Will I defend to the death your right to say it?
As a South African of a particular generation, albeit a white one, freedom and freedom of speech have always been very cherished concepts. Which is why, as a left-leaning sort who hung around other lefties, some of whom didn’t just lean but had actually fallen over, I found their comparisons of Thatcher with Hitler an affront. No matter how right-wing she was and despite her authoritarian tendencies, she was a democratically elected leader whose political life depended on the ballot box.
So, it is with increasing dismay that I view the depressing effects of how Muslim extremism is setting the political agenda and managing to curtail freedom of speech. Other, far more articulate and erudite, commentators get this point across far more effectively than I can, so I’ll resort to quoting them rather than come up with my own words and arguments:
Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post:
Nothing the pope has ever said comes even close to matching the vitriol, extremism and hatred that pour out of the mouths of radical imams and fanatical clerics every day, all across Europe and the Muslim world, almost none of which ever provokes any Western response at all. And maybe it's time that it should: When Saudi Arabia publishes textbooks commanding good Wahhabi Muslims to "hate" Christians, Jews and non-Wahhabi Muslims, for example, why shouldn't the Vatican, the Southern Baptists, Britain's chief rabbi and the Council on American-Islamic Relations all condemn them -- simultaneously?
Maybe it's a pipe dream: The day when the White House and Greenpeace can issue a joint statement is surely distant indeed. But if stray comments by Western leaders -- not to mention Western films, books, cartoons, traditions and values -- are going to inspire regular violence, I don't feel that it's asking too much for the West to quit saying sorry and unite, occasionally, in its own defense.
William Rees-Mogg in The Times:
The question is not whether the quotation from the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaeologus is offensive: it is.
The question is whether the emperor is justified in what he said. His main thrust was at least partly justified. There is a real problem about the teaching of the Koran on violence against the infidel. That existed in the 14th century, and was demonstrated on 9/11, 2001. There is every reason to discuss it. I am more afraid of silence than offence.
From Der Spiegel:
But the attacks against the pope are especially grotesque. The severe criticism -- often coupled with threats of violence -- directed at the speech held last Tuesday by Benedict XVI is not just an attack on the head of the Catholic Church. The malicious twisting of the pope's words and the absurd allegations made by representatives of Islam represent a frontal attack on open religious and philosophical dialogue.
That so many in the Muslim world joined the protests against the pope merely show just how influential Islamist extremist groups have become. The political goal of the Islamists is clear: any dispute between Christianity and Islam must obey the rules handed down by political Islamism.
Bending to this demand would be a mistake -- indeed it would be tantamount to turning one's back on freedom of expression and opinion. What will come next? Perhaps a complaint that Allah feels insulted by the numerous European women who don bikinis during a summer trip to the beach. It could be anything really -- militant Islamists will always find something. But the response needs to be firm. Freedom of speech, after all, is a vital value and needs to be defended. Any attempt to make political speech hostage to some imagined will of God must be resisted.
I’m one of the first to admit antipathy towards the Catholic Church, being fully aware of the atrocities perpetuated under its name in times past and the present atrocity of preaching against the use of condoms. So, I’m no apologist for the Pope and the Catholic Church. In fact, I’m almost a subscriber to the rather simplistic notion that all religion should be abolished as it has been and continues to be such a cause of conflict. But, despite my decade of idealistic youth having long gone, I do still cherish freedom of speech even if my understanding of it has taken a battering.
I fully understand how the actions of the West have angered Muslims but their grievances, often justified, are done no favours by irrational, often violent, reactions to any perceived slight from the ‘infidel’. Some would argue that knowing that such reactions are not uncommon, one needs to be careful about what one says and how one says it. As with greater power requiring greater responsibility (Uncle Ben to Peter Parker/Spider-man), you could argue that greater freedom requires the same and, therefore, freedom of speech should be about provoking meaningful debate and not about being deliberately insulting. The Pope’s recent remarks were provocative, deliberately so, but definitely not insulting. The Danish cartoon debacle could have been described as deliberately provocative and insulting although the worldwide Muslim reaction was completely irrational and inappropriate.
There's no reason to respond to every presumed insult. Consider an example from Denmark. Recently, a paper there published a number of rather tasteless Holocaust cartoons which had been shown in Tehran. The reaction of Copenhagen's rabbi was instructive when considered against the bloody response to the Muhammad cartoons -- outrage which ended up costing lives. When asked if he would call for protests, the rabbi merely said: "You know, I've seen worse."
Voltaire is attributed with having said, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This appears to have been a corruption of something he really did say, 'I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.' At one stage I would have happily claimed to subscribe to such a sentiment but when freedom of speech is threatened with death you begin to think that Voltaire was being impossibly and impractically noble.