Free Speech vs. Islamists: Why the West Is Losing

Recently, Salman Rushdie did not attend a literature festival in India after Indian authorities warned him he was a potential target of assassins, and after numerous protests by various Islamist groups. This is not the first time that Mr. Rushdie found himself at odds with Islamists over his free speech. In 1988, he published his book The Satanic Verses, whose “blasphemous writings” first resulted in death threats to Mr. Rushdie from Islamists -- including a fatwa against him by Ayatollah Khomeini -- and first alerted the world to the problems Islamists had with free speech concerning Islam-related topics.

After initially trying to apologize to appease his Islamist censors, Rushdie was forced to go underground under protective detail. In 2012, almost a quarter of a century from when he first found himself enmeshed in the struggle for free speech, Mr. Rushdie faced a similar threat and once again was forced to back down.

Unfortunately, the Rushdie example is all too representative of how things are going in the Western struggle to protect speech from Islamist thugs. In other words, not well. Things are probably getting worse.

Back in 1989, most in the Western world were still shocked by the threat against Rushdie, and after some hemming and hawing eventually came out in support of his right to say what he wanted to say about his own, lapsed religion. Today, virtually no one seems to notice or care when Rushdie is once again threatened for his speech. That is because today, Islamist death threats made against persons who speak about Islam-related topics are so commonplace (recall  South Park, Charlie Hebdo, and David Letterman). The world is so accustomed to placing the blame on the speakers that there really isn’t much to get indignant about.

Note the sentiments from the Time Paris bureau chief expressed regarding the bombing of Charlie Hebdo:

Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts … to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that “they” aren’t going to tell “us” what can and can’t be done in free societies? Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good.

Back in 1989, many Muslim states -- and Muslim leaders in the West and elsewhere -- also objected to the threats against Rushdie. On the government level, the Iranians found little support for their fatwa from other Muslim nations. (Although this may also be because most other leaders were Sunni Muslims, while the ayatollah and the Iranians were Shia.) Most Muslim government leaders avoided speaking about the whole issue altogether and limited their actions to banning the book in their nations. Some Egyptian ministers, Turkish political leaders, and even Saddam Hussein objected to the death fatwa. There were even some Muslim intellectuals who objected to the death threats, like Professor Mehmet Hatipoglu of Ankara University.

However, these days there seems to be a contest between Muslim nations and Muslim sects as to which group can censor an “Islamophobe” -- either a Westerner, or a native -- the fastest.

I have written about the increasing rise of blasphemy accusations in Pakistan, where the blasphemy laws were dramatically strengthened in the late 1980s by introducing the death penalty and dropping the previous requirement of "intent to blaspheme" (i.e., a person can now blaspheme by accident). Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, Shias, and other Muslim sects are the usual targets of these laws; sometimes even the majority Sunni Muslims run afoul.

Likewise, Indonesians are now going after their own blasphemers such as Bramantyo Prijosusilo, an East Java-based artist and journalist who was attacked by dozens of Islamists and later brought up on blasphemy charges. He was attacked and charged for a performance piece of his which he hoped would inspire people to fight against radicalism, intimidation, and violence.

In Tunisia, a television director has been put on trial on charges of blasphemy, facing possibly up to five years in prison for broadcasting the French animated movie Persepolis, which contains a brief scene depicting Allah speaking in Tunisian slang. In Yemen, Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkul Karman has received a death threat from Muslim militants for alleged blasphemy. In Abu Dhabi, a British engineer faced prison time for cursing a mosque project that was running late. His blasphemous words: “When will we finish with the damn mosques?” In Dubai, another British citizen found himself in trouble for reportedly calling the Islamic prophet Muhammad a “terrorist” in a heated row with a salesman in a shopping mall.

Further, since 1999 the Muslim world -- through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) -- has been pushing resolutions through the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council to restrict “defamation of religions” (read as “defamation of Islam”) throughout the world.