law has made the mere expression of hatred a crime, unlike American law, which must consider whether hateful speech is likely to lead to the actual physical harm of the person who is its object; and who can really fault Soharwardy for thus taking advantage of opportunities placed in his way? Levant may well object to Canadian law on this matter, and he may even be right to argue that the Alberta Human Rights Commission has exceeded its mandate by taking his case under consideration. But that is not Soharwardy's fault.

Levant appears to recognize the inherent absurdity of the situation when he compares his "interrogation" to a story by Franz Kafka. And if you watch the video on YouTube, you can see what he means. While Levant defiantly defends his ancient and inalienable rights, as if he were pleading before the Star Chamber, a lone bureaucratic inquisitor, Shirlene McGovern, sits across the table from him. Drab as the room itself, she is silent under Levant's ferociously indignant tongue-lashing. Every now and then McGovern squirms uncomfortably, raising her eyebrows at some of Levant's more extravagant claims, no doubt wishing that she could get her government paycheck without this kind of ordeal. Obviously, she is someone who, as the phrase goes, is just trying to do her job, and has no desire to abridge anyone's freedom of speech. Indeed, when Levant finishes castigating the commission that she represents, McGovern responds by saying, as any good Canadian might, "You're entitled to your opinion, that's for sure." And she obviously meant it.

McGovern has been condemned as the mindless functionary of the nanny state at its worst. But before we jump on this inviting bandwagon, let us at least try to give Nanny her due. If speaking of Islam runs genuine risks of inciting violence, we cannot just pretend that it isn't so. We can be indignant about this and declaim loudly against it--but what good does such an approach really do? If criticizing Islam promotes bloodshed, then criticizing even more hardly seems like an attractive solution. On the other hand, let us look at the possible upside to the nanny approach.

Let offended Muslims file complaints to their heart's content. Make outraged imams fill out tedious forms. Require self-appointed mullahs, representing imaginary counsels and committees, to provide documentation of their grievances. Encourage them to vent through the intrinsically stifling bureaucratic channels provided by panels like the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Show them, nanny-like, that you care about their injured feelings. Patiently and silently listen to their indignant complaints, and let them, ideally, get it all out of their systems. Humoring, let us remember, is not appeasement, but often a clever way to coax troublesome children of all ages into behaving like civilized human beings. Every good nanny knows as much. So perhaps there is something that the rest of the world can learn from the Canadian nanny's book of tricks. If it is a book of tricks. .??.??.

For here's the rub. If the Canadian government were using its "kangaroo courts" as a deliberate ploy to siphon off Muslim rage or to guide it into proper bureaucratic (and happily nonviolent) channels, then we could perhaps admire it for its prudence and cunning. But suppose these commissions and tribunals are not a cunning charade, designed to hoodwink ill-tempered Muslims into becoming good litigious Anglo-Saxons? What if the Canadian government actually thought that it could help matters by cracking down on writers like Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, by fining them or by throwing them into prison, silencing those who have the courage to speak of Islam, while encouraging Muslim immigrants to feel that they can manipulate weak-kneed governments into stifling any criticism of their religion and culture? Obviously this naive approach would backfire disastrously, and would end by endangering the very domestic tranquility that it was trying to preserve.

Of one thing we can have no doubt: Short of a firing squad, there is nothing that the Canadian government can do that will have any effect on what Ezra Levant or Mark Steyn will say and write in the future. You couldn't have picked worse people to try to cow. But unfortunately, it is the nature of the nanny state to bring up citizens who have been trained not to rock the boat. Under a nanny regime, the good citizen is one who is reluctant to speak his mind merely out of fear of what other people might think. For people already this cowed, even the threat of a minor bureaucratic hassle would be a powerful argument for keeping one's mouth shut, and for standing by while our hard-won liberty of discussion is steadily eroded. Canada still has uncowable men like Levant and Steyn; but where will such men come from a generation hence?

Even worse, the threat of ongoing legal action, carried out in a number of different Canadian provinces, might be more than enough to keep less well-known writers and smaller news outlets from exposing themselves to the risk of legal costs that a magazine like Maclean's can afford to take. When faced with the threat of an endless hassle, draining away limited personal resources, many writers will simply take the safer course of not saying anything offensive about Islam. But since it is difficult to say in advance what will be offensive to men like Soharwardy, the safest course will be to say nothing at all. In short, gagging Canadians may not take a generation. It may work in a matter of a few months.

And is it just Canada that we are talking about? After all, if enough Muslims continue to react with violence to criticism of their religion and culture, all the other nations of the West will eventually be forced to make a tragic choice between two of our highest values. Either we must clamp down on critics of Islam, mandating a uniform code of political correctness, or else we must let the critics say what they wish, regardless of the consequences, and in full knowledge that these consequences may include the death of innocents. This is not a choice that the West has had to face since the end of our own furor theologicus several centuries ago, but, like it or not, it is the choice that we are facing again today.

Lee Harris is the author, most recently, of The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam's Threat to the West.




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