Should We Censor Islamists?
In an April 30 op-ed written for the Los Angeles Times, scholar Ian Buruma addresses a recent Dutch proposal to censor parts of the Koran for inciting violence:
But are the words of the Koran, in fact, the main reason for political violence in the Middle East or Europe, perpetrated in the name of the faith?
Book-burners and others who make a fetish of words would say yes. But there is room for skepticism. To be sure, Islamist terrorists use the Koran to justify murderous actions, but the actual reasons for their holy war are generally political and not theological. Their main enemies are secular dictatorships in the Middle East, corrupted, in their view, by the decadent, soulless West. This revolutionary cause is influencing disaffected Muslims in Europe. Censoring the Koran would do nothing to stop this. Without meaning to be disrespectful to the Koran, or the Jewish Haggadah, which contains the wrathful passage mentioned above, there is an analogy to be drawn with the debate on violent movies or pornography. They too can be hateful. But do people commit crimes because of them? Probably not.
There are many violent and hateful words in novels, operas, churches, mosques, comic books, radio talk shows and so on. There has to be a balance between our desire for free speech and the protection against potential violence. Most democracies, including the United States, whose Constitution protects the right to free speech, have laws that forbid the use of words that incite violence.
Where to find that balance between free expression and stopping incitement to violence is one of the vital intellectual freedom issues raised by radical Islamism's war against the West. Should Western nations allow Islamists to produce and distribute materials that literally call for our destruction?
Earlier this month, the government of Australia offered one answer, when it announced that it was broadening its ban on books and other materials that express support for terrorism. In the words of Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper:
Under the existing Classification Act, material can only be removed from sale if it is deemed likely to "promote, incite or instruct in matters of crime or violence".
But the amended law – to be discussed at a meeting between Mr Ruddock and the state attorneys-general in Canberra today – makes it an offence to circulate material that "advocates" a terrorist act.
Imported material published outside Australia will be stopped at Customs if it is found to glorify, praise or encourage acts of terrorism.
"We are not going to allow material to be out there saying terrorism is a good idea," he told The Daily Telegraph yesterday. "This is a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism.
In another article, the Telegraph gives two examples of books that would be banned under this statute:
The Ideological Attack, by Shaykh Abdul-Azeez bin Baaz, is an example of a book that will not stay on shelves.
"The Muslims today face a barbaric onslaught froth their enemies – the Jews, Christians, atheists, secularists and others," he writes.
"The Islamic lands are being invaded by various forms of unbelief and deviations; and throughout the Islaamic (sic) lands the winds of desire and corruption blow, the likes of which cannot be truly known except by Allah."
Another offensive tome, The Criminal West by Omar Hassan, also appears to fall within the parameters of advocating terrorism.
"No matter what price we have to pay, and what kind of hardship we may face, Islam must concord the world once more," the book reads.
Australia has previously banned two works written by Abdullah Azzam, the ideological mentor of Osama bin Laden. I regarded that decision as a mistake, and feel the same about this extension of censorship. While I understand why the Australian government is pursuing this course of action, it is wrong and counterproductive. It will not prevent Islamists from accessing this material via the Internet, while it will make it harder for Australian citizens who wish to educate themselves about the nature of radical Islamism.
Again, to quote Ian Buruma:
When it comes to banning hateful words, it must be imperative to show that they are designed to cause violence and, moreover, that they are likely to do so. Banning or censoring historic texts seems pointless because they can be put in the framework of the times when they were written. The reading of "Mein Kampf" may have led to mass murder in the past, but it is unlikely to do so now. Germans, on the other hand, are perhaps more justified in banning the book than, say, the British. There is, of course, a problem with believers who view ancient texts as the words of God and thus as valid for all times. But instead of censoring the books, we should focus on how they are used. If they are used to provoke violence, then the people who do so are breaking the law and must be dealt with accordingly.
It is one thing to ban direct incitements to violence and grisly beheading videos. However, banning works of Islamist ideology is both a violation of free expression and a hindrance to understanding our enemy.