It is possible there have been months in human history more globally abysmal than February 2006 for the cause of free expression, but none comes to mind. This year’s commemoration of Febris, the Roman god of malaria, coincided with a violent and explosive turn in the Intoonfada, theretofore largely peaceful. Two weeks ago, I did my best to explain why the furor over the Danish cartoons was nothing more nor less than an attempt by a group of religious fanatics to subject nonbelievers to the dictates of an inflexible interpretation of their holiness code.
Despite a mounting death toll, about 50 at last count, Western elites continue to excuse mob violence and incitement to murder. Only last week, former President Bill Clinton opened a speech in Islamabad by bragging about having been “the first Western leader to speak against the cartoons.” He went on to advise that Muslims calmly explain to their neighbors that it is blasphemy to draw a picture of Muhammad. Presumably, once the Danes have been so informed, they will do the rational thing and live by Sharia law — just as Clinton forswears pork, cheeseburgers and shellfish so as not to trespass the absolute imperatives of Jewish dietary regulations.
What fate awaits a non-Muslim who offensively decides not to live his life as if he were a Wahabbist? Muhammad Yousef Qureshi, a Pakistani imam, answered that question by staking a $1 million bounty on the head of the Danish artist (Qureshi thinks there is only one) responsible for the cartoons. I am loath to paraphrase language as supple as Qureshi’s: “[W]hoever will take this insulting man to his end, will get this prize.” Incidentally, the offer of cash for murder creates a pristine opportunity for Kanishk Tharoor to retract his statement of several weeks ago in this space that “the cartoons are not the modern-day ‘Satanic Verses.'” Or perhaps the proposition still stands because maybe the right to publish without semi-literate peasants bribing wholly illiterate peasants to decapitate you is contingent upon your literary or artistic skills. (Allah help the deeply passionate artist who just isn’t very good.)
On the other hand, one line of apologetics on behalf of the Intoonfada is that the West has no right to demand Muslims respect free speech rights, when Western countries don’t respect free speech either. There is something to this. On Feb. 20, Holocaust-denying historian David Irving pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in Austrian prison for the crime of … holocaust denial. Across the border in Hitler’s adopted fatherland, publication of “Mein Kampf” is ganz verboten. But the Austrians, far outdoing their Teutonic cousins, have undertaken to impose severe penalties on even non-Austrians who speak falsely about the Holocaust. In the pleasant country of Hitler’s birth, anyone who publicly claims there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, as Irving did in 1989, can face 10 years of incarceration. (Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, true to form, observed the verdict “sent an unmistakable and important message,” thus confirming the old saw about stopped clocks.)
For pre-emptive purposes: I believe Irving’s views are wrong, repugnant, et cetera, et cetera. That is irrelevant. Freedom of conscience entails the freedom of everyone to be a Nazi, or not, according to the whims of one’s heart; free speech rights are literally contentless if Nazis and Stalinists and Wahabbists and Mel Gibson are not entitled to them without exception. By imprecating the freedoms of fascists, Germany and Austria inform the world that they have so little confidence in liberal democracy that they fear the mere enunciation of Nazi ideology will kindle its resurgency.
Meanwhile, in the nation that invented classical liberalism, “Red” Ken Livingstone, the socialist mayor of London, will be suspended from office for four weeks beginning today. Livingstone’s misdeed? He compared (Jewish) journalist Oliver Finegold to “a concentration camp guard.” The baffling factor here is that British law establishes an adjudication panel that has the power to remove democratically elected officials from their posts for a fixed term, just in case the panel determines that the official “acted in an unnecessarily insensitive manner.” There you have it. Livingstone’s right to free speech and the London electorate’s right to choose its own representatives are both superseded by a political-incorrectness-snuffing bureaucracy.
It is dispiriting but not surprising that such an agency is a product of Tony Blair’s Britain. From prohibiting fox hunting and imposing national curfews on peaceful teenagers who deign to be out of doors at night, to criminalizing disparaging remarks about religious beliefs, the prime minister inexplicably adored here in the land of the free has yet to meet a civil liberty he wouldn’t consider proscribing. (Think this is hyperbole? Over the weekend, Blair had an op-ed in The Observer claiming that due process rights are obsolete.)
All the same, the distinction between legal constraints on free expression and using terrorism to avenge it is determinate and not terribly fine-grained. Yet we in the West are beset by a political class that doesn’t even need to be intimidated by the fanatics’ extortionist demands, having already given in to them. My modest proposal is that we citizens — “citizen” was once an honorific title, after all — show our leaders that our rights and values still count, by dissolving our governments and electing new ones.
Daniel Koffler is a senior in Calhoun College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.