Thursday, December 01, 2005

Free Speech under Threat in Europe

Historian Timothy Garton Ash has a brilliant editorial piece in today's Guardian on the threat to free expression posed by radical Islamists and other fanatics:

People are trying to kill her just for saying what she thinks. Last year, he was actually killed simply because he made a provocative work of art. Welcome to our brave new Europe, three centuries after the Enlightenment.

She is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian-Dutch politician and writer, who wrote the script for the film Submission. He was Theo van Gogh, the Dutch director of that film, who as a result was murdered on an Amsterdam street just over a year ago. After slitting Van Gogh's throat, the murderer pinned a letter to his chest with a butcher's knife. "Ayaan Hirsi Ali," it said, "you will break yourself to pieces on Islam." "You, oh Europe, will go down ... " this rant concluded, "you, oh Netherlands, will go down ... You, oh Hirsi Ali, will go down."


This right to free speech, which is to an open society what oxygen is to human life, is under direct threat from people whose position is very simple: if you say that, we will kill you. And not just in the case of Islam. Remember that violent protests and death threats from extremists in Britain's Sikh community forced the playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti into hiding, and her play Behzti off the stage in Birmingham.

Garton Ash also points out the troubling fact that the British government has actually contributed to this climate in some ways, through its proposal for a law banning expressions of "hatred" against religious groups:

How does our government react? By extending police protection to threatened individuals, to be sure, as it did for Salman Rushdie. By making the right noises about tolerance, peaceful protest and free speech. But also - shamefully, stupidly, cravenly - by itself proposing to restrict that right, in an ill-considered, ill-drafted bill to bar "incitement to religious hatred". Among the motives behind the reintroduction of this already once rejected bill in Labour's last election manifesto were appeasement of some self-appointed spokespersons of the Muslim community in Britain and transparent political opportunism - as the distinguished human-rights lawyer and Liberal Democrat peer Anthony Lester observes in an excellent book prepared by English PEN (Free Expression is No Offence, edited by Lisa Appignanesi); he says that the bill was introduced as "a targeted bid to woo British Muslim support for New Labour in marginal constituencies where hostility to the illegal invasion of Iraq had alienated many Muslim and other potential voters from Labour to the Liberal Democrats".

Free speech protections need to apply to hateful viewpoints as well, even those of the Islamists. The way to safeguard free expression is not by preventing Salafists and other extremists from voicing their opinions: rather, it is by making sure that the Islamists cannot deny others the same right.


Anonymous Andy Wheeler said...

Hello - I enjoyed your post but how do reconcile free speech with sexual harassment laws, or lying to cause a panic (yelling fire in a crowded theatre)? Thanks again and happy holidays.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Thank you Andy, for your readership and for taking the time to comment. Happy holidays to you as well. I've tried to answer your question as best I can in my next post.

11:46 PM  

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