By Arsen Ostrovsky
Voltaire famously said: «I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Indeed, many people have died defending our ability to exercise that right
This week in Sydney, I attended a forum on Freedom of Speech organized by the prestigious Australian think tank The Centre for Independent Studies, in which Ayaan Hirsi Ali was the guest speaker (together with prominent conservative Australian journalist Janet Albrechtsen). Ayaan is a person who knows the risk in exercising freedom of speech only too well, and indeed, the obligation to protect that right . She has for many years now lived under a fatwa and constant security over her outspoken views about the dangers of radical Islam and refusal to be silenced.
Precisely because Ayaan has been indefatigable in expressing her views – in spite of the never ending threats to her own life – makes her even more courageous and brave. That she does so in such an elegant, calm and intelligent manner does not belie the importance or urgency of her message, if not her warning – about the necessity to protect freedom of speech as a tool in combating radical Islam and the threat of terrorism.
In her recent book Nomad, Ayaan says:
«Every important freedom that Western individuals possess rests on free expression. We observe what is wrong, and we say what is wrong, in order that it may be corrected. This is the message of the Enlightenment, the rational process that developed today’s Western values: Go. Inquire. Ask. Find out. Dare to know. Don’t be afraid of what you’ll find. Knowledge is better than superstition, blind belief, and dogma.”
Here are some of Ayaan’s comments about freedom of speech and, in particular, the challenges Islam presents to freedom of speech in the West.
THE MEANING OF FREEDOM OF SPEECH
«Freedom of speech is the right to offend within the bounds of the law.”
«Polite conversation, good manners – you do that during weddings, during dinners, when you are socializing with one another and your main intent is not to offend; it is to observe etiquette. But in a civil society, especially in a democratic one, you sometimes have to share ideas or oppose and criticize the ideas of others knowing that those opposed might be offended. That’s what freedom of speech protects – the write to offend within the bounds of the law. And within every Western country there are bounds and there are laws that limit how far you can take freedom of speech.”
FREEDOM OF SPEECH IN THE WEST VERSUS OTHER CULTURES
«Freedom of speech, as I know it, is freedom of speech in the West. I do not know of any other civilization, of any other culture where freedom of speech and the institutions that protect it, were born and have matured and become such a fabric of democracy anywhere else in the world. Not in China, not in the Middle East, not in Africa.”
DISCUSSION OF RADICAL ISLAM IN THE WEST
Ayaan is a firm believer that people in the West, especially those active in human rights do not speak out often enough, nor loud enough, against human rights abuses committed in the name of Islam.
She lamented at what she called «taboo creations” in the West, that is:
«We create taboos in Western societies, a subject is simply declared you can’t talk about it, you can’t discuss it except in a positive way. And Islam is one of those subjects today in the West. You can only discuss in positive terms”.
CRITICISM OF OTHER RELIGIONS AND CULTURES
Ayaan does not deny there are also problems in the West, for example racism, discrimination or homophobia in the Catholic Church or the existence of fundamentalist Christians. However, she makes an important distinction:
«Because there is freedom of speech in the West, that debate is open. The opposite is true of Islam.
She admits that «all cultures are flawed”, however says that since she came to the West 18 years ago, she has learned that:
«Western flaws – the white man’s flaws – his sexism, his racism, his prejudices have been criticized, and radically changed. The white man is no longer as racist as he was 50 years ago or 100 years ago.”
In other words, yes Western society is not perfect. Far from it actually. However, in the West we can at least openly and freely criticize and discuss these issues, advancing the debate, whereas this has not yet happened in Islam.
WHY WE DON’T CRITICALLY DISCUSS ISLAM IN THE WEST
Ayaan provided the obvious examples of people being threatened with their lives (Danish cartoons of Mohammed, Theo Van Gogh and obviously her own situation) and said that makes for a «very compelling” reason not to discuss Islam critically.
She then outlined 5 ways in which critical discussion of Islam is silenced in the West:
1) Demonization of Politicians – politicians who criticize Islam are demonized and she gave the example here of Dutch politician Geert Wilders. She noted that such politicians are automatically labeled as «racists” or «Islamophobic”.
2) Self censorship – she gave two examples here. One was the media, but namely Comedy Central’s self-censorship of a recent South Park episode after threats made by Islamic extremists if they went ahead with a cartoon depicting a caricature of Mohammed.
The other example she provided was in education, where many textbooks in schools and universities have been sanitized in such a way that it is predominantly only the Westerners who are depicted as imperialists, sexist, crusaders and the only ones to have ever done any wrong. But Islam, she says, is always depicted as «fair and great”. Ayaan asks:
«does that fall under the heading of self-censorship? For me it falls under the heading of suicide.”
3) Litigation – according to Ayaan, litigation is increasingly being used to:
«silence people with an alternative opinion or an opinion that is supposed to be offensive. Even when the person taking you to Court knows they are going to lose the case, sometimes the financial cost of fighting the proceedings may be too great, even at the risk of going bankrupt, thereby effectively silencing you.”
4) Lobbying – here she was specifically referring to the lobbying of governments by Muslim organizations and was critical of the fact that:
«Government is lobbied to such a degree using words like xenophobia, racism, playing the victim card, not to write anything negative in public school textbooks or not to teach in a fair way Islam in the West and the threat it poses to young people.”
5) Cultural relativism – Ayaan says that ‘Western progression’ teaches us to say «we do not want to discriminate, we want to create everyone equal”, however she believes that:
«Individuals are equal but cultures and ideas are not equal.”
This is a concept which she writes extensively about in Nomad.
She reiterates here that although we openly and critically discuss some of the bad practices by various cultures in the West (namely by the ‘Ango-Saxon’), we do not do so, or at least not enough, of Islam (and nor for that matter other cultures, such as Chinese, Indian, African).
Ayaan laments the fact that many so called ‘enlightened liberal people’ respond to criticism of Islam by saying: «but we’ve got to respect their culture” and questions what are some of the things we are actually being asked to respect. Forced marriages? Honor killings? Female genital mutilation?
She urges people to apply the same critical scrutiny of all cultures and warns against the increasing rationalization and searching for excuses. She says that when we do so:
«WE are actually being racist. You pretend that you’re protecting a minority, but you are not. You have very low expectations of a people that you label a minority.”
Ayaan warns that the failure to question and critically discuss certain aspects of other cultures means we are turning our backs on those in very need of our attention and protection the most, such women and minorities.
Ayaan’s conclusion was thought provoking and illuminating. She said:
«We now live in a world that has become more dangerous and part of that danger is justified in the name of Islam. That in the West it is almost impossible to discuss these subjects. We have an artificial image of Islam…The normal exchange of opinions in a market place of ideas about what to do about a major social problem is systematically silenced.”
«In the US, we no longer talk about Islamic radicalists, were not allowed to talk about Islamic violence or even jihad. We are now just fighting violent extremists. That is not a victory for the left. It is not a victory for the right. It’s not a victory for those Muslims, men and women who fled countries ruled under Sharia or various forms of autocracy who are seeking a better life. It is not a victory for the voters who have been patient and are trying to hold on to their values. It is a victory for tyranny, a victory for radicals Islam, because radical Islam has succeeded in using the vocabulary of freedom and the institutions of freedom to destroy freedom.”
She ended the talk with the following simple suggestion about what each one of us can do combat radical Islam:
«Keep talking about it. Keep raising the subject. Keep exposing it.”
The forum in which Ayaan spoke was titled: Eternal Vigilance – Why we must not take Freedom of Speech for Granted. At a time when freedom of speech is continuously being eroded by the threat of terrorism, political correctness and self-censorship, Ayaan Hirsi Ali unfailingly demonstrates time and time again why famed British historian Andrew Roberts was so right when he recently described her as «the bravest woman I know”. (…)
FrumForum 4 August 2010