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
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,
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.