Originally written October 11 2006
All across the Western world, a worrisome phenomenon is spreading. Fear of incurring Muslim wrath is leading politicians, journalists, artists, professors, teachers and business owners to censor themselves.
A series of historical precursors paved the way for things to come. The fatwa issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini against the life of “The Satanic Verses” author Salman Rushdie, the 2004 murder of Dutch “Submission” filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and last year’s Danish cartoon controversy are just a few. Each time, blasphemy was the claim and violence the solution.
The recent comments of Pope Benedict XVI opened the floodgates once again. During a speech at the University of Regensberg in Germany, the pope quoted a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor on warlike tendencies within Islam and then expounded on the need to for all faiths to emphasize reason over violence. Ironically, the pope’s words led to Muslims reacting violently.
As in times past, we saw effigy burnings, rioting and death threats, with the added dimension of a virulent strain of anti-Christian violence. Churches were vandalized and firebombed in the West Bank and Gaza, Christians in Muslim countries were attacked and a 65-year-old Catholic nun was murdered in Somalia. As usual, apologies were demanded and when given, as in the case of the pope, they were spurned for not being abject enough.
The very idea that sparking an interfaith dialogue through theological discussion should be deemed worthy of an apology, not to mention a death sentence, has apparently become acceptable in the Western media. A New York Times editorial scolded the pope for his insensitivity, while other voices in the media decried the “bad timing” of the pope’s words in light of an upcoming trip to Turkey.
But there is never a good time to broach the topic of Islam and reform, for the tyranny of the mob rises up at every turn. And with each success at silencing critics, it only becomes more emboldened. Indeed, in the wake of the reaction to the pope’s comments, the situation seems to have spiraled out of control. But this time it’s self-censorship that has taken hold.
Last month for example, word came that the Deutsche Oper in Berlin would be canceling an upcoming production of a 1774 Mozart opera out of fear of provoking violence. The production of “Idomeneo” was to feature an added scene from director Hans Neuenfels showing the King of Crete holding aloft the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Poseidon and Muhammad. While this scene reeks of the sort of juvenile, sensationalistic, anti-religious sentiment popular in the arts these days, it was not the Buddhists or the Christians—let alone followers of the ancient Greek gods—who caused Kirsten Harms, the chief director, to cancel the opera. Instead, she was contacted by Berlin police about an anonymous threat that had been made against the opera house, a threat they had reason to believe was Islamist in nature.
In what is perhaps a hopeful sign, the decision to cancel the production has been widely criticized in Germany, with self-censorship being a continuing theme. Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that “self-censorship motivated by fear is not acceptable,” while the Financial Times Deutschland agreed that “the self-censorship of the Deutsche Oper is hysterical and stupid.” Indeed, the criticism has been such that Harms is considering reinstating the production and mainstream German Muslim organizations have apparently voiced their support. Of course, the reaction of the larger Muslim world should the production go forward remains to be seen.
Real and Imaginary Threats
Another case of self-censorship that’s reared its ugly head in the wake of the pope’s speech involves the publishing company Looseleaf Law Publications. Looseleaf was set to publish a book this November written by psychoanalyst Dr. Nancy Kobrin and titled “The Sheikh’s New Cloth: The Naked Truth About Islamic Suicide Terrorism” when they abruptly canceled because of concerns over the safety of their staff.
The subject of the book may have had a little something to do with their fears. According to feminist, psychotherapist and author Phyllis Chesler, who wrote the introduction, the book sheds light on “the normalization of cruelty and child abuse, including pederasty and daughter-abuse that is pandemic in the Arab Muslim world” and “focuses on the degradation of women in the Islamic world and how that is a crucial factor in suicide terrorism.”
Fearing that the book could lead to violence, and being a small publisher without the funds to provide security to members of its staff, Looseleaf pulled the plug. Fortunately, the blogosphere-inspired publicity surrounding the case has led to offers from two other publishers, so Kobrin’s book may yet come out. But the fact that publishers such as Looseleaf are giving up the prize without a fight says a lot about the effectiveness of intimidation.
French Author In Hiding Robert Redeker, a high school philosophy teacher, journalist and author in France, has also run up against the ramifications of critiquing Islam. Redeker and his family are in hiding after death threats were posted on Islamist Web sites following his Sept. 19 op-ed piece in the French newspaper Le Figaro. Titled “Facing Fundamentalist Intimidation, What Should the Free World Do?” Redeker’s op-ed warns against the totalitarian creep of Islamism in the West.
Predictably, much of the focus has been on the more inflammatory sections of Redeker’s article, such as his calling the Koran “a book of incredible violence” and Muhammad “a merciless warlord, a looter, a butcher of Jews and a polygamist.” But while these are strong words, they should hardly be anathema to a society that claims to support free speech. As Redeker put it, “The Islamists have succeeded in punishing me on French territory as if I were guilty of a crime of opinion.”
Until recently, the French have been slow to rise to Redeker’s defense. Although provided with police protection, Redecker has had to arrange for his own safe houses. After initially being ignored by the French Education Ministry, Redeker finally received half-hearted support from Education Minister Gilles de Robien, who urged him to be “careful, moderate and sensible.” Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin responded similarly, saying, “Everyone has the right to express his views freely, while respecting others, of course.” One would think that those issuing death threats would be in need of lessons on respecting others, not someone that simply expressed an opinion.
To their credit, a group of French intellectuals, including philosophers Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut and André Glucksmann, have rallied around Redeker. In addition, the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF has called on French authorities to protect Redeker and to help him secure another teaching job. Meanwhile, leaders of mainstream French Muslim organizations have condemned the death threats. But comments such as those from Oxford Islamic Studies professor Tariq Ramadan, who called Redeker’s article a ” stupidly provocative text” provide a glimpse into the sort of mind-set Redeker initially warned against.
Until legitimate criticism of Islam is no longer considered “provocative,” this pattern of self-censorship is likely to continue. For fear is an incredibly effective weapon.
There is more than one way to win a war, and societies that are weakened from within can be overtaken without firing a shot. The steady erosion of principles such as free speech can have a devastating effect.
Both for the sake of the West and the possibility of reform within the Muslim world, the critics must not be silenced.