The Death of Free Speech: The West Veils Itself

Giulio Meotti | Gatestone Institute

  • The West has capitulated on freedom of expression. Nobody in the West launched the motto “Je Suis Avijit Roy,” the name of the first of the several bloggers butchered, flogged or jailed last year.
  • Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, sided with the Turks. She condemned the German comedian’s poem, called it a “deliberate insult,” then approved the filing of criminal charges against him for insulting the Turkish president.
  • The West is veiling its freedom of speech in the confrontation with the Islamic world: this is the story of Salman Rushdie, of the Danish cartoons, of Theo van Gogh, of Charlie Hebdo.
  • Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, just released an interview with Italy’s largest newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, where he suggested a kind of grand bargain: We Iranians will discuss with you our human rights situation if you Europeans suppress freedom of expression on Islam.
Last week, Nazimuddin Samad sat at his computer at home and penned a few critical lines against the Islamist drift of his country, Bangladesh. The day after, Samad was approached by four men shouting “Allah is great” and slaughtering him with machetes. These killings have become routine in Bangladesh, where many bloggers, journalists and publishers are being killed in broad daylight because of their criticism of Islam. There is a hit list with 84 names of “satanic bloggers.” A wave of terrorism against journalists reminiscient of that in Algeria, where 60 journalists were killed by Islamist armed groups between 1993 and 1997. But these shocking killings have not been worth of a single line in Europe’s newspapers. Is it because these bloggers are less famous than the cartoonists murdered at Charlie Hebdo? Is it because their stories did not come from the City of Light, Paris, but from one of the poorest and darkest cities in the world, Dhaka? No, it is because the West has capitulated on freedom of expression. Nobody in the West launched the motto “Je Suis Avijit Roy,” the name of the first of these bloggers butchered last year. From Bangladesh, we now receive photos of writers in pools of blood, laptops seized by police looking for “evidence” and burned keyboards by the Islamists. We receive images reminiscent of the riots in Bradford, England, over Salman Rushdie’s ” The Satanic Verses,” in April 1976, forty years ago this month, or again in Bradford, the book burning of the same novel in 1989, ten years after the Ayatollah Khomeini had revolutionized Iran into a stronghold of Islamic extremism. Yet, the stories of these electronic writers from outside Europe remain shrouded by a ghastly transparency, as if their death has been only virtual, as if the Internet had become their grave, as if these fallen bloggers did not deserve the virality of social networks. There is also the case of Raif Badawi, in Saudi Arabia, sentenced to 1,000 lashes, ten years in jail and a fine of $270,000 for blogging thoughts such as , “My commitment is…to reject any repression in the name of religion…a goal that we will reach in a peaceful and law-abiding way.” The lashing order added that he should be “lashed very severely.” In addition to that, Badawi’s human rights lawyer, Walid Abu al-Khayr, was sentenced on July 6, 2014, to 10 years in prison. He was accused of: “inciting public opinion,” “disobedience in matters of the sovereign,” “lack of respect in dealings with the authorities,” “offense of the judicial system,” “inciting international organizations against the Saudi kingdom” and, finally, for having founded illegally, or without authorization, his association “Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.” He was also forbidden to travel for fifteen years after his release, and fined 200,000 riyals ($53,000) according to Abdullah al-Shihri of the Associated Press. Also in Saudi Arabia, in a clear violation of international law, according to Amnesty International, on March 24, the journalist Alaa Brinji was sentenced to five years in prison, an eight year travel ban and a fine of $13,000 for a few tweets allegedly “insulting the rulers,” inciting public opinion,” and “accusing security officers of killing protestors in Awamiyya,” the kingdom’s eastern province where the oil fields and the Shiites are. Unfortunately, Western governments never raise Badawi’s case when they visit the Saudi Arabia’s rulers but turn a blind eye to the way this country treats its own citizens. Look also at what happened not in the poor and Islamic Bangladesh, but in the wealthy and secularized Germany, where a comedian named Jan Böhmermann mocked the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a television show. The prosecutor of Mainz, in the Rhineland-Palatinate, just opened a case against Böhmermann under paragraph 103 of the German Penal Code, which provides three years of jail for insulting a foreign head of state. Chancellor Angela Merkel, sided with the Turks. She condemned the comedian’s poem, called it a “deliberate insult,” then approved the trial against him. Meanwhile, the German public television station, Zdf, removed the video and Böhmermann raised the white flag by suspending the show. The comedian, after Islamist death threats, got police protection. The West is veiling its freedom of speech in the confrontation with the Islamic world: this is the story of Salman Rushdie, of the Danish cartoons, of Theo van Gogh, of Charlie Hebdo. A few weeks ago, at Rome’s Capitoline Museum, a famous repository of Western antiquities, the government of Italy called for “respect” for the sensibilities of Iran’s Rouhani and placed large boxes over the nude sculptures. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Zarif, just released an interview with Italy’s largest newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, where he suggested a kind of grand bargain: We, the Iranians, discuss with you our human rights’ situation if you, the Europeans, suppress freedom of expression on Islam: “Human rights are reason for concern for everyone,” Zarif said. “We are ready to dialogue. We shall make our observations on alienation of the Muslim communities in many European societies, or how freedom of expression is abused to desecrate the symbols of Islam.” And that is exactly what is happening right now — of course with no mention of how freedom of speech or human rights are abused in “many Muslim societies.” Or how violent repression there “is abused to desecrate the symbols of the free world.” The Iranian ayatollahs recently added to the bounty over the head of Salman Rushdie. And as it happened with Saudi Arabia’s or Bangladesh’s bloggers, nobody in Europe protested and Mrs. Merkel has been willing to abandon the German comedian to the authocratic Islamist Turks. In Pakistan, a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, is now fighting for her life in prison, where, condemned to death for “blashemy,” she is waiting to know her own fate. European public opinion, which is always generous in rallying against “the persecution of minorities,” did not fill the streets and the squares to protest Asia Bibi’s imprisonment. Further, for Europe’s journalists and writers, it has become increasingly difficult to find publishers. This is true of, for instance, Caroline Fourest, author of the French book “Eloge du blasphème.” “The treatment of her work by the publishing industry shows how much has been lost” wrote the British journalist, Nick Cohen. “No Anglo-Saxon publisher would touch it, and only fear can explain the rejection letters.” “No American or British publisher has been willing to publish the book” Mrs. Fourest told this author. “‘There is no market for this book’, I was repeatedly told, to justify their desire not to touch something explosive. It was an important project which Salman Rushdie tried to sponsor with his own publishing houses. It is alarming because more and more I see that my colleagues behave as useful idiots.” Europe is also suppressing freedom of expression for the very few moderate Islamic voices. On January 31, 2016, an Algerian writer named Kamel Daoud published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde on the events in Cologne. What Cologne showed, says Daoud, is how sex is “the greatest misery in the world of Allah.” A few days later, Le Monde ran a response by sociologists, historians and anthropologists who accused Daoud of of being an “Islamophobe,” Jeanne Favret-Saada, an orientalist at the Ecole pratique des hautes études, wrote that Daoud “spoke as the European far right.” Daoud has been defended only by a few other Arab writers exiled in Europe. The affair is the mirror of Europe’s forsakening freedom of expression: a great Arab writer expresses precious truths and the mainstream European media and intellectualism, instead of protecting Daoud while Islamists threatened him with death, press the novelist to choose silence.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.
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