It is one of those uniquely modern Western paradoxes, to wit, that the most courageous Europeans are those forced into hiding. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, the Danish editorial cartoonists -- all are paying the price for freely expressing their opinions and beliefs -- or lack thereof.
Add to that exalted list one Robert Redeker. M. Redeker, a high school philosophy professor in suburban Toulouse, is in the bouillabaisse for a commentary he wrote last month for Le Figaro in which he accused Islam of "exalting violence," and christened the Muslim prophet Muhammad a "mass-murderer of Jews." It hardly matters if M. Redeker's claims were historically accurate. It is enough that he said them. Therefore the philosophy teacher must die.
As in the recent past, the reaction from Europe's intelligentsia has been mixed. Often when such disturbances occur -- and they are occurring more and more often -- there are those (the so-called radical Islamic apologists) who give qualified lip service to free speech, and then go on to condemn the troublemaker for his "stupid" and "nauseating provocation" of good Muslim people. On the other side stand the so-called anti-Muslim bigots who brazenly insist that free speech trumps sore feelings and political correctness. More ominously we are beginning to see a third camp, one we may well designate "the gutless wonders," best exemplified by Le Figaro's editor-in-chief Pierre Rousselin who has now apologized on Al-Jazeera for publishing Redeker's piece, and removed it from the paper's website. This was only slightly more spineless than last month's actions by Berlin's Deutsche Oper, which at the first sign of Muslim discontent cancelled a performance of Mozart's Idomeneo for fear of giving offense to Germany's numerous Turks. This news caused the culture critic of the now famous Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten to lament, "Here we go again. It's like deja vu...This is exactly the kind of self-censorship I and my newspaper have been warning against."
Politicians and government leaders have always considered free speech a mixed blessing (though you would think the press and creative types would be more protective about what is doubtless their bread and butter). Not surprisingly, the French government is more concerned that M. Redeker does not disturb the fragile peace (read Muslim sensibilities) that has held since last year's banlieue riots than with basic human rights; toward that end, the Chirac government will gladly sacrifice one man's speech (to say nothing of the Truth) to avoid a street full of impassioned Muslim demonstrators burning churches, kicking Jews, etc. So if you are the French government you give M. Redeker a trolley pass, a peck on the cheek, tell him to get lost, and hope the Muslim assassins who published his home address along with the promise that "You will never feel secure on this earth. One billion, 300 million Muslims are ready to kill you," will forget all about him.
Indeed, without the government's or Le Figaro's assistance, M. Redeker has been forced to beg to be allowed to stay in friends' homes -- two nights here, one there -- a favor many are understandably reluctant to grant, especially if they have children at home. Meanwhile, the Chirac government's position is clear: if you are going to purposely antagonize Muslims and possibly instigate riots, don't expect France to come to your aid. Consider yourself lucky that you're not thrown in the hoosegow with the rioters.
Just how far France has retreated from the ideals of the Revolution can be heard in the comments of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. M. Villepin recently told the French people that everyone has the "right to express his views freely, while respecting others [views], of course." Apparently there is now in France a civic duty to "respect others' views" equal to the right of free expression. Maybe, but I cannot see it. Nor can I imagine America's founders -- whom the French revolutionaries emulated -- offering a proposed 11th amendment providing a "right to have one's views respected."
Most, I suspect, would agree that murders, looters, polygamists and such deserve little respect. Why then cannot there be an honest debate over whether Mohammed was -- as M. Redeker alleges -- a "merciless warlord, a looter, a mass murderer of Jews and a polygamist"? Simply because Islam allows of no debate when it comes to Allah, his prophet, and his word. And the French government is fine with that.
That's where provocateurs like M. Redeker come in. Redeker is simply trying to kick-start that debate, even at the price of his own hide. That takes guts, I think, something the French politicians lack. And something Muslim intellectuals like Prof. Tariq Ramadan, the French university lecturer, cannot comprehend. Ramadan ominously warned M. Redeker that he can write what he likes, "but he must know what he wanted -- he signed a stupidly provocative text."
M. REDEKER IS NOT simply some half-cocked high school teacher carrying out a publicity stunt. He is the author of several books on philosophy, including his latest Depression and Philosophy, and a member of the board of Les Temps Modernes, the review founded by Sartre. His commentary appeared in Le Figaro, France's leading conservative paper, not some country weekly. Imagine some feeble prime minister, doubtless soon to be booted out of office for accepting bribes or kickbacks, telling a Sartre or Camus that he mustn't be provocative. Imagine him warning J.J. Rousseau to swim in safe waters. And for goodness sake, M. Voltaire, don't start any controversies!
In response to French Education Minister Gilles de Robien's comment that M. Redeker should have shown more caution, moderation and prudence, Redeker replied, "If he were right, there would never have been any intellectual life in France." This phrase to me sums up the entire issue. France has tossed out its long history of intellectual bravura for a moment's sanctuary from anti-intellectual Muslim thugs.
The West went through a similar crisis a few years ago during the height of the Feminist Inquisition and Politically Correct Crusade, which matched the worst excesses of McCarthyism for the sheer dread it imposed upon the hearts and minds of Americans. Ironically, it was worst in the press and academia, where untenured professors -- almost all upstanding liberals -- lived in constant fear of being reported to the PC police for gazing wantonly at a young coed, or making an off-color joke.
The difference is that even in the darkest days of PC the worst a malefactor could suffer was the loss of his career, his home, and his reputation. But offend the followers of Allah and you risk a beheading or years hiding out like a most wanted desperado.
For now teachers, writers, editors and artists have a clear choice to make: they can risk offending Islam and disappear into exile, or they can remain silent, like Iran's intellectuals, like Egypt's refuseniks. During the 1930s, German intellectuals like Thomas Mann could always flee to America, where speech was still protected, and where assassins were unlikely to get at you. Now as then America should extend an invitation to those like M. Redeker, just as it recently provided a safe haven for Salman Rushdie and Orianna Fallaci. Just as it once did for those fleeing persecution from the Nazis and the Soviets. The menace is no less great this time.