Liberal Democracies Must Protect (Hateful or Dumb or Disagreeable) Free Expression

There are a number of points on which Ali Eteraz and I agree. Despite my general hostility to organized religion, I too have little patience for Robert Spencer-type arguments that Islam is possessed with a preternatural desire to force unbelievers … Read More

By / April 17, 2008

There are a number of points on which Ali Eteraz and I agree. Despite my general hostility to organized religion, I too have little patience for Robert Spencer-type arguments that Islam is possessed with a preternatural desire to force unbelievers into a state of "dhimmitude," nor am I terribly concerned that the minarets of "Eurabia" will soon encircle the Islamisized capitals of Western Europe. As I noted in my Reason column, I have little interest — and little academic qualification — in such conversations, and will leave the discussions of Koranic interpretation to theologians and historians. But thankfully, for the sake of Jewcy's readers, there is much on which we disagree. But let me start be reiterating that I too was unimpressed by Wilders film, and his views of Islam still strike me as reductive and, to put it mildly, incomplete.

So let’s get right to a few important points of disagreement: I suspect that Ali understood that I would strenuously object to his characterization of Wilders as a "threat to liberal society" — a threat to whom? How grave a threat? — and that there exists, as he writes, some “threat of discussion.” And while I can, I suppose, sympathize with his desire to "rid liberal society of people like Wilders," it is worth pointing out that here Ali is entering pie-in-the-sky, Five Year Plan territory. Besides, any attempts to purge people with unpopular opinions from polite society risks having the very opposite effect.

Ali also advises that, to achieve harmony amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, it is necessary “ignore Michael's exhortation about looking out for Wilders rights, and spend our time either ignoring or mocking him.” This is a perfectly baffling sentence. Ali will find that my editorial in support of Wilders' right to hate Islam is also an exhortation to debate him (Mocking, devoid of serious debating or debunking, will likely be an ineffective weapon). But if Ali truly believes that Wilders shouldn't be prosecuted for thought crimes — as was suggested by both implicitly and explicitly by Dutch Muslim groups and members of the Balkanende government — then he must, on some level, be concerned with the right to free speech.

Instead, you advocate threatening Wilders — “The only way we can make this showing is if Wilders is aware that he is perpetually ‘this close’ to losing his right to offend — which sounds as if your conception of free speech comes with a few conditions. So, Ali, what do you propose to do? On the one hand, you defensively write that no law should be created or employed that would abridge Wilders' right to free speech, though you want to threaten to silence him in order to demonstrate that, in a liberal society, there are times when the government must be illiberal. So how do you suggest we force reasoned discourse if not by the force of law? And who will determine what is offensive?

I agree with Ali that there has been in a shift in Dutch perception of Islam, but his analysis is oversimplified, focusing largely on what he sees as a perception that “immigrants from Muslim countries are viewed as being inherently incapable of becoming good citizens in the West.” In the argument about Islamic extremism, foreign policy “blowback,” and America’s standing in the Muslim world, it has been a frequent refrain that we must look inward, and ask “why they hate us.” Ali’s position is an admirable one; it is worth repeating that other frequent refrain here: radical Islamists are in the minority.

But that said, we must see if there is indeed an integration problem in the Netherlands, we must honestly assess whether there indeed exists a perception that assimilation of the country’s Muslim immigrants is hopeless. In other words, let us also ask "why do they hate them?" We therefore cannot discuss the issue of Dutch "intolerance" while ignoring the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh, the armed cells of radicals broken up by Dutch police, Rotterdam’s imam declaring that "Homosexuality does not only affect the people who have this disease, but it can also spread." That "40 percent of the Moroccan youth in the Netherlands reject western values and democracy," according to a study by the University of Amsterdam’s Center for Radicalism and Extremism Studies, cannot be blithely dismissed as the byproduct of Islamophobia. Wilders may be a boor, but that shouldn’t obscure the real problems of radical Islamism and religious Balkanization in Holland.

Before I run too long, allow me to object to the logical fallacy of Ali's comparison of
Wilder's anti-Islam film and to the public rejection of racism or sexism. I am of course not the first to make this distinction, but I think it is worth repeating that the adoption of a religion, even if bequeathed to you by your parents or community, is still a choice. It is a set of superstitious beliefs and moral precepts. Theological issues are something with which we can vigorously disagree and debate. Gender and race are immutable; one cannot choose these things. It would be quite different, then, if Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins were to write book-length attacks on blacks or women rather than religion and the religious.

And one final point: Ali also says that those of us who defend democracy have allies, and those allies are the brave Iranian students who defy the vile regime under whose boot heel they live and not Mr. Wilders (who is brave in his own right). Well now. Can one not name both as worthy of protection? Can we venerate one and merely argue that the other should be allowed to insult a religion because he believes it to be irredeemably violent? Democracy, after all, means defending the rights of those who possess opinions both decent and indecent. There are real consequences if we were to abandon either.

You want to tell Iranian students that “as you fight your supremacists [the Mullahs], we fight ours [Wilders].” While I am loathe to accuse Ali of employing moral equivalence, I must strongly object to his suggestion that those who hang gay men from cranes in Tehran are morally as reprehensible, are an equal threat to civilization, as a marginal politician who denies that moderate Islam exists. There is, you must admit, a difference.

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