Ayaan Hirsi Ali on free speech

This is an excerpt from The Tyranny of Silence by Flemming Rose (Cato Institute, 2014). Reprinted by permission from the author.

When the Cartoon Crisis was at its peak in January and February 2006, I recognized among critical Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West a pattern similar to the one I had seen among Soviet dissidents. I found it striking that so many Muslim dissidents, regardless of where they positioned themselves in the political spectrum, supported the cartoons’ publication. They viewed the drawings as input to the struggle for free speech and free religious exercise against totalitarian regimes and movements. Like the Soviet dissidents, they were speaking out against the fear society and warning of the consequences of bowing down to intimidation.

That view was evident in a manifesto published in several European newspapers (including Jyllands-Posten) in February 2006, titled “Together Facing the New Totalitarianism.”[1] That manifesto was a reaction against the violence and threats that had issued from publication of the cartoons. It was signed by prominent former Muslims and secular Muslims, all of whom had grown up in Muslim societies and were now critical of Islam as a political instrument of persecution wielded against freethinkers. All had personally received threats because of their opinions, though they assumed widely different political standpoints—from Iranian-born communist Maryam Namazie and left-wing activist Chahla Chafiq to the liberal Ayaan Hirsi Ali from Somalia; from practicing Muslim Irshad Manji to atheists Ibn Warraq and Salman Rushdie; from professors Antoine Sfeir and Mehdi Mozaffari to author Taslima Nasreen. In addition, the statement was signed by three French intellectuals: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Caroline Fourest, and Philippe Val. The latter two were from the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that was sued in 2007 for reprinting the cartoons, only to be acquitted.

The statement read:

After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism. We writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all. Recent events, prompted by the publication of drawings of Muhammad in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values. This struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological field.

Islamism is a reactionary ideology that kills equality, freedom, and secularism wherever it is present. Its victory can only lead to a world of injustice and domination: men over women, fundamentalists over others. On the contrary, we must ensure access to universal rights for the oppressed or those discriminated against.

The statement concluded:

We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of “Islamophobia,” a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it. We defend the universality of the freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit can exist in every continent, towards each and every maltreatment and dogma. We appeal to democrats and free spirits in every country that our century may be one of light and not dark.

As a reaction to the debate on the Muhammad cartoons, so-called Councils of Ex-Muslims were established in a number of European countries under the unifying banner “We have renounced religion!” The significance of this movement for people of Muslim background and their rights as individuals to convert, give up, or practice their religion can hardly be exaggerated, but it was also of considerable importance for Europe as a community upholding the freedom and rights of the individual. The Councils of Ex-Muslims began speaking out against the culture of fear in Muslim societies, challenging intimidation of the individual by Islamic movements and governments. Rejecting fear, they openly stepped forward and appeared, with their photographs, on websites and brochures for branches set up in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, and other countries. It was a direct challenge to the totalitarian society, which can only exist as long as its people submit to the intimidation that forms the basis of social control.[2]

It reminded me of Charta 77, the Helsinki Groups, and other Eastern European human rights movements in the days when East and West subscribed to vastly differing views of the rights of the individual. In the capitalist West, importance was attached to civic rights, the right to free speech and free religious exercise, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and economic freedom; the socialist countries highlighted social and economic rights, the right to work, the right to housing and to education. As such, two standards of human rights emerged, and in the clash between East and West many insisted on a balance between them. West attached importance to freedom, East insisted on equality, so the ideal was probably somewhere in between.

It was a view rejected by the human rights movement behind the Iron Curtain. It did not accept differing conceptions of human rights, one socialist, one capitalist, another Asian, another Islamic. It held that only one set of human rights existed, that they issued from civic rights, and that as such they were natural. As citizens of socialist countries, members of the Helsinki Groups and of Charta 77 were claiming exactly the same rights as enjoyed by those in the West. This is what ex-Muslims are doing today when they step forward publicly to insist on their right to renounce their religion. They reject the notion of specifically Islamic human rights, as well as the idea that universal rights are a Western invention with no bearing on and without validity in other cultures.

A number of Islamic countries punish apostates by death or imprisonment. Even in the West, where legislation is secular and Islamic law has no validity, many former Muslims, or Muslims whose opinions are taken to be deviant, feel intimidated and afraid to speak their minds. That fear was the reason Ibn Warraq in 1995 published his bestseller Why I Am Not a Muslim under a pseudonym. Politicians, activists, writers, scholars, and artists of Muslim background have all received death threats for publicly criticizing their religion, for leaving it, or for practicing it idiosyncratically. Women especially are subjugated.[3]

Subjugation of women was exactly what the short film Submission, by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and feminist former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was about.[4] It contains monologues of Muslim women addressing Allah on the subject of abuse and oppression. The characters say that if religious submission causes them such pain and suffering without intervention from Allah, then they may decide to submit themselves no longer. One is lashed for fornicating, a second is married off to a man she despises, a third is beaten by her husband, and a fourth is cast out by her father when he discovers that she has been raped by her brother. The perpetrators of that violence justify their misdeeds by referencing verses of the Koran painted on the women’s bodies.

In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered for his work on a short film that criticized the treatment of women in Islam.
In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered for his work on a short film that criticized the treatment of women in Islam.

The film cost van Gogh his life, when he was murdered by a Muslim who believed the film had insulted Islam. His assassin declared in a letter addressed to Hirsi Ali and left at the scene that she would be next. She did not, however, submit. She published a number of books about her own story and her experiences in Muslim societies, and described how, following 9/11, she experienced a personal crisis when she realized that the terrorists had been driven by their faith in Islam and the Prophet Muhammad—a faith she, at least nominally, shared. She pored through the Koran and found that a number of passages could clearly be used to justify the attack. She then broke with Islam, a decision that involved a painful conflict with her parents and close family. Reading a book while on holiday in Greece, she understood that she no longer needed to believe in any God.

“One night in that Greek hotel I looked in the mirror and said out loud, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ I said it slowly, enunciating it carefully, in Somali. And I felt relief,” she wrote.[5]

Her books became international bestsellers. Infidel, published in English in 2007, and Nomad: from Islam to America, in 2010, made Ayaan Hirsi Ali an influential voice, perhaps the world’s most prominent ex-Muslim.

In November 2007, I interviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali, about her views on the Muhammad cartoons. I was in New York to discuss my own book project with a number of American publishers. I found a great deal of reluctance; I kept hoping that was not a fear of stirring up trouble with Islam. But the thought gained strength a few months later, when Random House canceled its planned publication of a historical novel about the Prophet Muhammad’s child bride, Aisha, though it had already paid a $100,000 advance to the author, Sherry Jones. Then, in 2009, Yale University Press, which was publishing Professor Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons That Shook the World, decided to remove from the book all images of the Prophet—including the original page of cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and historical images from Muslim and non-Muslim sources.

To return to my encounter with Hirsi Ali: she had to cancel our first meeting, being heavily involved in negotiations about setting up a fund to finance her security in the United States. She was being driven around in bulletproof vehicles and was shadowed by bodyguards wherever she went. The next day, though, we met over tea and biscuits in the bar of one of Manhattan’s most fashionable hotels. She was in good spirits, bubbling with self-deprecating humor. Every so often, despite the bodyguards, she cast a swift eye around the room to see who was coming and going.

Hirsi Ali told me that the cartoons, and the first reactions to them in autumn 2005, had reminded her of something that happened in the Netherlands in 2003. In an interview in the Amsterdam daily Trouw, she had made some critical comments about Muhammad. By modern, Western standards, she said, Muhammad was a pervert: he had married a very young child and had sex with her. He was also a tyrant who oppressed freethinkers and ruled by fiat. He was therefore an inappropriate role model for Muslims in a secular democracy.

Her comments prompted a Dutch Muslim group to file a complaint with the police on the grounds of discrimination. The public prosecutor, however, dismissed the case, stating that Hirsi Ali’s comments had not exposed the Muslim community to scorn.

“I said that people like bin Laden, Khomeini, and Saddam Hussein saw him as an idol,” she told me. “And that kicked off a crisis in the Netherlands. Four Muslim ambassadors approached my party leader, urging him to punish me and throw me out of parliament, demanding an apology. When I saw the cartoons, I showed them to him and said, ‘Take a look at what’s going in Denmark.’”

Flemming Rose (centre) has acted as an editor for Jyllands-Posten and published cartoons on bankers, Jesus Christ, Stalin, Lenin and numerous politicians. No one has ever received a death sentence for such expressions.

In Hirsi Ali’s view, we needed more depictions of Muhammad, not fewer. She said she longed for an Islamic version of Monty Python’s Jesus comedy, The Life of Brian. She wanted stories, comedies, illustrations, historical research, and philosophy to delve into the teachings of Muhammad, employing popular as well as more serious genres:

One and a half billion Muslims see Muhammad as a role model. If you call yourself a Muslim, you have to follow his example, not just praying five times a day but living according to his moral values. So it’s hugely important to investigate the more exact nature of those values, in order to liberate oneself from the chains of ignorance, as Kant said. It’s crucial, not just for Muslims, but for all who value freedom.

Hirsi Ali compared the teachings of Muhammad with those of Karl Marx. The more people who understood why and where Marx was wrong, the greater the chances that society would be able to avoid the pitfalls of Marxism:

Marx took up important issues, the divide between rich and poor, but every time it was tried out in practice the recipe he suggested for solving the problems of poverty led only to bloodshed, prisons, need, and more poverty. In practice, it all turned out so different from the ideal he envisaged in his books and articles. The same is true of Muhammad.

Hirsi Ali felt the cartoons had a beneficial effect on opinion in the West, particularly on leftist social democrats. It sparked a debate that Europe badly needed:

The cartoons raised a series of issues. Can Western Europe keep pretending to live on a desert island far from the true tragedies of the world? Can Europe open its borders to millions of people from parts of the world that do not enjoy the freedoms of the West—people from countries ruled by authoritarian regimes, ravaged by civil war and anarchy—and pretend it doesn’t bother us? Those images of angry crowds in the Middle East attacking embassies, boycotting Danish goods, and protesting were a vivid picture of how small the world has become, how much the free world is in the minority and can be swept aside, and how much we need to safeguard and look after it.

That was one important debate kicked off by the cartoons. Another was about freedom of speech and Islam:

All of a sudden the issue was no longer about how the political right and left considered free speech and its boundaries in the West. Now, the very institution that allows us in the first place to debate each other without violence was under attack. Some wanted Islamic moral values and rejected free speech. They believed only Allah and his Prophet could decide what could be said. Everything else was taboo, and they were willing to force their view of the world and their norms upon others. Many thought they had seen the back of that kind of thing once and for all in Europe with the collapse of totalitarian ideologies like Nazism and communism, that it had all come to an end in 1989. But the Cartoon Crisis brought home a new reality and made Europeans realize that major parts of the world think in a different way altogether.

Hirsi Ali believed the cartoons demonstrated the extent to which the people of Europe had taken freedom of speech for granted, and the Crisis revealed that many intellectuals were not prepared to analyze and confront a new totalitarian movement based on Islam:

The cartoons made that clear. Therefore, it was only natural that so many intellectuals didn’t care for them. The whole thing showed how a small group of intolerant people could force a large group into silence when that group lacked the will to confront tyranny even when it gets up and punches you in the face.

The Islamist threats reminded Hirsi Ali of her years as a student in Leiden in the Netherlands, where she was confronted with historical accounts of World War II. There was the political history of the war, and the history of the major powers, but there were also attempts to unravel how anti-Semitism could ever have progressed as far as it did:

They looked on as their neighbors were branded and driven from their homes. All these people just standing by and watching and doing nothing. I studied with young people of the second and third generations after the war. For them it was history, but I remember in class—whether it was the lecturers or the students—there was always this common assumption that if they had been alive in the 1920s and 1930s, they would have protested; they would have been on the side of good. The Muhammad cartoons revealed another, more prosaic reality. It transpired that the number of people willing to challenge tyranny is actually quite small, and that many were driven by the same motives as in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and other places where atrocities take place. People want to keep their jobs, and they want their children to stay at the same schools and kindergartens. They want to keep in the same social circles, go to the same parties, and have what they write published in the same newspapers. How could they go on doing all that if they put themselves at risk of threat, if their surroundings were made unsafe, and neighbors turned on them for being a danger to their children? So the Cartoon Crisis showed there was a great gap between talking about the importance of not submitting to tyranny and actually doing something about it when the situation arises.

I said to Hirsi Ali that some people felt, in connection with the Cartoon Crisis, that freedom of speech was not an imperative to speak out, but that it also entailed the right to remain silent, and that the whole thing was not actually about freedom of speech at all. “I don’t agree with that,” she replied.

I think they confuse social etiquette and good manners with freedom of speech as a civic right. Imagine we were sitting in a restaurant. Think of how we’re seated, how we behave, how we eat, all of it social etiquette. We are aware that we have the freedom not to adhere to it, but we do so anyway. With freedom of speech it’s different. Let’s say I see children in school being segregated, boys and girls separated, the girls brought up to submit to men all their lives; a school in which children belonging to minorities learn to live apart from society, where they are taught to hate other children, taught to hate Jews and Christians and to consider themselves more worthy than others. If I hear that children are being made more vulnerable in that way, that people are making it more difficult for them to get an education and find work; if in that situation politeness and social etiquette and sensitivity cause us to say that freedom of speech is not an imperative but entails the right to remain silent, then I would say that we have become slow-witted, hard-hearted, and cruel, oblivious of what freedom of speech even is.

It’s the same thing with the cartoons. We heard there was an author who couldn’t find an illustrator for his book because people were afraid, and then we discovered that a lot of people were submitting to self-censorship for fear of how some Muslims would react. To keep silent about that would be morally wrong. What would a journalist do if it were rumored that the mafia in Denmark were controlling people and that you weren’t allowed to write about them? Wouldn’t it be your duty as a journalist to investigate that? Or if you found out that Danish politicians were receiving bribes, would you say then that freedom of speech is not an imperative? Should we show sensitivity, respect the families who risk being affected, and for that reason remain silent? Of course not—not even if you knew that innocent people were going to feel injured. If a journalist learns that people are declining to illustrate a book about Islam because they are afraid of what will happen to them, and in misguided deference, the journalist decides not to pursue the matter further, then he or she is not a worthy member of the profession.

But, I said, critics of the cartoons claimed that basically a large and influential newspaper used the drawings to bully and deride a weak minority; it was really about the right to mock a marginalized group of society.

“In my view,” Hirsi Ali said, “the real bullying would be to let the minority steep in its own seclusion and fail to integrate its members into Danish society.” She explained:

If Muslims are to be a part of Danish society and find jobs as teachers, politicians, doctors, journalists, nurses, shop assistants, bus drivers, or whatever, then employers are going to have to start treating them on an equal footing with everyone else. That means that every time someone arrives in Denmark, the Netherlands, the U.K., or France and is given a residence permit, he or she also receives a parcel of rights. In return, the recipient society must make it clear that with rights come duties. That has nothing to do with discrimination. Among those duties is the duty not to demand special treatment or special rights; and the duty to respect freedom of speech and the right of free religious exercise, which entail the right to be critical, to question and challenge.

Those who talk of bullying a minority are guilty of the racism of low expectations. When you approach a blond, blue-eyed, white Dane, you expect a high degree of tolerance and reason. But faced with someone like me, you say OK, let it go. That is the racism of low expectations, and that’s what you are guilty of when you reduce the Cartoon Crisis to a story about a powerful newspaper bullying a minority. It’s a distortion of the essence of the matter. To harbor lower expectations of my ability to be tolerant and reasonable compared to the majority is to discriminate against me.

Fortunately, there were Muslims in Denmark and other countries too who did not wish to take on the role of victim. They said that as practicing Muslims, they considered the Prophet Muhammad to be infallible, but that freedom of speech had to be defended, and that newspaper artists had to maintain the freedom to draw what they wanted. I don’t like it, but I can live with it, they said. That is a mature standpoint, and it shows that those who believe that we can expect uncontrolled rage across the board are wrong.

I pointed out that many people appear to think that it is immoral to satirize another religion: satire should instead be turned inward against one’s own beliefs. Similarly, criticism should be leveled upward to those in power rather than targeted downward against a weak minority.

“Well,” Hirsi Ali said, “the amazing thing about that argument is that what all those who speak of being tolerant and of including Muslims really are saying is this: let’s exclude Muslims.” She explained:

To become a part of the community of Danes, one has to be integrated in the Danish culture, which includes the culture of satire. Being a community means that Jyllands-Posten in principle is just as much their newspaper as any other Dane’s. Why should they be excluded from its satire? Integration means inclusion all the way round—in film, theater, literature, satire, and cartoons.

What about the other argument, I asked—that scorn, mockery, and ridicule should only be targeted upward?

“That’s indicative of the Marxist approach to human existence: the division of the world into powerful and powerless,” she said.

I’m not a supporter of that idea, and that’s what the United States is so good at. Everyone can come here, and opportunities are equal for everyone. Society’s approach is equality for individuals, not groups. Those born into low-income families with poor education can move up in the world, and the rich can fall. There’s movement both ways. Education and being included by satire, being included in the culture, and critical thinking increase the opportunities of the minority individual with respect to moving up in the world.

If you accept the Marxist view of the world, things aren’t that simple. Muslims who are lacking in resources, who live in ghettos in Europe, are being brainwashed with totalitarian doctrine, and those behind it all are exploiting those people’s vulnerability. They indoctrinate and preach an ideology of totalitarianism that exceeds that of Marxism, and at the same time, they claim to be a weak minority whose ideology must be spared criticism. This is a doctrine issuing from a rich oil state, Saudi Arabia, and is therefore very powerful indeed when you start looking at it from a new angle. They are extremely authoritarian and oppressive; they have the money and the influence to export their ideology to our part of the world and indoctrinate Muslims with low incomes.

Satire is a wonderful instrument by which to combat that. The funny thing is that many of those who claim that this is all about strong versus weak are not against the use of hard, military power, but all of a sudden, they’re against satire, the softest form of power imaginable.

People like to compare Christian and Jewish communities in the West with Muslim communities, but Christians and Jews have accepted the division of divine and secular power. Only few Muslims have done that. In the United States, a Christian can be just as fundamentalist, just as orthodox as he wants. He can read the Bible as literally as he sees fit, but he has accepted that outside his home and his church resides a different reality, an open, secular space in which the American Constitution is law. When Muslims say the American president rather than God is sovereign, they are committing a sin. Many Muslims live in secular societies without having accepted that model as the prerequisite of democracy and freedom of religion. Recognizing that principle means becoming an infidel.

Excerpted from The Tyranny of Silence by Flemming Rose. Copyright © Cato Institute, 2014. All rights reserved. Download a copy of The Tyranny of Silence for $9.99 by clicking here.


[1] Jyllands-Posten (Copenhagen), March 2, 2006. For the full text in English, see BBC News, March 1, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4764730.stm.

[2] Riazat Butt, “New Ex-Muslim Group Speaks Out,” The Guardian (London), June 22, 2007. See also the websites of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, ex-muslim.org.uk; Zentralrat der Ex-Muslime, ex-muslime.de; and Centralrådet för ex-muslimer i Skandenavien, exmuslim.net.

[3] Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Ibn Warraq, ed., Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out (Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 2003).

[4] Submission: Part 1, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 2004, https://youtu.be/aGtQvGGY4S4.

[5] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ayaan: Opbrud og oprør (Copenhagen: Jyllands-Postens Forlag, 2006), p. 335; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007).

Flemming Rose is a Danish journalist and author, and served as foreign affairs editor and culture editor at Jyllands-Posten. He is an international advocate for freedom of speech and regularly travels around the world to speak on the subject. In 2015 Rose was awarded the prestigious Publicist Prize from Denmark’s national press club and received the Honor Award for defending free speech from the Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation. His website is www.tyrannyofsilence.net.

The Tyranny of Silence
By Flemming Rose
Cato Institute; 1 edition (May 7, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1939709997
ISBN-13: 978-1939709998
$13.35

Theo van Gogh / Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “Submission” pt 1

Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Dave Rubin on Political Islam, Sharia Law, and “Islamophobia” (Full Interview)

Flemming Rose and Dave Rubin: Muhammad Cartoons, Islamism in Europe, Charlie Hebdo

Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy (Documentary)

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