The Tyranny of Silence

Jyllands-Posten page with Muhammad cartoonsI’ve just finished Flemming Rose’s The Tyranny of Silence, a book that needs to be widely read. Rose is an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published twelve cartoons portraying or relating to Muhammad in 2005. This provoked fury not just in fanatical Muslims, but in political fanatics for the “right” not to be offended. An assailant invaded the home of Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists, and tried to kill him. Rose and the cartoonists were subjected to threats and verbal abuse, though none of them have been killed.

In discussing the “Cartoon Crisis,” Rose takes a broad look at the issues of free speech, with examples from Calvin to the present day of deadly violence against heresy. His examples show that Muslims out of power in their own countries are often the targets; when fanatics have gotten rid of all the unbelievers, there’s nothing left but to turn on their own people. This has led to the upside-down situation where people like Raif Badawi, who criticize the Saudi government’s brutality, are “oppressors,” and the Saudi rulers who sentenced him to a thousand lashes are the “victims.”

We can see an important thread in European thought which isn’t much found in American thought. Many in Europe believe that freedom of speech in the Weimar Republic allowed Hitler’s rise, and that “hate speech” laws would have prevented it. In fact, there were laws restricting attacks on people’s religion; the Nazis simply adapted by focusing entirely on racism, on which there was no ban at the time. Today much of Europe has laws against Holocaust denial, yet levels of anti-Semitism are much higher there than in the US.

Today, those who are most violent are granted the strongest claim not to be offended. A museum director declared, “We have no right to offend one another. You don’t have the right to say what you want about other people.” The context was an exhibit that had provoked threats of violence from Muslims. In the next breath she said, “we show a lot of extremely offensive stuff here, and we’re not a fearful gallery.” The people you have no right to offend are just the ones who might kill you, and that has nothing to do with fear.

Something besides fear is involved, though. I’m afraid it’s the idea that Muslims just can’t be expected to behave like civilized Europeans and shouldn’t be held to blame for their violent responses. This amounts to regarding them as animals who just are naturally going to bite you if you touch them the wrong way. This is a horribly condescending view and can only encourage increased hostility in both directions. Rose doesn’t talk about the European movement to keep Muslims out, but it comes out of the same attitude.

The current state of the Middle East is a lesson in what happens when dogma ousts freedom of speech. No one is safe, regardless of their beliefs. A lot more people will die before the lesson sinks in, though.

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