The Pursuit of Knowledge

Free Speech in Europe

It is at risk, especially for critics of radical Islam.

By From the May 2009 issue

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It is probably well known to our readers that the British government, on the advice of Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, recently prevented Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament, from visiting Britain, to which country he had been invited in order to show his short film Fitna to a group of peers in the House of Lords. Fitna means “turning away” or “temptation,” and denotes the sin to which young Muslims are exposed in Western societies. The film purports to demonstrate the terroristic nature of the Koran and to give a warning against the Islamization of Europe. It has not been banned in Holland, but it is clearly a no-holds-barred attack on Islam as a creed and a social force.

Prominent among those agitating to keep Mr. Wilders out of Britain was a certain Lord Ahmed, one of those cronies of Tony Blair who were shot into the House of Lords some 12 years ago in order to turn that venerable institution into the yes-machine favored by New Labour. Lord Ahmed, who claims to be a Muslim, announced that he could muster thousands of the faithful in order to make Mr. Wilders’s visit a serious problem for the government. Rather than test this insolent remark as it demanded, the government went along with what it took to be Muslim opinion, and made no effort to defend Mr. Wilders’s right, as a member of one European parliament, to explain his views to another.

A short while later Lord Ahmed was jailed for driving his car on the motorway while drunk and sending text messages—eventually running into the back of a stationary car and killing the driver. Whether his lordship’s reputation as a voice of the faithful will survive this particular episode is anybody’s guess, but no doubt some other self-appointed representative of the Muslim minority will step forward to dictate things the next time the Koran is threatened with a public examination.

I am fairly sure that Mr. Wilders’s exposition of the Koran and its doctrines is biased. Like many non-Muslim readers of the Holy Book, I have been struck by the way in which spurts of vindictive anger punctuate a narrative that is, in itself, a heartfelt invocation of the pious life, and a profoundly serious attempt to reconcile the belief in the one God, all-seeing, all-knowing, with the moral chaos of human communities. I regret the fact that Muslims take this text to be the word of God, rather than a particular person’s attempt to give human words to a revelation that he should have sat on a little bit longer before being sure he had got it right.

Like Mr. Wilders, I find parts of the Koran disturbing in their bloodthirsty and unforgiving anger.

But I find the book of Joshua similarly disturbing from beginning to end. So what? The book of Joshua emerged from a life-and-death struggle, in which God was conscripted to the winning side. The same is true of the Koran, which is as clearly marked by a great emergency as is the book of Joshua. This is normal: only in the Gospels does God appear (to His inestimable credit) on the losing side.

All this can be said and should be said. There is no way forward for Europe if it isn’t said. Whether it is right to say it in the tone of voice of Mr. Wilders is another matter. But free speech is not about permitting only those voices of which you approve. It is about understanding your own beliefs and the beliefs of those who disagree with you. It is about creating the public space in which truth and falsehood can openly contend for their following. Free speech is critical to all the other freedoms that we enjoy, and the impulse to defend it—and in particular to defend the free speech of those with whom you disagree, of whom you disapprove, or who have been targeted by some mob or faction determined to silence them—is proof of the democratic spirit. The capitulation of our government before the hazy threats of one of its own criminal cronies is a disturbing indication of how things have changed in Britain, and how they are changing on our continent. It would not be correct to say, as it was reputedly said by our then Foreign Secretary (Sir Edward Grey) in 1914, that “the lamps are going out all over Europe.” But our governments, who have the responsibility to keep those lamps alight, have no guts for the task.

WHY IS THIS? To answer the question we must see the Wilders episode in its full context: the context of the Netherlands, into which country, unresisted by the guilt-crippled liberal elite, whole communities of Muslims have immigrated from North Africa and the Near East. The Dutch are a tolerant and moderate people who never go to extremes except in showing how tolerant and moderate they are. They have ostentatiously stepped down from the throne of their old convictions and left it vacant. But they never expected what immediately happened, which is that the immigrant communities jumped onto that throne and began to dictate the terms under which they would accept what had been offered, admittedly in bad faith, as hospitality. The Dutch were shocked and, without having any clear idea of what they were up against or how to confront it, changed overnight from a people tolerant of everything to a people tolerant of everything except intolerance.

This is the context that changed the Netherlands from a quiet place where nothing ever happens to the improvised stage on which the drama of Europe is played out. The film Submission, made by Theo van Gogh to a script by Somali immigrant, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, brought death to the director and exile to Hirsi Ali, by then a member of the Dutch parliament. In the meantime Pim Fortuyn, a leftish academic, had led his party to power on the strength of popular revulsion against the dictatorship of righteousness that the Muslim immigrants wished to impose.

Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal rights activist, and his party collapsed in disarray. But nothing by then remained of the old Dutch consensus, in which toleration was the ruling principle.

Everything that happens in Holland is now closely watched by other European leaders, anxious to know where Europe itself is going. And when the opportunity arises to take sides in a Dutch issue—as in the Wilders affair—our governments rush in to show their political correctness. The fact that this involves jettisoning our inherited freedoms and the ground rules of democratic politics is of little significance, compared with the opportunity to show pre- emptive acquiescence in whatever demands the Muslim minority might be prepared to make.

THE MAIN ARGUMENT PRODUCED BY those who censor people like Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not that their views should be silenced, but that their views should not be expressed in an inflammatory way. Even the most fervent democrat will admit that the right of free speech should not be used to stir up social confl ict or destroy the civil peace. It is not just that you don’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. You don’t shout “Sieg heil!” in a crowded synagogue, or “God is dead!” in a crowded mosque. And by extension, you don’t make provocative films like Submission and Fitna that are bound to be taken as insults by those whose faith they criticize.

However, who is to decide what is, and what is not, a threat to the civil peace? It takes two to make a provocation, and while it is right to be provoked by some things, it is wrong to be provoked by others. If I am so constituted that any criticism in my presence of the philosophy of Hegel causes me to boil over with anger and assault the speaker, does this make criticism of Hegel into a threat to the civil peace? Surely not: it is I who am a threat to the civil peace, and a true defender of free speech would have me locked up, rather than the anti-Hegelians who so enrage me.

Of course, criticism of the Koran is not quite the same thing as criticism of Hegel. But if we allow only those who resent such criticism to define how far it can go we are in effect surrendering to intimidation. It is for the community as a whole, and the politicians who represent us, to distinguish legitimate criticism from inflammatory provocation. To allow the issue to be settled, as at present, by the ostentatious outrage of Muslims is to surrender in the face of threat.

Just where all this is leading is anyone’s guess. Nobody (other than al Qaeda) wants to change the resentments of Muslim communities in Europe into a state of open war. We are entering a situation that must be carefully managed if our legal and political inheritance is to survive. But one way of mismanaging the situation is to allow a belligerent minority to dictate terms to the rest of us. Our governments must face up to the fact that Geert Wilders was elected to the Dutch parliament, and enjoys considerable popularity, precisely because he has not been intimidated. You may not like what he says or his way of saying it, but it is people like him, and not the ones who censor them, who are defending the political order of Europe.  

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.