Thursday, October 05, 2006

Censoring Ourselves Is No Way to Fight Terrorism

Violence now looms for those who only dare to express the unpopular.
ALMOST EVERY DAY brings a new threat to free expression. A French philosopher is in hiding, running for his life from death threats on Islamist websites, because he published an article in a French newspaper saying that Muhammad is revealed in the Koran as a "master of hate." A production of Mozart's "Idomeneo," which at one point displays the severed (plastic? papier mache?) head of Muhammad alongside those of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon, is pulled off the stage of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin after an anonymous telephone call to the local police raises fears of violence. And that's just the last week. (...) The erosion comes in many different ways. Most obviously, there is violence or the threat of violence: "If you say that, we will kill you." This is dramatically facilitated in our time by the Internet, e-mail and cellphones. That French philosopher, Robert Redeker, went into hiding after an Islamist website called for him — "the pig" — to be "punished by the lions of France" as "the lion of Holland, Mohammed al-Bouyeri, did," and then gave Redeker's address, photograph and phone number. Bouyeri was the slayer of Theo van Gogh. (...) Then there's self-censorship in the face of such threats. Chancellor Angela Merkel aptly described the Deutsche Oper's decision to pull "Idomeneo" as "self-censorship out of fear." But self-censorship can also flow from a well-intentioned notion of multicultural harmony, on the lines of "you respect my taboo, and I'll respect yours." And there are misguided attempts by democratic governments to ensure domestic peace by legislating to curb free expression. The British government's original proposal for a law banning "incitement to religious hatred" was a case in point. (...) What is to be done? First, we need to wake up to the seriousness of the danger. We need a debate about what the law should and should not allow to be said or written. Even John Stuart Mill did not suggest that everyone should be allowed to say anything any time and anywhere. We also need a debate about what it is prudent and wise to say in a globalized world where people of different cultures live so close together, like roommates separated only by thin curtains. (...)
An interesting read.