Merkel’s Message to the West: Be Not Afraid
Self-censorship in the face of Islamist violence directed against free speech does not demonstrate respect for other cultures. It shows fear.
October 25, 2010 - 12:00 am
German Chancellor Angela Merkel this month told an audience of her Christian Democratic Union party colleagues that Germany’s decades-old policy of multiculturalism has “utterly failed.”
The political backdrop here is growing German popular opinion against immigration. This sentiment is fueled by the sense that immigrants, especially Muslims, reject the fundamental values of the country to which they have moved.
Looking over a society divided between Muslim immigrants and native-born German citizens, Chancellor Merkel argued that government policy should seek to incorporate immigrants by teaching them how to speak German and by integrating them into the workforce and into society generally. Merkel’s speech is a profound break with the obeisance that Western societies have been paying to multiculturalism since the 1960s. It acknowledges that Western liberalism is sufficiently worthy of preservation to expect at a minimum that those who live in Western liberal society should understand its language, laws, and basic tenets.
However, Germany is not alone in facing the consequences of a bifurcated society. Nearly all liberal democracies suffer from one dismaying result of multiculturalism: increasing intimidation of the media by Islamists and the slow but steady undermining of our tradition of free speech.
How was such an important departure from the assumptions of the past half century reached? In his poem “Youth and Age,” Samuel Coleridge Taylor looks wistfully at aging. “Ah! for the change ‘twixt Now and Then,” he writes. Changes in people you see daily go largely unnoticed. If you haven’t seen someone for a long time, the transformations are apparent at once.
This applies equally to politics. Think back more than 20 years to when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. A year later — in February 1989 — Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a decree calling for Rushdie to be murdered. I was an official at the U.S. Defense Department at the time and I am happy to say that the U.S. government took note and considered how best to protect him should the need arise. Even the European public stood to defend Rushdie’s freedom of speech. The writer Ian McEwan is said to have hidden Rushdie, as did Christopher Hitchens, before more formal protection could be offered. Rushdie was invited to the stage at rock concerts in England and received a thunderous and approving reception. Twenty years ago states and the public together supported free speech.
Two decades later it’s quite a different story. After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (the Jutland Post) published its cartoons of Mohammad in September 2005, Denmark and its courageous Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen stood alone. Imams in Denmark and ambassadors from nearly a dozen Muslim-majority states sought a meeting with Rasmussen to, as the American writer Tom Wolfe put it in 1970, “mau mau the flak catchers.” The prime minister steadfastly refused to take part in such antics. He responded in a letter noting that “freedom of expression has a wide scope and the Danish government has no means of influencing the press.”
How far we have come. The Bush administration shamefully declared that “we find (these cartoons) offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find these images offensive.” American conservative publications barked but did not publish the cartoons.
The Obama administration echoed its predecessor’s mindless efforts at appeasing the unappeasable. One of the religious leaders who was invited to speak at a prayer service that preceded President Obama’s inauguration two years ago was Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. In 2007, U.S. federal prosecutors included the Islamic Society of North America along with almost 300 other co-conspirators in a criminal case that accused the Holy Land Foundation of Richardson, Texas, of having funneled more than $12 million dollars to Hamas, which the U.S. government had officially designated as a terrorist group in 1995. A small Washington political journal picked up on the story. Otherwise the U.S. media largely ignored it. Such events have now become sufficiently normal to merit little or nor interest.
No matter where you look, our free media, governments, and publics are increasingly open to Muslim intimidation. More worrisome, a growing body of opinion implicitly holds that appeasing such intimidation will diminish or overcome it. Last year the Yale University Press published a book on the Danish cartoon incident. After a lot of consultations the Press decided not to publish the cartoons but also to leave out illustrations of Mohammad from an Ottoman print, a sketch by Gustave Dore, and an episode from Dante that Botticelli, Blake, Rodin, and Dali have all depicted. So it is now clear that at least one highly respected Western academic institution whose single most important intellectual principle is freedom of thought can be intimidated into self-censorship by not even so much as a spoken or written threat.
Late in September a cartoonist for the Seattle Weekly, Molly Norris, disappeared. It had occurred to her that if enough people make it clear that they support freedom, those who oppose it will retreat. She advocated an “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.” An American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, now hiding in Yemen to escape being killed or captured for his leadership in al-Qaeda, issued a fatwa for Norris’s murder. Norris changed her mind about the proposal — understandable in the circumstances — and on the advice of government security personnel is now in hiding. A couple of U.S. journals recorded the event. Otherwise it was ignored. We have come to accept intimidation as normal.
Americans, however, are not alone in appeasement or self-censorship. Seven years ago a report on anti-Semitism in Europe was commissioned by the European Union and authored, among others, by Professor Walter Bergmann of Berlin’s Technical University. The report found that Muslims and pro-Palestinian groups were responsible for a large portion of anti-Semitic violence in Europe. The E.U. decided not to publish the report.