Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal calls for liberals and conservatives to defend Geert Wilders and freedom of speech. The WSJ has not always been this understanding of what is at stake in the Wilders case — this piece is a welcome departure from the paper’s previous stance. Still, this Stephens piece is thoroughly wrongheaded in several ways, and the WSJ has more ground to cover to be consistent in its defense of free speech: explanations below.
“Geert Wilders Is a Test for Western Civilization: If Rushdie should be defended, why not the Dutch pol?,” by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, February 17 (thanks to Mackie):
Twenty years ago, Andres Serrano put a plastic crucifix in a glass of urine, photographed it and called it art. Conservatives in particular weren’t pleased: not with Mr. Serrano, not with his picture, and not with the National Endowment for the Arts, which had forked over $15,000 in taxpayer money to support this uretic gesture.
Also 20 years ago: On Valentine’s Day, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, condemning him to death for supposedly blaspheming Islam in his novel, “The Satanic Verses.” Iran later upped the ante by severing diplomatic ties with Britain and putting a bounty on Mr. Rushdie’s head. The fatwa remains in effect today by order of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
These twin anniversaries come to mind following the British government’s decision last week to ban Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders from British soil as an “undesirable person.” Mr. Wilders is also being prosecuted for hate speech in his native Holland, where he faces up to 16 months in prison if convicted. His alleged crime involves making a short film called “Fitna,” which draws a straight line between Quranic verses and acts of Islamist terror. Mr. Wilders has also called for banning the Quran, which he labels a “fascist book” on a par with Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
Here again: as Fitna itself shows, it is not Wilders who “draws a straight line between Quranic verses and acts of Islamist terror,” it is the jihad terrorists themselves. This crucial and all-important distinction continues, for some reason, to elude most commentators.
Whatever else might be said about Mr. Wilders’s travel ban and prosecution, it helps put into context the events of 1989. In the case of Mr. Serrano, liberal Americans went into a lather about defending his rights to artistic expression and freedom of speech against the parochial leaders of the religious right, men like Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson. Never mind that the worst of their threats involved withholding public funding; fundamental things were said to be at stake.
As for the Rushdie affair, after some initial hesitation most of the liberal intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic rallied to his cause. True, there were some dissenters: Jimmy Carter called “The Satanic Verses” a “direct insult to those millions of Muslims whose sacred beliefs have been violated” while feminist Germaine Greer declared that she “[refused] to sign petitions for that book, which was about his own troubles.”
On the whole, however, the West held firm. A joint statement issued by the foreign ministers of the European Community insisted that “fundamental principles are at stake,” adding that they “remain fully committed to the principles of freedom of thought and expression within their territories.”
Fast forward to Mr. Wilders’s situation and what’s remarkable is that his most serious detractors — those that aren’t themselves Islamists or spokesmen for supposedly mainstream Muslim organizations — tend to fall to the political left. In Holland, leaders of both the Socialist and Labor parties support the prosecution. In Britain, it’s the Labour government of Gordon Brown that has enforced the travel ban. In Germany, the leftish Der Spiegel calls Mr. Wilders “pushy” and accuses him of making “hate-filled tirades.” Elsewhere he is described as a “racist,” an “Islamophobe,” and so on.
There is actually nothing remarkable about this at all. Jimmy Carter and Germaine Greer certainly can’t be said to be on the Right in any sense — and Stephens correctly pointed out above that they were among those who would not defend Rushdie’s freedom of speech against the mullahs. Fundamental principles are indeed at stake, and the Left is once again, as it did in the Rushdie affair, showing that it is no friend of free speech.
For his part, Mr. Wilders says he hates Islam as an ideology, not Muslims as individuals, and categorically parts company with the neo-fascist European right typified by the late JÃ¶rg Haider. He has also traveled extensively in the Middle East; even Der Spiegel admits “he is not a dull racist and xenophobe.”
But irrespective of Mr. Wilders’s politics — and I wouldn’t be the first to point out that his calls to ban the Quran square oddly with his sense of himself as a champion of free speech — his travails are no less significant than Mr. Rushdie’s. And they present a test for both liberals and conservatives.
As explained previously at this site, there is no inconsistency at all in Wilders’s statements about banning the Qur’an. His call for such a ban was actually a call for consistency in the application of Dutch laws that restrict speech that incites to violence, but which have never been applied to the Qur’an or to the hate-filled imams who preach jihad and Islamic supremacism in obedience to Qur’anic dictates.
But Stephens is quite correct that the Wilders case is a test for both liberals and conservatives, and so far both are largely failing.
For liberals, the issue is straightforward. If routine mockery of Christianity and abuse of its symbols, both in the U.S. and Europe, is protected speech, why shouldn’t the same standard apply to the mockery of Islam?
And if the difference in these cases is that mockery of Islam has the tendency to lead to riots, death threats and murder, should committed Christians now seek a kind of parity with Islamists by resorting to violent tactics to express their sense of religious injury?
This question manifests Stephens’ ignorance of or unwillingness to face the difference in the fundamental teachings of Christianity and Islam, and also displays the moral equivalence that remains so fashionable among the intelligentsia. It’s possible, of course, that some Christians might resort to violence, just as it is possible that any group in certain circumstances might resort to violence. But the question itself seems to arise from an assumption that jihadists resort to violence solely as a tactic, because they know it is effective, not as a matter of conviction — and so others will see that it is effective and resort to it as well. This assumption completely ignores the moral imperatives involved on both sides: the Muslims who commit violence in such contexts can and do point to numerous passages in the Qur’an and Sunnah to justify violence against unbelievers and blasphemers; Christians (despite common and false claims that the Old Testament contains open-ended and universal mandates to wage war against unbelievers) cannot find any justification in their core religious texts and teachings for such violence. Thus while violent Muslims will find such violence morally justified according to their lights, violent Christians will have a much harder time finding such justification.
This to a great degree accounts for the fact that we see so much violence committed by Muslims in the name of Islam, and so little by Christians in the name of Christianity (even historically, the Crusades were not based on core Christian teachings, but on political calculation) — but it is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that Stephens and others have not yet deigned to notice.
The notion that liberals can have it both ways — champions of free speech on the one hand; defenders of multiculturalism’s assorted sensitivities on the other — was always intellectually flimsy. If liberals now want to speak for the “right” of this or that group not to be offended, the least they can do is stop calling themselves “liberals.”
I don’t care what they call themselves, but I do care about consistency, and share Stephens’ view that they should be consistent.
For conservatives, especially of the cultural kind — the kind of people who talk about defending Western Civ. — Mr. Wilders’s case should also provoke some reconsiderations. It may not be impossible to denounce the likes of Mr. Serrano while defending the likes of Mr. Wilders. But a defense of Mr. Wilders is made a lot easier if one can point to the vivid difference between a civilization that protects, even celebrates (and funds!), its cultural provocateurs and a civilization that seeks their murder.
Nonsense. Arrant nonsense. It is perfectly possible to denounce the likes of Mr. Serrano and defend the likes of Mr. Wilders. The differences are these: I detest Serrano’s work. Do I believe it should be outlawed? I do not. Do I believe it should receive taxpayer funding? I do not. Do I believe Serrano should be killed? No. Fined? No. Imprisoned? No. Now: I support Wilders’s work, and recognize that others view it the way I view Serrano’s, although I do not accept the comparison. Should they be working to outlaw Wilders’s work and have him fined, imprisoned, or killed? No.
Get the difference? Free speech in both cases. The offended have no right to tyrannize the offenders.
This is no small point. Western civilization is not simply the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” It is also the civilization of Socrates and Aristophanes, Hume and Voltaire, Copernicus and Darwin; of religious schismatics and nonbelievers. This is the civilization that is now required to define itself, oddly enough, by the case of a flamboyant Dutch politician with inconsistent ideas and a bouffant hairdo. If he can’t be defended, neither can Mr. Rushdie. Or Mr. Serrano. Liberals and conservatives alike, take note.
True, with the exception that his sneering and inaccurate dismissal of Wilders should be noted and repudiated by all genuine defenders of free speech.