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Speak no `evil' -- or else

October 05, 2006|Timothy Garton Ash | TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

ALMOST EVERY DAY brings a new threat to free expression. A French philosopher is in hiding, running for his life from death threats on Islamist websites, because he published an article in a French newspaper saying that Muhammad is revealed in the Koran as a "master of hate." A production of Mozart's "Idomeneo," which at one point displays the severed (plastic? papier mache?) head of Muhammad alongside those of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon, is pulled off the stage of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin after an anonymous telephone call to the local police raises fears of violence. And that's just the last week.

Going slightly further back, there's the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the murderous hounding of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie. A British anti-fascist activist is beaten following the publication of his photograph and address on a far-right website called Redwatch. Animal-rights activists make death threats against medical researchers and their families. Sikh extremists force a play they dislike to be taken off the British stage. Christian extremists threaten BBC executives because they broadcast "Jerry Springer: The Opera." Need I go on?

Fanatiques sans frontieres are on the march. It's wrong to describe this as a single "war on terror"; our adversaries and their ideologies are so diverse. But if you think we are not engaged in a struggle against manifold enemies of freedom as potentially deadly as those we faced in the 1930s, you are living in a fool's paradise. In the first decade of the 21st century, the spaces of free expression are being eroded and -- if we don't summon ourselves to the fight -- will continue to be eroded.

The erosion comes in many different ways. Most obviously, there is violence or the threat of violence: "If you say that, we will kill you." This is dramatically facilitated in our time by the Internet, e-mail and cellphones. That French philosopher, Robert Redeker, went into hiding after an Islamist website called for him -- "the pig" -- to be "punished by the lions of France" as "the lion of Holland, Mohammed al-Bouyeri, did," and then gave Redeker's address, photograph and phone number. Bouyeri was the slayer of Theo van Gogh.

Down the scale, there is peaceful public protest, sometimes with an implicit threat of violence. There are also other forms of less visible pressure, including the use of economic weapons -- the boycott of Danish goods in some Islamic countries following the Danish cartoons scandal, for example.

Then there's self-censorship in the face of such threats. Chancellor Angela Merkel aptly described the Deutsche Oper's decision to pull "Idomeneo" as "self-censorship out of fear." But self-censorship can also flow from a well-intentioned notion of multicultural harmony, on the lines of "you respect my taboo, and I'll respect yours." And there are misguided attempts by democratic governments to ensure domestic peace by legislating to curb free expression. The British government's original proposal for a law banning "incitement to religious hatred" was a case in point.

The threats come from diverse quarters. It would be absurd to pretend that Islamist extremists are not among the current leaders in intimidation.

But the jihadists are not alone.

Even as I write, news reaches me of a friend, Tony Judt, a historian and outspoken critic of recent Israeli policy, finding that a talk he was to give about "the Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy" at the Polish Consulate in New York was canceled after phone calls to the host institution from "a couple of Jewish groups," including the Anti-Defamation League, according to the Polish consul. Such phone calls are, of course, not comparable with death threats. But this is all part of a many-fronted, incremental erosion of free expression, even in the classic lands of the free such as the U.S., France and Britain.

What is to be done? First, we need to wake up to the seriousness of the danger. We need a debate about what the law should and should not allow to be said or written. Even John Stuart Mill did not suggest that everyone should be allowed to say anything any time and anywhere. We also need a debate about what it is prudent and wise to say in a globalized world where people of different cultures live so close together, like roommates separated only by thin curtains.

I believe, for example, that Redeker's article in Le Figaro was an intemperate and unwise one, with its claim that Islam (not just Islamism or jihadism) is today's equivalent of Soviet-style world communism, and his denunciation of Muhammad as a "pitiless warlord, pillager, massacrer of Jews and polygamist." But once the fanatiques sans frontieres respond by proposing to kill him, we must stand in total solidarity with the threatened writer -- in the spirit of Voltaire.

Never mind that Voltaire probably never said exactly what is so often attributed to him: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This was Voltaire's spirit nonetheless. Too many recent responses in such cases, from the Rushdie affair onward, have had this syntax reversed: "Of course I defend his/her freedom of expression, but ... "

Voltaire got it right: first the dissent, but then the unconditional solidarity. Now we are all called upon to play our part. The future of freedom depends on words prevailing over knives.

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