The Spectacle Blog

Free Speech and Islam

By on 2.18.08 | 1:53PM

Lee Harris has written a provocative article for the Weekly Standard on the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy, the absurd Canadian human rights' commissions that have ensnared Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn, and the larger conflict between security and freedom of speech in the age of radical Islam.

What differentiates Harris's article from much of what I've read on the subject is that it poses an interesting ethical dilemma that confronts free societies when authors or artists have the potential to trigger violent riots in their criticisms of Islam:

If the person who is exercising his freedom of speech is endangering the lives of other people in his society, how long will it be before an appeal is made to quiet him by whatever means are available?

In other words, sure, it's one thing for an author to bravely risk his own life by writing something critical of Islam, but if Muslims will react asymmetrically, and harm totally random bystanders who never made a conscious, courageous, choice to defend free speech, what is the government to do?

Harris notes that under the reign of Charles I in 17th Century England, the government barred ministers from discussing Calvin's idea of predestination, in order to avoid social unrest. He argues that the Western world is now confronted with a similar dilemma, concluding:

And is it just Canada that we are talking about? After all, if enough Muslims continue to react with violence to criticism of their religion and culture, all the other nations of the West will eventually be forced to make a tragic choice between two of our highest values. Either we must clamp down on critics of Islam, mandating a uniform code of political correctness, or else we must let the critics say what they wish, regardless of the consequences, and in full knowledge that these consequences may include the death of innocents. This is not a choice that the West has had to face since the end of our own furor theologicus several centuries ago, but, like it or not, it is the choice that we are facing again today.

Though engaging, I found Harris's argument ultimately fails because he presents a false choice. His tradeoff is premised on the idea that were civilization to sacrifice one of its core values and crack down on free speech, we'd actually gain security in return. But not only is there no guarantee that we would, the reality is that the exact opposite is likely to occur. Islamists feed off of any sign of weakness, and were free societies to abandon free speech based on the whims of an angry mob, it would only encourage the radicals to make more outrageous demands in the future, under the threat of more violence. So, even if stifling free speech theoretically spares some innocents in the short term, over time, such acquiescence to evil puts us all in danger. At the time of the Muhammad cartoon controversy, I felt that the incident was every bit as important to the War on Terror as what happened on the military battlefield. Whatever the front in this war -- legal, cultural, media, or military -- Islamists are committed to using fear and intimidation in order to impose their sick ideology on the world. They are dedicated to exploiting the tolerance and humanity of civilized peoples in order to destroy civilization itself. It's our responsibility to stand up to them at every turn, on every front, in every battle, and send the strong message that their savage tactics will never bully us into abandoning our freedoms.
Send to Kindle

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article