”It’s for the sake of freedom for us as Arabs to learn and to be creative that I ask you to act and to act as soon as possible”.That was the Lebanese writer As´ad Khairallah’s message to European intellectuals in an article in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen almost 20 years ago.
It was headed ”Letter to European friends” and the reason for its being written was primarily the general attacks on freedom of speech and secondly the difficulty of defending a more liberal inerpretation of islam in the Arab world. (And with special reference to Egypt) One of the cases mentioned in the letter was that of professor Nasr H. Abu Zeid who had argued that the koranic texts referring to sorcery and demons should be understood metaphorically.
This led to charges of apostasy, court injunctions and death threats from religious fanatics. Abu Zeid and his wife left Cairo and moved to Holland where he was able to do peace research until his death – due to natural causes – in the summer of 2010. Today the roles are reversed. Intellectuals are being intimidated and reduced to silence by the murder of prophet-cartoonists and shots fired at art exhibitions and debates. So now it’s the European intellectuals who are most in need of support from Arab human rights activists and artists. And not only Arabs but also Persians, Turks, Russians, Ukrainians, South Africans and many others with a personal knowledge of what freedom costs. And the stakes are high.
If we are not willing to run even the slightest risk, then despots and religious fanatics will win. ”Europeans are easy to scare”, I heard Maryam Namazie, the Iranian-born communist and founder of One Law for All say at one of the organisation’s latest conferences. She and the London-based organisation that opposes sharia and defends secularism, know what it means to receive threats and why there have to be security precautions whenever meetings are held.
It’s true that Namazie’s remark was made before the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, but if a massacre can stop people taking things into their own hands and celebrating their right to free speech, then we might just as well remove any clauses about freedom of speech in the Western countries’ constitutions. Because they no longer mean anything.
And à propos Charlie Hebdo, there was another conference, this time in London about apostasy and liberal Muslims earlier this year. Gita Sahgal, a journalist and human rights activist, told the audience how, in 1989, she and others took to the streets in support of Salman Rushdie. Not surprisingly they were attacked. ”There were 40 people with us in 1989, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo there were four million. Let’s build on that hope”, Sahgal said. She was also one of the first on twitter to to send a declaration of support to those of us that had organised the debate in Krudttønden where a participant was shot dead by the terrorist Omar Hussein.
One of the participants in the London conference was a young Marrocan who had founded an organisation for apostates in his home country where islam is the official religion. As a result he had ”lost everything”, his family, his country and his personal safety. Asked whether he would apply for asylum in Britain, he replied ”what am I going to do in Europe”? Apostates aren’t safe anywhere today. My aim was to bring criticism of islam to the Arab world”.
Not an easy thing to do perhaps and quite probably an impossible task. But where would we be today if people throughout history hadn’t risked their lives to do the impossible? Another speaker at one of these conferences was the lawyer Karima Bennoune, who was the author of ”Your fatwa doesn’t apply here”. Bennoune lives in the USA but grew up during the civil war in Algeria where her father was politically active. That inspired her later on in adulthood to travel round and speak to activists in countries like Pakistan, Algeria and other places where people continue criticising authorities for the sole reason that they think it’s necessary.
In today’s Europe it’s now considered ”in” to resign to things while at the same time either declaring that freedom of speech is the most important human right of all or debating with such caution as if there were a terrorist lurking behind every bush
And that’s stupid. We need action. Why not work together to get parliaments in Denmark and other places to set up ”free speech houses” where we once a month can meet people who are living under threat? In the book ”For Rushdie” published in 1993 a hundred intellectuals from Muslim countries gave their support to Salman Rushdie. Will we one day get a similar book supporting Charlie Hebdo and other proponents of free speech? A book written by Muslim intellectuals?
translation: Geoffrey Cain