The self-muzzling of the free world

Der amerikanische Autor James Kirchick ist der Meinung, dass eine demokratische Gesellschaft in punkto Meinungsfreiheit weder dem Druck verbohrter Fanatiker noch dem selbstgerechter Eiferer nachgeben darf.

In seinem Artikel in The Washington Examiner führt er aus, wie die freie Welt sich selbst knebelt - im Zweifel aus missverstandener politischer Korrektheit.


The self-muzzling of the free world
by James Kirchick

To attend a meeting of the Danish Free Debate Society several years ago in Copenhagen, my name had to be submitted to the police in advance. A motley crew of academics, journalists, activists, and ordinary folks, the society meets regularly and informally to discuss books and political controversies. The gathering that cold December evening took place in a cozy walk-up apartment, where the subjects of conversation were a recently published tome on the history of free speech in Denmark and a biography of a wartime collaborationist politician. Over mulled wine and snacks, about 15 guests took part in a series of spirited debates that lasted into the wee hours.


These are not particularly inflammatory topics. And normally, meetings of the society do not take place under the watchful eye of the Danish security services. But in attendance that night was Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who, in 2007, published three drawings of a dog with the face of the Prophet Muhammad. Vilks started to receive death threats and has lived under total police protection ever since. The last time Vilks had been in Copenhagen, for a 2015 event entitled “Art, blasphemy and the freedom of expression,” a Muslim terrorist shot up the venue, killing a 35-year-old film director and wounding three police officers. The following day, the perpetrator tried to enter a Copenhagen synagogue. Before being shot dead by police, he killed a Jewish security guard posted outside.


Vilks isn’t the only man I know who labors under such burdens. On that same visit to Copenhagen, I had drinks with Flemming Rose, the newspaper editor who published the infamous Muhammad cartoons in 2005. Nearly 15 years after a group of opportunistic imams orchestrated a global campaign of intimidation and mayhem in response to a few pictures, Rose still requires protection by the Danish police, a number of whose officers were inconspicuously positioned around the cafe where we met.


Sitting myself next to the affably eccentric Vilks, I became alert to the presence of the plainclothes policemen posted inside and outside the apartment and acquired a small sense of what it must feel like to live your every waking moment worried that a murderous fanatic could make it your last. The 2015 shooting rampage had hardly been the first attempt on Vilks’ life. In 2009, authorities foiled an assassination plot involving three American citizens, one dubbed “Jihad Jane,” and a group of foreign-born Irish residents. The following year, a group of Muslim extremists violently attacked Vilks during a lecture on free speech at a Swedish university. A few days after that, his home was set alight by arsonists. At the end of that year, a Muslim suicide bomber in Stockholm left a final message to the country denouncing its “foolish support for the pig Vilks.” And just a few weeks before we met, one of Vilks’ most famous works, a series of wooden tower installations constructed on a peninsula in southern Sweden, was burned to the ground. Vilks took the destruction in stride, commenting, “This is a tough action and a rather brutal form of art critique.”


Such self-deprecating humor may be a coping mechanism for someone condemned to spend the rest of his life in hiding. But the admirable ability of Vilks to grin and bear such tribulations should not inure us to the outrageous situation in which he, Rose, and several other artists, writers, and public figures find themselves: 30 years after Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a death warrant for Salman Rushdie over his novel The Satanic Verses, it remains the case that individuals in Western, cosmopolitan, liberal cities live under threat of murder simply for the words or images they produce.


That such an outrageous situation persists well into the 21st century must be considered an affront not only to these specific individuals but to anyone who values living in a free society. For it is not just their personal safety that is at risk, but the freedom of us all. Establishing solidarity with writers and artists who encounter violence and oppression, whether at the hands of lone religious fanatics or governments — or, in the case of Rushdie, both — is an obligation for anyone purporting to believe in our most important freedom: the freedom of expression. The 2015 free speech event at which Vilks was nearly killed, held on the anniversary of the fatwa, was a gesture toward this duty. (Promulgated on Feb. 14, 1989, the religious edict was the exact opposite of a Valentine.) Vilks and Rushdie are also linked by their shared company on a 2011 al Qaeda hit list published in the group’s incendiary English-language magazine Inspire . Joining them on that list is, or I should say was, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, the Charlie Hebdo editor murdered, along with 10 of his colleagues, by Islamic terrorists in 2015.


Rushdie, fortunately, is alive and well. (The same cannot be said for his Japanese translator, or the 37 people immolated at a Turkish literary festival, all killed by dint of their connection, however tenuous, to the British author.) Rushdie no longer lives in hiding and appears to have a vigorous social life. Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami’s 1998 declaration that the Rushdie fatwa was “finished” fooled no one, apparently. In 2016, 40 state-run Iranian media outlets added $600,000 to the millions already promised by the Islamic Republic for Rushdie’s murder. Despite all this, Rushdie has not let the fatwa rule his life or hinder his literary output or stop him from speaking out about a variety of controversial topics, the various threats to free speech prominent among them.


For his courage in the face of this hounding by the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Rushdie must be applauded. But his public visibility should not obscure the fact that he lost. By “lost,” I do not mean that the ayatollahs or their menacing lackeys have succeeded in silencing Rushdie, for they clearly haven’t. Rather, the qualities that he nobly embodies and bravely stands for are fighting a rearguard action, in retreat across every aspect of our culture. The fact remains that there are things one cannot say, or draw, today without risk of harassment, violence, or worse, and so they often go unsaid. That this is so represents a collective failure on the part of Western societies to heed what happened three decades ago, when a rogue regime targeted a writer for murder, as the dire warning it proved to be.


If the fatwa on Rushdie was an Islamist shot across the bow of Western civilization, the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, was its crescendo. A series of murders and attempted murders of prominent public figures who criticized Islam soon followed: the Dutch gay libertine academic and politician Pim Fortuyn (killed by a radical environmentalist claiming to be acting on behalf of oppressed Muslims in 2002), the Dutch artist Theo Van Gogh (stabbed to death in broad daylight on an Amsterdam street in 2004, a scribbled warning to ex-Muslim author and then-politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali that she would be next impaled through his chest), the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westegaard (saved from a Somali Muslim would-be axe murderer only by the panic room specially installed in his home), the Danish journalist Lars Hedegaard (who survived an assassination attempt by an assailant posing as a postman in 2013). Geert Wilders, the platinum blond Dutch populist, has lived in a bulletproof safe house ever since two men attempted to murder both him and Hirsi Ali with grenades at the parliament building 15 years ago. Charlie Hebdo must now spend $1.7 million a year for security.


That some of these figures, Wilders especially, have espoused rhetoric that crosses the line from justifiable criticism about a religion into outright bigotry against its many adherents does not make their circumstances any less reprehensible. Those who regard ridicule, criticism, or even nebulously defined “hate speech” as crimes worthy of punishment are blackmailing the rest of us.


In recent years, we have grown accustomed to reading about atheists and dissenters living across the vast expanse of what used to be called the “Third World” who face severe punishment and death for questioning religious dogmas. But even in the West, the cradle of the Enlightenment, free expression is under assault. Two months after my visit to the Free Debate Society, a 42-year-old Danish man was charged with blasphemy, a crime for which no one in that country had been convicted since 1946, for burning a Quran and videotaping it. (In 1997, a Dane burned a Bible on TV but wasn’t prosecuted.) Recently, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a decision by the government of Austria to convict a woman who had called the Prophet Muhammad a “pedophile.” (To ensure multicultural harmony, the court declared, governments may restrict “gratuitously offensive speech.”) In Poland, a pop star was convicted of “religious insult” for stating that the Bible was written by people “wasted from drinking wine and smoking some weed.” In Spain, a comedian was arrested for “offending religious feeling” for defecatory remarks about the Virgin Mary on Facebook. As the free speech activists Jacob Mchangama and Sarah Mclaughlin write in Foreign Policy, “Blasphemy bans in European democracies also help lend legitimacy to laws punishing blasphemy and religious offense in states where blasphemy is a matter of life and death.” Twenty percent of European countries, they report, criminalize “blasphemy or religious insult.”


As China continues to grow into a global power and presents an attractive authoritarian alternative to liberal democracy, the lure of the country’s massive market has led Western states, businesses, and institutions to abase themselves and betray their purported values. When then-Chinese Premier Hu Jintao made a state visit to Denmark in 2012, police detained some activists who had displayed the Tibetan flag at a demonstration. China scholar Isaac Stone Fish writes of an “epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China, one that limits debate and funnels students and academics away from topics likely to offend the Chinese Communist Party.” And rare is the Hollywood film today that criticizes China; on the contrary, for the 2012 remake of "Red Dawn," MGM insisted in post-production that the adversary which invades America be changed from China to the far-less-believable North Korea.


It’s only one religion, though, whose adherents regularly go around threatening to kill people for hurting their feelings, and occasionally make good on their threats. The chilling effect that pre-emptive appeasement of religious obscurantists has on artistic production is incalculable. We are not likely to see in our lifetimes a Broadway musical that pokes fun at the pieties and myths of Islam in the way “The Book of Mormon” does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The Church’s response to that show, which, eight years after its premiere continues to pack the house every night on the Great White Way? Friendly young men in crisply pressed white shirts distributing literature outside the theater. Somehow, I suspect reaction to “The Book of Muhammad” would be less conciliatory. (Here, it is worth mentioning that the folks most upset about visual depictions of the Prophet Muhammad often have no problem, and may themselves enthusiastically publish, the vilest images of hook-nosed Jews drinking the blood of gentile babes.)


Another threat to freedom of expression is the increasingly fashionable notion that words equal violence. In the minds of a growing number of progressives, the very concept of free speech has become associated with racism, a tool for those with “privilege” to exert their “power.” (How tragically they forget that the greatest tool for political change, one amply utilized by every marginalized American group from women to blacks to gays, has been the absolute, unfettered right to free speech.) Some have gone so far as to call the Enlightenment itself a “white supremacist” project.


The high priests of our literary and journalistic world are baby boomers who came of age at a time when advocating for the rights of those with unpopular opinions was a key component of fighting "The Man." And yet they appear increasingly beholden to their ultrawoke millennial staffers who believe it is right and virtuous to publicly shame and destroy the careers of anyone who disagrees with them. Steve Bannon doesn't need another platform to spew his pseudo-intellectual, populist gibberish, but the New Yorker should not have rescinded its invitation to him to be interviewed by editor David Remnick at its festival last year, after some staff and celebrities protested. (A list of individuals deemed appropriate for the New Yorker Festival included pro-Bashar Assad conspiracy theorist Boots Riley, anti-vaccine activist Jim Carey, and the traitor Chelsea Manning.) Magazine giant Conde Nast is making contributors sign contracts with “morality clauses” which allow the company to annul if the writer “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals.” Such a move institutionalizes the career enhancement of mediocrities, milquetoasts, and other espousers of safe, predictable, bien pensant opinions.


When New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma deigned to publish an essay by a Canadian radio DJ accused of various sexual offenses against women, a Twitter mob arose and demanded Buruma, one of our greatest public intellectuals, be fired. They got their scalp and, in so doing, set a new and dangerous precedent. In the age of #MeToo, one doesn’t even need to be accused of committing a sexual transgression to lose one's livelihood, but merely publish a piece by someone who has. Whatever the propriety of Buruma’s original decision, or his somewhat clumsy reply to critics in an interview published shortly thereafter, as a writer I far prefer that the editorial ranks be filled with people who are at least willing to risk crossing the line of propriety than those who never even approach it out of fear that they will anger a bunch of self-appointed Internet commissars.


The impulse to censor, whether it comes in the extreme form of literary criticism by the ayatollah or that of students at the College of William & Mary who shouted down a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union with cries of “liberalism is white supremacy,” betrays a profound lack of faith in the ability of individuals to think for themselves. Above all else, it is patronizing, an attack not only on the censored but also on your right, on everyone's right, to consume ideas. Those who want to ban cartoons or prevent a controversial figure from publishing an essay or shut down what would have most likely been the interrogation of a slovenly populist conman by a liberal magazine editor treat the intended beneficiaries of their efforts — Muslim immigrants, the general reading public, etc. — as impressionable children. Do staffers of the New Yorker fear their readers will be red-pilled by the likes of Bannon? If so, what does that say about their grasp of their own ideas and values?


Censorship inhibits the ability to persuade. Progressives used to understand this. In 1963, the Yale Political Union invited segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace to a debate on campus. A few weeks earlier, klansmen had bombed a black church in Birmingham, killing four African-American schoolgirls. Kingman Brewster, the legendary liberal president of Yale, asked the political union to withdraw its invitation, and the mayor of New Haven announced that Wallace would be “officially unwelcome” in his city. Pauli Murray, an African-American civil rights activist, disagreed. Then studying at the law school, she wrote a letter to Brewster stating, although she found Wallace’s segregationism monstrous, “the possibility of violence is not sufficient reason in law to prevent an individual from exercising his constitutional right.”


The culture of censorship exerts its insidious influence not only in preventing expression, but compelling it. Its perverse effects can be seen not only by what we don’t say, but sometimes in what we do. In 1990, Rushdie published an essay entitled “Why I Have Embraced Islam.” It read exactly like the hostage note it was. Understandably desperate and no doubt suffering from a severe case of cabin fever, Rushdie avowed “there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his last Prophet” and promised not to publish The Satanic Verses in paperback. “It was deranged thinking,” he confessed nearly two decades later. “I was more off-balance than I ever had been, but you can’t imagine the pressure I was under. I simply thought I was making a statement of fellowship. As soon as I said it I felt as if I had ripped my own tongue out. I realized that my only survival mechanism was my own integrity.”


Across the literary, political, and cultural landscape, a phenomenon similar to Rushdie’s false profession of faith is occurring, as a tiresome conformity and herd-like mentality takes hold. In 1978, the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel published his seminal essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” To explain the stultifying effects of Communism on the individual, he relates a story of the greengrocer who puts a sign in his shop window proclaiming, “Workers of the World, Unite!” The grocer doesn’t believe the Marxist credo. Rather, he displays the sign “because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.” The sign, Havel writes, conveys the following message to passersby and society at large: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”


So much of what passes for journalism and political conversation today mimics the pathetic self-abnegation of the greengrocer. People are constantly writing and saying things of highly dubious merit — “Hannah Gadsby is funny,” “Islam is the religion of peace,” “Trans Women are Women,” “'Black Panther' deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Picture” — as if they were religious incantations. The whole lamentable phenomenon is utterly totalitarian in spirit and has been abetted by social media, where one can instantly and constantly display his or her correct opinions and righteous outrage in the hope of keeping the wolves at bay. Depart from the consensus, fail to display the correct slogans in the proverbial shop window, and “there could be trouble.”


A recent magazine profile of the actor Rami Malek offered a brief summation of his Twitter activity: “praised bisexual activist Emma Gonzales and the Parkland survivors-turned-antigun-crusaders; thanked Christine Blasey Ford for her ‘strength and bravery’ in front of Congress, and suggested people make donations to the ACLU.” All that was missing was a pensive selfie of the doe-eyed star holding up a sign imploring Boko Haram to #BringBackOurGirls. The display of personal pronouns in the social media profiles of people who are not transgender have become modern-day equivalents of the “Workers of the World, Unite” signs Havel lamented.


Asked why he was willing to risk everything over The Satanic Verses, Rushdie responded: “This issue is more important than my book or even my life.” A society in which we are cowed into silence regarding what we believe, or pressured into unthinkingly repeating the things we don’t, is not one worth living in. We owe it to ourselves to learn from Rushdie’s example and honor his courage in our everyday lives. The threat to free expression arrives not only in the form of murderous Valentines, but in what we’re doing to ourselves.


article picture

James Kirchick, Gast-Dozent an der Brookings Institution, einer Nonprofit-Organisation für Politikforschung mit Sitz in Washington DC., ist Autor von "The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age".

Informationen zu James Kirchick:

Der Artikel "The self-muzzling of the free world" ist in The Washington Examiner erschienen und in deutscher Übersetzung "Die freie Welt legt sich selbst einen Maulkorb an" auf