Voltaire, given modern technology, could have been the Salman Rushdie of his day. Now Muslims not only want to censor criticism of Islam and Muhammad; they want the West to forget that such criticism has ever, ever been made in history. From The Wall Street Journal, via the Post-Gazette, with thanks to all who sent this in:
SAINT-GENIS-POUILLY, France — Late last year, as an international crisis was brewing over Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Muslims raised a furor in this little alpine town over a much older provocateur: Voltaire, the French champion of the 18th-century Enlightenment.
A municipal cultural center here on France’s border with Switzerland organized a reading of a 265-year-old play by Voltaire, whose writings helped lay the foundations of modern Europe’s commitment to secularism. The play, “Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet,” uses the founder of Islam to lampoon all forms of religious frenzy and intolerance.
The production quickly stirred up passions that echoed the cartoon uproar. “This play … constitutes an insult to the entire Muslim community,” said a letter to the mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, signed by Said Akhrouf, a French-born cafe owner of Moroccan descent and three other Islamic activists representing Muslim associations. They demanded the performance be cancelled.
Instead, Mayor Hubert Bertrand called in police reinforcements to protect the theater. On the night of the December reading, a small riot broke out involving several dozen people and youths who set fire to a car and garbage cans. It was “the most excitement we’ve ever had down here,” says the socialist mayor….
Editors in France, Germany and elsewhere have explained their decision to reprint the drawings by pointing to principles enshrined in a statement often attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire said something similar, but the phrase was coined in 1906 by a biographer of Voltaire to sum up the French writer’s views.
“Fanaticism,” the play that stirred the ruckus in Saint-Genis-Pouilly, portrays Muhammad as a ruthless tyrant bent on conquest. Its main theme is the use of religion to promote and mask political ambition.
For Voltaire’s Muslim critics, the play reveals a centuries-old Western distortion of Islam. For his fans, it represents a manifesto for liberty and reason and should be read not so much as an attack on Islam but as a coded assault on the religious dogmas that have stained European history with bloody conflict….
The night of the reading, riot police took up positions outside Saint-Genis-Pouilly’s cultural center. An hour into the performance, the mayor got called out of the hall because of street disturbances. The mayor says the mood was “quasi-insurrectional,” but damage was minor. Police chased Muslim youths through the streets.
Now that tempers have calmed, Mayor Bertrand says he is proud his town took a stand by refusing to cave in under pressure to call off the reading. Free speech is modern Europe’s “foundation stone,” he says. “For a long time we have not confirmed our convictions, so lots of people think they can contest them.”