Free Speech: Putting Our Own House in Order

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In 2005, Flemming Rose, the culture editor at Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, formulated a response to several acts of censorship—including when a group of imams urged Denmark’s prime minister to shelter Islam from the vagaries of a free press. Rose invited all 25 members of the Danish political cartoonists association to “draw Muhammad as you see him.”

A dozen accepted the assignment and all 12 cartoons were published in Jyllands-Posten.

Then all hell broke loose.

The cartoons did not attack Islam; most of them did not even make fun of Muhammad. Two actually spoofed Jyllands-Posten for the exercise itself. Another drawing showed the Prophet with horns, but as Viking adornments—Muhammad the Scandinavian. The most memorable cartoons assailed Islamic terrorism, one humorously, the other with chilling simplicity.

The light-hearted cartoon depicted Muhammad as Saint Peter at heaven’s gate, telling a line of suicide bombers, “Stop. Stop. We have run out of virgins.” The other simply showed Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. The most prescient cartoon had the Prophet gazing at his likeness in a newspaper while telling two angry, sword-wielding minions, “Relax, guys, it’s just a sketch made by a Dane in the southwest of Denmark.”

Denmark’s Islamic clerics did the opposite of relax. They put the drawings in a booklet, added several faked, much more incendiary cartoons that had never appeared in the paper, and headed to Muslim capitals to incited violence against Danes. In the ensuing riots and chaos, 250 people lost their lives.

The cartoons were right up the alley of Charlie Hebdo, the French newsmagazine attacked by Islamic terrorists this week. In 2006, it reprinted them in an issue with a cover of a weeping Muhammad who is thinking, “It’s hard being loved by idiots.” Jean Cabut, the author of that cartoon, was one of the 10 Charlie Hebdo staffers murdered Wednesday. The question implied by his satirical drawing lives on.

After 9/11, George W. Bush repeatedly characterized Islam as “a religion of peace.” The extremists had “hijacked” a worthy religious faith, Bush assured his countrymen. The imagery was apt—the 9/11 suicide bombers had hijacked airplanes—but many Americans were skeptical of the president’s sanguine declaration. They wanted it to be true, but as the body count mounted over the years at the hands of terrorists yelling “God is Great!” in Arabic, they wondered.

The same dynamic is present this week. Our most sage and sober commentators assure us that the Charlie Hebdo murderers are outliers and that allowing them to frame the narrative as Islam-against-the-civilized-world is a mistake.

The bodies in the newsmagazines offices were still warm when MSNBC commentators worried aloud that the attack could fuel “nativist” or “anti-immigrant” attitudes in Europe. The Guardian published a column accusing Charlie Hebdo of having stoked “a climate of intolerance” in France while insisting that the vast majority of Muslims are nonetheless appalled by the killings.

We hope that is true, but is it? Polls show that most British Muslims believe the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted. Sixty-four percent of Egyptians support the death penalty for Muslims who leave the faith. It is these kinds of attitudes that sparked a spirited on-air debate between actor Ben Affleck and television host Bill Maher.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, Maher reiterated his worldview. “I know most Muslim people would not have carried out an attack like this,” he told ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel. “But here’s the important point: Hundreds of millions of them…applaud an attack like this. What they say is, ‘We don’t approve of violence, but you know what? When you make fun of the Prophet, all bets are off.’”

There are several sensible rebuttals to that argument, but the least persuasive was proffered by Howard Dean, who said that the Paris killers aren’t really Muslims at all. “I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists,” he said in a television roundtable. “They’re about as Muslim as I am.” Dean added that ISIS “is a cult—not an Islamic cult.”

This is an odd claim: ISIS stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” and its raison d’etre is restoring Sunni Islam’s caliphate. It was also discordant to hear the former governor of Vermont, nominally raised an Episcopalian—and not a theologian—assert that he gets to decide who is Muslim and who isn’t.

Dean’s assertion unintentionally underscored Bill Maher’s argument. The first modern fatwa on a western writer was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, who called on any Muslim in the world to kill Salman Rushdie for a novel he wrote. Was Khomeini not a Muslim?

The judges in Sudan who sentenced a Sudanese Christian woman to be hanged because she married an American and wouldn’t renounce her faith—are they not legitimately Muslim?

The 9/11 bombers sent by Osama bin Laden’s network? Not Muslim? How about the ruling elites in Pakistan, where 14 people are on Death Row and 19 in prison for life—prosecuted for allegedly blaspheming against Islam—are they real Muslims?

In Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s home country, the government publicly flogged a blogger named Raif Badawi outside a mosque in Jeddah on Friday. The 50 lashes were the first of 1,000 he is to receive, every week after prayer, along with a 10-year prison sentence, for the crime of launching a website called “Free Saudi Liberals.” Is Saudi Arabia no more Muslim than Howard Dean?

And yet.

The fanatics who committed cold-blooded murder in the offices of Charlie Hebdo—and who spared a woman, but only after telling her to cover her face in a scarf and convert to Islam—were certainly Muslim. But so were two of the 12 people they killed, including police officer Ahmed Merabet.

The fate of Messrs. Badawi and Merabet is a reminder that the vast majority of human beings subjected to tyranny under the radical and harsh interpretation of Islam in vogue today are Muslims. The issue for Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere, then, is how to cast this war in a way we can live with—and win.

This is what George W. Bush and Howard Dean—and yes, Ben Affleck and Bill Maher—were trying to do, each in his own way. But this fight isn’t between liberals or conservatives in the context of U.S. politics, and it certainly isn’t between Islam and Christendom or between atheists and people of faith. It’s between those who believe in free expression—the font of all other freedoms—and those who don’t.

One way those in the West can make this clear to our enemies is to put our own house in order. That means several things, starting with the mainstream U.S. media dispensing with the fiction that they didn’t run the Danish cartoons—and won’t run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons even now—because they are loath to offend their readers. They offend readers all the time, and happily. They aren’t running them because they’re afraid to do so, a quite rational fear. In addition, it’s long past time to dismantle the witless university speech codes championed by feminists, gay right advocates, identity-politics mavens—and even the Obama administration.

It also means, and this is counterintuitive given the anti-Semitism embedded in modern Islamic society, dismantling Europe’s “hate speech” laws. These statutes were enacted with Nazi Holocaust-denial in mind, a noble goal. But they undermine the principle that free speech should be inviolate and that all other freedoms flow out of it. Certainly, the enemies of free thinking know this.

In his book, “Tyranny of Silence,” Danish editor Flemming Rose quotes a Saudi cleric and TV preacher Muhammad Al-Munajid—a man who has said Mickey Mouse should be killed—who revealed candidly what radical Muslim clerics and their violent followers really fear. They fear that people think about their own faith instead of being told what they must believe.

“The problem is that they want to open a debate on whether Islam is true or not, and on whether Judaism and Christianity are false or not,” Al-Munajid said on Al-Jazeera. “In other words, they want to open up everything for debate. That’s it. It begins with freedom of thought, it continues with freedom of speech, and it ends up with freedom of belief.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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