Excerpt from The Tyranny of Silence, by Flemming Rose (Cato Institute, 2016). Reprinted with permission from the author.
Chapter 1: From Where I Stand
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but conviction is absurd.”
It is a Sunday morning in 2009 and I am taking a shower in my hotel room in Lyon, France. Rain drums on the window and I can glimpse one of the town’s two rivers at the end of a narrow street. In about an hour, I am scheduled to participate in a debate about threats against the freedom of speech in Europe, held by the French paper Libération. It is a routine I have repeated often over the past few years. Yesterday, I was in Paris for an interview on the same subject, and earlier that week I had been in Berlin for a heated panel discussion on Islam in the European media. Not long into my presentation an audience member stood up, approached the table where I sat, and in a shaky voice began shouting at me, asking me who had given me the right to lecture Muslims like her on democracy? She then turned to the panel’s organizers and asked them how they could even have thought of inviting me, before turning on her heels and leaving without waiting for them to answer.
It seems everywhere I go I provoke extreme controversy. At American universities I have been met by student protests before my speech even began. In Jerusalem, demonstrators rallied outside a debate demanding that I be removed from the event. Following a conference in Qatar where I expressed my views on freedom of speech, emails flooded into the local authorities complaining that the Amir of Qatar had even let me into the country. The Interior Department established a hotline for complaints against me and the local media branded me “the Danish devil.”
In the spring of 2006 the Oxford Union, a student society at the famous British college, invited me to join a debate on democracy, freedom of speech, and respect for religious sentiments. The Oxford Union has long been a battlefield for controversial topics. Since its founding in 1823 the Union has brought the most controversial topics of the day—war, racism, religion—to the table for open and free discussion. The conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once referred to the forum as “the freedom of speech’s last citadel in western civilization.” Nonetheless, my visit turned out to be the largest security operation since Michael Jackson had visited a few years earlier. The head of security met me at the airport and lodged me in a hotel under a false name. Prior to the panel, the campus was cordoned off by police, and visitors were subjected to full body searches and metal detectors before entering the hall.
That same year, Russia tried to prevent me from attending the forum of the World Association of Newspapers in Moscow. Local Muslim leaders were displeased by my involvement, and the authorities issued polite but firm hints to stay away. The Kremlin could not come out and say so directly—how would it look to deny a journalist entry to a conference on the freedom of the press? So I missed the warning signals and arrived in Moscow for the conference, but I have not been able to obtain a Russian visa since—despite the fact that I have a Russian-born wife and lived in the country for twelve years. I never experienced anything similar in the Soviet Union, even though I was avowedly anti-Communist and openly socializing with Russian dissidents.
The list of episodes goes on, and as I recall them this fall morning, my own dilemma becomes apparent. I have become a controversial figure: someone many people love to hate and some even want to kill. I am no provocateur; I do not run around looking for conflict or instigating arguments. I feel no particular satisfaction when my actions or words offend—in fact, in my younger days friends told me I was almost too eager to please. And yet, in the eyes of the world I have been branded a notorious troublemaker, a cavalier antagonist unconcerned about the consequences of my actions.
How did this happen? Who, in fact, am I? To the world, I am known as an editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In September 2005, I commissioned and published a number of cartoons about Islam, prompted by my perception of self-censorship by the European media. One of these cartoons, drawn by the artist Kurt Westergaard, depicted the Muslim prophet Mohamed with a bomb wrapped in his turban. The other cartoons we published mocked the media itself, but it was Westergaard’s image that would change my life.
The Cartoon Crisis, as it came to be known, spiraled into a violent international fiasco as Muslims around the world erupted in protest of the images. Danish embassies were attacked and more than one hundred deaths reportedly occurred as a result of the protests. That morning in Lyon, I realized that I as a public figure have come to symbolize a much greater set of issues confronting the world today. This book is an attempt to reconcile that public symbolism with my personal story.
How did the publication of a few cartoons prompt such a debacle that five years later, I am still grappling with the event? As with most monumental events, there is no simple explanation. The British historian Timothy Garton Ash illustrated this complication in an essay written for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He pointed out that the collapse could be explained in different ways depending on one’s geographic standpoint or political orientation. In Western Germany emphasis is often placed on the politics of Chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s. The Polish give more attention to their own Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement. An American considers President Ronald Reagan the defining factor, while Russians highlight Mikhail Gorbachev’s role. Others give less credit to heads of state and instead emphasize popular movements or the role of dissidents in the East. Al Qaeda and other Islamists are convinced that their struggle and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan set off the collapse. All these aspects and many more certainly played a part.
One finds the same variety of interpretations in the case of the Cartoon Crisis. Some believe that the newspaper Jyllands-Posten carries the main responsibility for the uproar, while others point to Danish imams who travelled around the Middle-East after the publication inflaming international Islamic opinion against the paper and against Denmark. Some believe Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to be the main villain because he did not criticize the cartoons or distance himself from Jyllands-Posten, and he refused to discuss the drawings with ambassadors from several Muslim countries. Yet others pointed to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as orchestrators of a global conflict aimed at promoting their view on human rights in the United Nations, where since 2001 they have argued in favor of criminalizing criticism of Islam under the ambiguous notion of “islamophobia.” Certain voices claimed that countries such as Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, and Pakistan tried to use the drawings as a means of diverting attention from their domestic problems. For others, the conflict was symbolic of a larger collision between Islam and the West, exploited by radical islamists like Osama bin Laden to spur their followers towards holy war. Finally, some believe Western secularism at large is to blame as for its misunderstanding of Muslim religious sentiment.
Not only the causes but also the effects of the Cartoon Crisis are also still up for debate. Was the Crisis at all beneficial to international debate about Islam and self-censorship, or was it exclusively damaging to civilized discourse? Could the conflict have been avoided, or would something like it have occurred sooner or later, triggered by some other event?
Personally, I have spent most of my energy trying to makes sense of the criticism of Jyllands-Posten and myself. The past five years have been a long journey, both physically and mentally. I have engaged with Danes on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, with Muslims and Christians, Europeans and Americans, Asians and Arabs, believers and non-believers. Their responses have not always run along the political, religious, cultural or geographical categories one would expect. I would never claim that the majority of Muslims I have spoken with have taken my side; however, there are Muslims who have supported the publication of the drawings, and Christians and atheists who have condemned it.
I have tried to deepen my understanding of the broader issues surrounding the Cartoon Crisis—freedom of speech and of religion, tolerance and intolerance, immigration and integration, majorities and minorities, globalization—anything to put this particular case in context. It has been an educational process, but frankly speaking, frustrating and overwhelming at times. What do you do when you find yourself suddenly arguing with the entire world? When you feel that the world is boiling with anger and indignation at things you have said and done? How do you answer when colleagues ask how you sleep at night after being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people? When you are being accused of being a racist, a fascist, and of wanting to start the next World War?
When I embarked on the writing of this book, my intention was to take on every argument, misapprehension and distortion. I have compiled an enormous archive of commentaries, analyses and reactions to the Cartoon Crisis from around the globe; I wanted to document that I was right and others were wrong. I have traveled the world discussing the Crisis, and will continue to do so, but along the way, I have discovered a need to look inside myself, to reflect upon my story and my background and ask what motivated my actions during these seminal events. Why did I immediately and almost instinctively enter the fray, and why was it the abstract principle of freedom of speech that spoke to me more than other aspects of the situation?
While I am strongly opinionated when it comes to certain things, I am not a person who takes an instant stand on just anything. I doubt too much for that. I ponder at length and lose myself in layers of meaning and the many sides to an issue. This tendency, I believe, is the condition of modern man and indeed the strength of secular democracy: doubt is the starting point for exploration and comprehension of reality, the reason for curiosity and the formulation of critical questions. Doubt evokes something unfinished, something uncertain and imperfect, yet it is also, as the history of Western civilization has shown, a great resource which is founded on the basis of a strong sense of self, a deeply rooted existential courage that leaves room for debate and challenges established truths. Moving through doubt towards new truth is a process that is sometimes shocking, painful and explosive. Doubt is essential for democratic institutions as well. Unlike dictatorships and totalitarian movements, democracies are founded on the idea that no one has monopoly on truth, and that notion is part of their strength. Democracies revolve around the division of power, secularization, political pluralism, and freedom of speech. All these principles are nurtured by doubt as a positive power.
Of course, there are limits to doubt. When one begins to question everything, one gets to the point where everything seems equally good or bad and there is no truth to trust. When one cannot determine the difference between right and wrong, doubt becomes a threat to democracy. In a world of such relativity there is no fundamental difference between the prisoner in a concentration camp and the regime that imprisoned him, between the perpetrator and his victim, between those that defend and those that fight against freedom.
I first experienced this existential dimension of politics when I traveled to the Soviet Union in 1980. I had no preconceived opinions about the country and its political structure, even though both were eagerly discussed while I was at university. Politics were peripheral to my youth; the more esoteric intellectual challenges of philosophy occupied most of my attention. Nonetheless, I was fascinated and eager to learn more about a culture and a society that took up so much of the attention of the world around me. What kind of people were these? How did they live, and what did they think about the world and its problems? Even though I certainly experienced culture shock on arrival, a long time passed before I began to draw conclusions and form my own opinions on the Soviet Union. I needed to process what I learned, discuss it with others, and become more familiar with the language and the culture. I met my wife that first year, and over the next decade traveled back and forth working as a journalist based in Moscow. Over the years, I became less afraid of standing alone with my beliefs. In the Soviet Union the gravity of life dawned on me. Growing up in Denmark in the 1960s and 70s, in an atmosphere of youth in rebellion clashing with established authorities, I was imbued with the era’s ideals of freedom and community, but it was not until my time in the Soviet Union that I realized that freedom was not a given. There were people in the world who paid a high price for expressing their views. Fear can pervade a society to the extent that everyone is constantly looking over their shoulder, even within the confines of their own home. Suddenly words meant something—there were consequences when you expressed them. Words could be dangerous. Official censorship in such a fearful climate was almost unnecessary: the tyranny of silence was king.
I have long been interested in the connection between the particular and the general, between the personal motivations of the individual and his or her views on greater socio-political questions. This stems from my firm belief that all stories begin and end with the choices of individuals. I believe that I should live in accordance with my principles and my views on the world, that I should strive to reconcile my private thoughts and actions with those I express in a public setting. So I see my own story as a microcosm of the challenges to democratic ideals embodied by the Cartoon Crisis.
When I interviewed the author Salman Rushdie in 2009, he verbalized a problem I struggled with following the Cartoon Crisis. It had been difficult to hear others tell my story and interpret my motives without any particular knowledge or basis for their assertions. I knew that the case had grown to such a magnitude that it had a life of its own. It had become a vehicle for sympathies and antipathies attached without concern for the underlying facts. Still, it felt like an assault; it was unpleasant to hear your own story told without the ability to comment. Rushdie had also been at the center of a violent controversy over his depictions of the Muslim faith in his writings, particularly his novel The Satanic Verses. In the fall of 2008, I heard Rushdie on a television program describe man as a story-telling animal. To Rushdie, the ability to tell one’s own story is an existential right. When we met in person, I asked him to elaborate on this idea.
Rushdie claims that from childhood onwards, we as humans use stories to understand and define ourselves. He describes this phenomenon as a universal linguistic instinct, a part of human nature. Therefore any attempt to limit the story-telling impulse is not merely censorship, or infringement upon a political right to freedom of speech; it is an act of violence against human nature, an existential assault that transforms man into something he is not. The difference between a free and an unfree society is simply the ability to tell and retell our own and other people’s stories. In a free society any topic can be discussed and debated openly. The exchange never ends, and individuals grow and shift their own points of view. We gain new insights and shape society and its institutions in new ways—by telling new stories. History moves forward through the exchange of new ideas—think of slavery in the United States, National Socialism in Germany or Communism in the Eastern Bloc, each overcome by challenges to the conventional wisdom. Historical movements emerge and are broken down by new narratives, provided we have the freedom to redefine our collective story.
In closed societies, by contrast, the individual has been robbed of the right to tell their own or others’ stories. The government dictates its version of history; it tells the people what their story is. In reducing the people to silent and passive objects and persecuting those who challenge the official account through censorship, imprisonment, or elimination, tyrannical regimes steal history from their citizens.
In a democracy, no one can claim the exclusive moral, religious or political right to tell certain stories. Muslims have the right to tell jokes and critical stories about Jews; non-believers can skewer Islam any way they like. Danes may mock Swedes and Norwegians, whites can joke about blacks, and blacks can joke about whites. To assert that only minorities are allowed to tell jokes about themselves and assess their own behavior is simple-minded and in some cases harmful. By this logic, only Nazis can condemn Nazis, since in present-day Europe they are a persecuted and marginalized minority. Today a majority of the world opposes female circumcision, forced marriages, and ritual violence against women—should we be unable to criticize those cultures that still adhere to these practices, because they form a minority?
Such dangerous reasoning actually reinforces walls between social groups with differing norms. It contributes to ghettoization and reduces exchange. In a democracy it is imperative that people are not locked inside echo chambers which serve only to sharpen the opinions of the like-minded. It is important to speak across groups, to be exposed to contrary or even offensive opinions. People who talk to each other, exchanging views and telling stories, will influence each others’ way of thinking over time. In that process it is difficult to maintain an idea of another as evil, perverse or insane, unless that’s truly the case. It should not matter who says what, only what is said, and that whatever is said is forever open to debate and mockery, serious and unserious criticism. What counts is the argument, not race, religion or political sympathies.
Rushdie told me that the conflict over the right to tell a certain story was at the center of his own freedom of speech controversy. He said:
The only answer you can give from my side of the table is that everyone has a right to tell their story in any way they wish. This goes back to the question of what sort of society we want. If you wish to live in an open society, it follows that people will talk about things in different ways, and some of them will cause discontent and anger. The answer to that is matter-of-fact: okay, you don’t like it, but there are lots of things I don’t like, either. That’s the price for living in an open society. From the moment you begin to talk about limiting and controlling certain expressions, you step into a world where freedom no longer reigns, and from that moment on you are only discussing what level of un-freedom you want to accept while already having accepted the principle of not being free.
Rushdie’s words came just at the right time for me. The scales fell from my eyes and I was on track for my own story-telling project. I have the same right as anyone to tell my version of the Cartoon Crisis. The story I tell in this book is not the story of the conflict. It is not an attempt to cover every aspect of the event and its repercussions. I am fully aware that there are versions other than mine, which are no less true and in some cases may even be more complete. I don’t pretend to be objective. That is not my business. My business is only to tell my story: the events as I experienced them, and the episodes that I deem relevant to that experience. This story represents a personal quest to try to create coherence and meaning out of an event that has taken up a lot of room in my life—and in the lives of the Danish people—over the past five years. Hence, this is also a book about my values, my history, the individuals and events that have influenced me, books I have read and countries I have traveled through. It is an attempt to find the connection between the narrow story and the wider one, between my story and the Cartoon Crisis as an event of global scope. In the space between the big picture and the small lies the answer to my conflict—the image I have of myself as a person who is not fond of conflict—against the wider, global view of me as a dangerous and irresponsible troublemaker. So I also look back to the historical forces that shaped my attitudes, to European history and its sweeping debates on issues such as faith and doubt, knowledge and ignorance, which have shaped the very notion of tolerance.
My experiences have confirmed my basic belief that people have a lot more in common than whatever divides them. Apparent differences of culture, religion, and history are significant factors, but they are by no means constant; they change, however slowly. Think of countries such as Spain, Greece, Portugal, South Korea, Chile, and South Africa: until only a few decades ago, brutal authoritarian and oppressive regimes; now open, constitutional
societies. Such examples show that we should be hesitant about writing off any culture as innately incompatible with liberty and democracy.
The current discussion about the Muslim world reminds me of the debate about Communism and Russians during the Cold War. At the time it was common for Westerners to claim that while we emphasized political and civil rights, the other side of the Iron Curtain preferred social rights, such as the right to work, to housing, to healthcare and to education. This distinction was put forth as a cultural one, and therefore criticizing the Eastern Bloc for civil rights violations was an expression of Western imperialism. I watched a parallel sentiment emerge in the wake of the Cartoon Crisis: a willingness to compromise what we consider fundamental rights in the West because of supposedly intractable “cultural differences.”
For the West during the Cold War, the Soviet Union figured as the archenemy of liberty. The East and the West were thought to possess opposite ideological dispositions. My Russian friends and acquaintances in the Soviet Union seemed to want and value the freedom and equality symbolized by the notion of universal civil rights. But it was a common conception in the West that Russians were inclined towards oppression and were not suited for governance by a democracy which respected the rights of individuals. This was especially true for those in the “self-knowledge” school within the field of Soviet research, which advocated that scholars describe and analyze the Soviet Union on its own terms. The result was an acceptance of the oppressive regime based on the belief that Russians were fundamentally different from Westerners, and therefore that the Soviet Union couldn’t be held to the same standard in its treatment of its citizens. This thinking also helps explain why such scholars were unable to predict the regime’s collapse as the result of popular revolt. In order to justify its dubious idea, the school of self-knowledge had to marginalize the voices of the Soviet civil rights movement and other dissidents. They wrote dissenters off as mere pawns controlled by Western interests; they claimed that the soviet public did not take them seriously. The same is being said of human rights advocates in the Muslim world who are critical of Islam. But the fact is that the discourse is incomplete so long as the population being studied lacks the opportunity to speak freely and without fear of reprisal.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev’s government the Kremlin actually adopted much of the civil rights movement’s program—the formerly banned and marginal thinking—and a number of dissidents went to work drafting new laws and a constitution that would ensure the fundamental rights of its citizens. I don’t know if this will happen in the Muslim world; but consider that large parts of the population of Iran rejected a hard-line Islamic version of “constitutional rights” put forward in referendums in 2009 and 2010, and many Iranians in the West backed the position taken by Jyllands-Posten and myself during the Cartoon Crisis. They knew from experience what is at stake if you accept censorship of religious satire and criticism.
The Cartoon Crisis presages the world that awaits us in the 21st century. The crisis was about the ability to co-exist in a world where borders are weakened or erased. Contact across physical and mental barriers has become easier than ever; societies everywhere are becoming more multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious. Be it through tourism or migration spurred by economic opportunity or precipitated by climate change, or the fact that for the first time in history the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, we are increasingly existing side by side with those who are different from ourselves. Diversity rules. But at the same time, ethnic, religious and cultural groups persist, with differing norms, values and taboos. Moving through a crowd of people with different notions of what is considered offensive increases the risk of stepping on someone’s toes. This concentrated diversity will only continue to grow as the century progresses. We will move within a world that keeps getting smaller.
Secondly, because of rapid advances in communications technology, the geographical distance between events has vanished. A few decades ago, villagers in Asia, Africa or South America might meet perhaps a few hundred people over the course of their lifetime, and they were in the dark as to what was going on even fifty kilometers away. Today the spread of internet, radio, and television means that even an illiterate peasant is aware of and reacts to events that take place thousands of kilometers away. This “contamination of distance,” as one French cultural theorist phrased it, results in a loss of context. The natural proportions of things are distorted; the fact that Copenhagen is 5000 kilometers away from Kabul disappears. Everything that goes out on the internet becomes automatically public everywhere. The concept of “here” and “there” no longer exists.
This has particular consequences in the case of humor and satire, which are highly dependent on context. What happens to a joke dissolved in cyberspace? A lack of context opens the door to an endless number of misunderstandings and possible offenses. For example, a German newspaper once caused a shock in Japan by publishing a cartoon poking fun at the private parts of the heir to the Japanese thrown. Germans are nonplussed by a dirty joke at the expense of an authority figure, but such a thing is unthinkable in Japan, where the royal family is revered by some as a religious figure. Responses to humor can be decidedly unfunny. In 2006 Iran demanded an apology from the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel after they published a cartoon depicting four Iranian soccer players strapped with bombs and being watched by German soldiers. The drawing was accompanied by the caption, “The German army should absolutely be dispatched during the World Cup.” The jab was in fact aimed at those German politicians who had asked for armed forces to patrol the soccer tournament, but that was not how Iran’s religious leadership saw it. The cartoon resulted in molotov cocktails being hurled at the German embassy in Tehran, and the cartoonist went into hiding after receiving death threats.
Comedians walk a thin line between dangerous and harmless provocation. During a live television show in the spring of 2006, the Norwegian comedian Otto Jespersen set the Old Testament on fire in Ålesund, a traditional stronghold of the Christian church. After the stunt, Jespersen was asked to burn the Koran as well, but he refused, quipping that he would like to live for more than a week. The Norwegian Prime Minister never criticized the public burning of the holy book of the Christians, and that is fine by me, but why then had he found it necessary to condemn a small Norwegian paper’s reprinting of Jyllands-Posten’s cartoons a few months earlier?
I believe I know the answer to that. But back in September 2005, I certainly did not, which is one of the reasons why Jyllands-Posten and I decided to draw attention to the issue of self-censorship in the public debate on Islam in the first place. If we believe in equality, it seems there are two available responses to threats against freedom of speech. One option is, basically, “If you accept my taboos, I’ll accept yours.” If one group wants protection against insult, then all groups should be so protected. If denying the Holocaust or the crimes of communism is against the law, then publishing cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet should also be forbidden. But that option can quickly spiral out of control: before we know it, hardly anything may be said.
The second option is to say that in a democracy, there is no “right not to be offended.” Since we are all different, the challenge is then to formulate minimum constraints on freedom of speech that will allow us to coexist in peace. A society comprising many different cultures should have greater freedom of expression than a society that is significantly more homogenous. That premise seems obvious to me, yet the opposite conviction is widely held, and that is where the tyranny of silence lurks. At present, the tendency in Europe is to deal with increasing diversity by constraining freedom of speech, whereas the United States maintains a long tradition of leading off in the other direction. Following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, many European countries have outlawed Holocaust denial, for example, and it appears that the United States will increasingly stand alone with its tradition of upholding near-absolute freedom of expression on that issue.
My personal view is that the Americans are right. Freedom and tolerance are, to me, two sides of the same coin, and both are under pressure. As noted earlier, the world is undergoing rapid change. Taking offense has never been easier, or indeed more popular: many have developed sensitivity so exquisite that it has become excessive.
It almost tempts one to ask Europe’s welfare states to spend some money, not on “sensitivity training”—learning what not to say—but on insensitivity training: learning how to tolerate. For if freedom and tolerance are to have a chance of surviving in the new world, we all need to develop thicker skin.
Certain regimes, such as the OIC, Russia, China, and some former Soviet republics agitate in the United Nations and other international forums for laws banning statements they deem offensive. Perversely, while such laws are often put forward in the name of minorities, in practice they are used to silence critics and persecute minorities. Unfortunately, these petitions have found traction in the international community. They are prepared to sacrifice diversity of expression in the name of respecting diversity of culture, a contradiction they fail to perceive. They think such laws will further social harmony by maintaining a delicate balance between tolerance and freedom of speech, as though the two are polar opposites.
But as I wrote above, tolerance and freedom of speech in fact reinforce one another. Freedom of speech only makes sense in a society which exercises great tolerance of those it disagrees with. Likewise, tolerance becomes an empty notion if we are barred from expressing ourselves and crossing boundaries. Historically tolerance and freedom of speech are prerequisites for one another, not opposites. In a liberal democracy the two must be tightly intertwined.
This book is a mixture of portraits of individuals and broader historical context. Three chapters consist of interviews with individuals with some connection to the Cartoon Crisis who shed light on a particular aspect of the event. First, I tell the story of a Spanish woman whose husband was killed in the terrorist attack on Madrid in March 2004. She caused a stir at the trial of the alleged terrorist perpetrators by appearing in court wearing a T-shirt printed with Kurt Westergaard’s famous cartoon of Mohamed with a bomb in his turban. Next, I speak with Westergaard himself about his upbringing, his background and his work. I consider his story in light of the history of censorship and self-censorship in Denmark, examining in particular the defense of the right to free speech put forth by the leftist thinker Poul Henningsen in the years before and after the Second World War. Finally, the book includes an interview with Karim Sørensen, a young Tunisian man currently serving time in a prison south of Copenhagen, charged with planning to murder Westergaard in the name of Islam.
I interweave my own version of the Cartoon Crisis and the events before and after September 2005 with a history of limitations on freedom of speech. I look at current limitations expressed through the so-called violation codes: blasphemy codes, laws against the encouragement of hate and discrimination, laws that criminalize denial or trivialization of genocide or specific historic occurrences. I am well aware that there are other and no less serious threats to the freedom of speech, but I focus on those made especially pertinent by the Cartoon Crisis.
In the not-too-distant past, every country in the West enforced blasphemy codes as dictated by the Christian church, and violations were punished severely. As secularization progressed and church and state separated, most of these laws were abolished, or at the very least, rarely enforced. But after the Cartoon Crisis new demands came from both Muslims and non-Muslims for stronger protection of religious sentiments. Some called for new legislation, while others advocated self-censorship in the form of political correctness.
The Parliament of the European Union supports the removal of blasphemy codes still on the books, but in the wake of the Cartoon Crisis, political parties in several countries have protested their elimination. Advocates of blasphemy codes see them as another form of legislation against the encouragement of hate and discrimination. Support for them is based on a particular interpretation of the Holocaust. The simplistic reasoning goes like this: evil words lead to evil deeds. The racist propaganda of the Nazis led to the extermination of the Jews; therefore it follows that if the Nazi’s hate speech during the 1920s and early 1930s had been outlawed, the Holocaust could have been prevented. In other words, without extensive freedom of speech in Germany under the Weimar Republic, the Nazis would not have been able to carry out their hateful attacks on the Jews and would never have risen to power. There is no indisputable evidence to support this argument, but it drives advocates of wide-ranging limitations on the freedom of speech.
I think you can argue in favor of the opposite view—namely, that the Holocaust could have been prevented if there actually had been solid protection of free speech within the Weimar Republic. Laws similar to anti-hate legislation actually did exist, but the weak state did not have the power to enforce them. Criminals were not prosecuted, and the state was powerless against radical factions on the left and the right. In that climate, the Weimar government could not protect those that spoke out against Hitler and his followers. Instead they were at the mercy of the Nazi’s violence. In that way the Weimar Republic actually paved the way for Hitler’s ascent—not because of unlimited freedom of speech, but rather because the government was unable to ensure that all voices could be heard. It was evil deeds, not evil words, that the Weimar Republic could not prevent. Looking at it this way makes it difficult to use this example to justify modern-day blasphemy codes in secular, liberal democracies.
Central to this debate is the general lack of distinction between what is being said and what is being done. The conflation of discriminatory speech and discriminatory acts is the main culprit behind the push for more restrictions on free speech. Again, a primary motivation for this is a particular interpretation of the prelude to the Second World War in Europe which is affecting legislation all over the globe. This book is an attempt to raise the profile of the critical debate about the consequences of forgetting the distinction between words and actions. I am not denying that words can cause people pain; the solution, however, is not to ban them, but to meet them with different words.
Following this history of anti-free speech laws comes a history of dissidence. I begin with Soviet history based on my personal encounters with Russian dissidents, which were decisive for my interpretation of the Cartoon Crisis, even so many years after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I see parallels between Soviet dissidents and a new breed of dissidents: the dissidents of Islam. I have watched them emerge with the joy of recognition. I include interviews with the outspoken critics Ayaan Hirshi Ali, Afshin Ellian, and Maryam Namazie. My account focuses on such dissenters in the West, though I know that they exist within the Islamic world. It strikes me that the determined insistence on the importance of human rights by both critics of Russian Communism and apostate Muslims should remind the West of the values and institutions on which their own liberal democracies were founded.
What they say is not new to discourse on liberty and the rights of the individual. Nonetheless their voices are of immense importance to Europe and the rest of the Western world. Through their stories and their examples they demonstrate that the desire for freedom has not been given to the West exclusively. These individuals with roots in other cultures risk imprisonment, deportation, ostracism, and violent threats to stand up for the “Western” values of freedom and tolerance.
In the book’s final chapter I examine the global fight for the rights inscribed in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948. The struggle has its nexus in the U.N.’s Council on Human Rights in Geneva, ironically a town where the Reformation leader Jean Calvin founded a theocratic dictatorship that burned the heretic Michael Servetus at the stake in 1553. The case against Servetus began the first great debate on religious freedom and freedom of speech in Europe, a battle that 20 years ago I thought was over. After the Cold War the West and the East seemed united in their acceptance of the necessity of a universal human rights doctrine. When the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s hard-line religious leader, issued a declaration calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, brave people in Central and Eastern Europe were busy tearing the Iron Curtain apart and demanding their freedom back. To me the religious invective, or fatwa, faded in comparison with the epochal change moving Eastern Europe in an optimistic direction. At the time I didn’t see the call to all Muslims of the world to kill Rushdie because of a novel as a historical turning point. Today it seems clear that the Rushdie affair was the first theoretical collision between the freedom of speech and of religion and the protection of militant religious sentiments, a collision that has come to define international relations in the 21st century. The Cartoon Crisis became one of the chapters in this global drama along with Servetus and Rushdie. It is a conflict which has had decisive influence on the history of Europe and implications for the evolution of European civilization in its march from intolerant theocracy to secular democracy founded on the ideals of liberty and tolerance.
Similar conflicts exist around the world, but nowhere do they challenge such a deeply engrained tradition of tolerance and liberty as they do in the West. With stories from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Russia and India, I try to show examples of life where individual and group rights to free speech are infringed upon on a daily basis. A strong democracy could withstand these incursions in the name of social harmony, well-meaning Westerners claim, but in other parts of the world they lead to suppression of dissidence. Authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world abuse the protection of Islam as a religion to stifle internal criticism and as justification for violence against those who oppose them from without. There are similar violations among Hindus in India and Orthodox Christians in Russia, all in the name of religion.
In the age of globalization it is not enough to take a stand on the right to free speech from a particular national or regional perspective. Those in the West who insist on more protection against criticism of religious symbols, doctrines and rituals in order to prevent discrimination against a minority must recognize that such measures can lead to persecution, discrimination and violations of freedom of speech and religion in other parts of the world.
This is one of the key reasons why I have staunchly defended my right to publish the cartoons. If I relinquish that right, regardless of the outcome of the Cartoon Crisis, I would be accepting the right of authoritarian regimes and extremist movements to curb the freedom of speech on grounds of violation of religious sentiments. I don’t feel like doing that.
Excerpted from The Tyranny of Silence by Flemming Rose. Copyright © Cato Institute, 2014. All rights reserved.
The Tyranny of Silence
By Flemming Rose
Cato Institute; 1 edition (May 7, 2016)
Flemming Rose – Free Speech in a Globalized World
Flemming Rose and Dave Rubin: Muhammad Cartoons, Islamism in Europe, Charlie Hebdo
Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons Controversy (Documentary)
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