Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?
— John Milton
Submit, or die. That’s effectively the message being dished out to the West by the tens of thousands protesting against Innocence of Muslims, the crude film trailer that depicts the ‘prophet’ Mohammed. This message is not facetious, nor is it half-hearted. It forms what can only be termed a divine ultimatum to free speech. And most of us are submitting without a fight.
Enough is enough. Let them riot; let them murder; let them spew hatred from all the streets of the world. On their heads be it. But don’t – if it’s the last thing you do – don’t let them fool you into believing that freedom of speech and thought are things on which we can compromise.
Consider, for just a moment, what is being demanded here: Muslims from Afghanistan to Australia – not all Muslims, but a vociferous faction indeed – are commanding that the whole world bend the knee to the word of the Koran. And courtesy doesn’t seem to be their style. In Iraq, Ayatollah Hassan Sanei boosted the bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head by $500,000 (just one upshot of the fatwa he received over two decades ago for writing The Satanic Verses), despite his open criticism of the trailer. In Pakistan, 19 people died and many more were injured in expressions of displeasure nationwide on Friday. A Pakistani minister, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, has now offered $100,000 as a reward for the death of the film’s creator.
Our moral confidence in the West is at a low ebb, though. Rather than condemn the aggression and the violence and the hatred, we prefer to distance ourselves from the film – just as we shamefully and shamelessly shrank away from supporting the Mohammed cartoonists in 2005, and Rushdie himself in 1989. Where have our priorities gone? We’ve fallen into a rut, but there’s no better time than now to get out of it.
Extremist Muslims may not believe in depicting their prophet, and no one is suggesting that that belief be inhibited. Where we should draw the line, with honesty and integrity, is when they start telling us what to do. I don’t believe that there is a God, let alone that he spoke to an Arabian businessman called Mohammed 1,500 years ago. So why should I, and everyone else who thinks like me, be forced to kowtow to the constipated and fearful laws of fundamentalist Islam?
Raja Pervaiz Ashraf believes we should do just that. The Pakistani Prime Minister was quoted in The Times on Saturday campaigning for ‘Islamophobia’ to be made illegal: “If denying the Holocaust is a crime,” he reasoned, “then is it not fair and legitimate for a Muslim to demand that denigrating and demeaning Islam’s holiest personality is no less than a crime?”
There can only be one answer: no. No to the ban on Holocaust denial; no to the prohibition of criticism of Islam; no to any restriction whatsoever on what our fellow human beings are allowed to think, to draw, or to say. For a religion that makes such extraordinary claims for itself on the basis of not even a smidgen of evidence, to demand for those claims not to be questioned or challenged, but held sacred even by non-believers, is a betrayal of human society and intelligence. If Islam truly wishes to be taken seriously, it had better take the values on which it seeks to trample seriously too.
And this is not the first time. Let’s take just two examples from recent history: a Dutch film director and a British teacher, condemned by the laws of a religion that was not their own. Theo van Gogh got a slit throat and two bullets in the chest for the crime of producing a hauntingly powerful film (called Submission) against the misogyny of Islam in 2004. In 2007, Gillian Gibbons was convicted of insulting religion in Sudan for letting her class name a teddy bear ‘Mohammed’ – fortunately, she was released before her sentence could be carried out. Van Gogh, and countless others like him, haven’t been so lucky.
When we don’t stand up for free speech and thought, the perfidy is twofold. For one thing, as Richard Dawkins explains, by giving in to the pressure that religious extremism puts us under, we “assume that Muslims are incapable of civilised behavior”. We need to get over the idea that abstaining from criticism of what can only be termed bigotry is a form of respect. At best, it’s infantilisation. Abiding the atrocities that are taking place even as I write out of some warped view of ‘tolerance’ is pitted firmly against the liberal values upon which the West is founded. Being an apologist for a direct and vicious affront to the freedoms we should consider as precious is no longer good enough.
This is where the first betrayal links into the second. If we choose not to speak up against this virulent and destructive strain of Islam, we put our own freedoms on the rack. Who will you let determine what you can and can’t say? If Muslim imams, why not anyone? If they’re allowed to prevent us from mocking their preposterous claims, where does it stop? Which other religions will be able to restrict our freedoms just because we don’t want to play with their imaginary friend? What books will you not be allowed to read? What opinions of yours will no longer be acceptable? And most dangerous of all, what thoughts will you be forbidden to think?
It goes beyond Orwell’s wildest nightmares. It’s why John Milton in his glorious and much-revered anti-censorship polemic, Areopagitica, writes: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”. For it’s our ability to think and to believe what we like – without apology – that makes us fully human. The Islamist is free to hold his prophet to be sacred for as long as I’m allowed to consider that view as delusional.
The problem we face is that religion and, in particular, missionary religion has never and will never be content with convincing its own. In the present, it’s Islam; in the past, it was Christianity; in the future, it could be Mormonism for all we know. As Christopher Hitchens wrote so astutely in God is Not Great, religion “must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths. It may speak about the bliss of the next world, but it wants power in this one”.
That interference ought not to be tolerated by any self-respecting free society – not when it wants to behead its opponents, both mortal and conceptual. Don’t let yourself be deceived: the blame, in this kind of debacle (which, regrettably, is bound to happen all over again), lies squarely with those who are savagely baying for blood and revenge and censorship. Anything that holds the grip on the world that Islam does (with almost 2 billion adherents) that won’t let itself be mocked or criticised or satirised, is either concealing its falsehood or else is a totalitarian despotism of the highest order – or maybe it’s both.
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of The Freethinker.