The Implications of Islamist Censorship in the West
Lee Harris has written a interesting and thought provoking essay in the February 11 Weekly Standard. Harris looks at the efforts of Islamists to silence free expression in Western countries using both the legal system and threats of violence. In particular, he focuses on the cases in Canada involving Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn:
The English-speaking peoples are justifiably proud of their tradition of free speech. When Thomas Macaulay reviewed the achievements of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he observed that the victorious English Whigs had shown how "the authority of law and the security of property" could be reconciled with "a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known."
Since Macaulay's day, many of the other nations of the world have also figured out how to reconcile liberty of discussion with the general welfare, until a point has been reached where we in the West have completely forgotten what a remarkable achievement our ancestors bequeathed to us. Even a devout Whig like Macaulay, writing midway between us and the Glorious Revolution, recalled a time when unrestricted liberty of discussion could not be made compatible with domestic tranquility. Today, on the other hand, most of us have lost any awareness of the painful fact that, under certain conditions, a society might be forced to make a tragic choice between two incompatible goods, namely, free speech and the public welfare. Yet the events of the last several years should have awakened us from our dogmatic slumber, for when it comes to speaking of Islam, there is troubling evidence that our cherished liberty of discussion may not be compatible with security of life and limb, not to mention the security of property.
It is only by keeping these sobering facts in mind that we can hope to put into perspective the strange drama unfolding in Canada--a drama that contains elements that might have been borrowed from the theater of the absurd, making it uncertain whether we are dealing with a surreal farce or an all too real tragedy.
Harris's main point, as noted in the excerpt above, is that the right of free expression as it exists in most Western societies is the product of a very unique set of historical circumstances. In his view, the ability of Islamists to use both legal and illegal means to suppress speech they dislike is altering this dynamic and will force us to ultimately rethink the consequences of permitting virtually unfettered free expression.
My main disagreement with Harris is his implicit argument that it might be worthwhile to provide Islamists with legal methods of censorship so as to give them an alternative to censorship by assassination or car bomb. In my view, this would be a disastrous form of appeasement that would concede the very rights we fight to defend while encouraging Islamist threats of violence in order to elicit further silencing of "immoral" and "un-Islamic" expression. The censorship of moderate and reformist Muslims has been one of the key factors in fostering the spread of Islamism in the Muslim world. If non-Muslim countries surrender our free expression as well, what hope do we have that a tolerant, pluralist vision of Islam will arise to challenge the Islamists?
Nevertheless, Harris offers a clear headed assessment of the situation that we in the West find ourselves in and reminds us that we will have to pay a price in order to preserve our right of free speech. Please read it for yourself:
Speaking of Islam