Losing Our Spines to Save Our Necks
By Sam Harris
Geert Wilders, conservative Dutch politician and provocateur, has become the latest projectile in the world’s most important culture war: the zero-sum conflict between civil society and traditional Islam. Wilders, who lives under perpetual armed guard due to death threats, recently released a 15 minute film entitled Fitna (“strife” in Arabic) over the internet. The film has been deemed offensive because it juxtaposes images of Muslim violence with passages from the Qur’an. Given that the perpetrators of such violence regularly cite these same passages as justification for their actions, merely depicting this connection in a film would seem uncontroversial. Controversial or not, one surely would expect politicians and journalists in every free society to strenuously defend Wilders’ right to make such a film. But then one would be living on another planet, a planet where people do not happily repudiate their most basic freedoms in the name of “religious sensitivity.”
Witness the free world’s response to Fitna: The Dutch government sought to ban the film outright, and European Union foreign ministers publicly condemned it, as did UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Dutch television refused to air Fitna unedited. When Wilders declared his intention to release the film over the internet, his U.S. web-host, Network Solutions, took his website offline.
Into the breach stepped Liveleak, a British video-sharing website, which finally aired the film on March 27th. It received over 3 million views in the first 24 hours. The next day, however, Liveleak removed Fitna from its servers, having been terrorized into self-censorship by threats to its staff. But the film had spread too far on the internet to be suppressed (and Liveleak, after taking further security measures, has since reinstated it on its site as well).
Of course, there were immediate calls for a boycott of Dutch products throughout the Muslim world. In response, Dutch corporations placed ads in countries like Indonesia, denouncing the film in self-defense. Several Muslim countries blocked YouTube and other video-sharing sites in an effort to keep Wilders’ blasphemy from penetrating the minds of their citizens. There have also been isolated protests and attacks on embassies, and ubiquitous demands for Wilders’ murder. In Afghanistan, women in burqas could be seen burning the Dutch flag; the Taliban carried out at least two revenge attacks on Dutch troops, resulting in five Dutch casualties; and security concerns have caused the Netherlands to close its embassy in Kabul. It must be said, however, that nothing has yet occurred to rival the ferocious response to the Danish cartoons.
Meanwhile Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists, threatened to sue Wilders for copyright infringement, as Wilders used his drawing of a bomb-laden Muhammad without permission. Westergaard has lived in hiding since 2006 due to death threats of his own, so the Danish Union of Journalists volunteered to file this lawsuit on his behalf. Admittedly, there is something amusing about one hunted man, unable to venture out in public for fear of being killed by religious lunatics, threatening to sue another man in the same predicament over a copyright violation. But it is understandable that Westergaard wouldn’t want to be repeatedly hurled at the enemy without his consent. Westergaard is an extraordinarily courageous man whose life has been ruined both by religious fanaticism and the free world’s submission to it. In February, the Danish government arrested three Muslims who seemed poised to murder him. Other Danes unfortunate enough to have been born with the name “Kurt Westergaard” have had to take steps to escape being murdered in his place. (Wilder’s has since removed the cartoon from the official version of Fitna.)
Wilders, like Westergaard and the other Danish cartoonists, has been widely vilified for “seeking to inflame” the Muslim community. Even if this had been his intention, this criticism represents an almost supernatural coincidence of moral blindness and political imprudence. The point is not (and will never be) that some free person spoke, or wrote, or illustrated in such a manner as to inflame the Muslim community. The point is that only the Muslim community is combustible in this way. The controversy over Fitna, like all such controversies, renders one fact about our world especially salient: Muslims appear to be far more concerned about perceived slights to their religion than about the atrocities committed daily in its name. Our accommodation of this psychopathic skewing of priorities has, more and more, taken the form of craven and blinkered acquiescence.
There is an uncanny irony here that many have noticed. The position of the Muslim community in the face of all provocations seems to be: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we will kill you. Of course, the truth is often more nuanced, but this is about as nuanced as it ever gets: Islam is a religion of peace, and if you say that it isn’t, we peaceful Muslims cannot be held responsible for what our less peaceful brothers and sisters do. When they burn your embassies or kidnap and slaughter your journalists, know that we will hold you primarily responsible and will spend the bulk of our energies criticizing you for “racism” and “Islamophobia.”
Our capitulations in the face of these threats have had what is often called “a chilling effect” on our exercise of free speech. I have, in my own small way, experienced this chill first hand. First, and most important, my friend and colleague Ayaan Hirsi Ali happens to be among the hunted. Because of the failure of Western governments to make it safe for people to speak openly about the problem of Islam, I and others must raise a mountain of private funds to help pay for her round-the-clock protection. The problem is not, as is often alleged, that governments cannot afford to protect every person who speaks out against Muslim intolerance. The problem is that so few people do speak out. If there were ten thousand Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s, the risk to each would be radically reduced.
As for infringements of my own speech, my first book, The End of Faith, almost did not get published for fear of offending the sensibilities of (probably non-reading) religious fanatics. W.W. Norton, which did publish the book, was widely seen as taking a risk—one probably attenuated by the fact that I am an equal-opportunity offender critical of all religious faith. However, when it came time to make final edits to the galleys of The End of Faith, many of the people I had thanked by name in my acknowledgments (including my agent at the time and my editor at Norton) independently asked to have their names removed from the book. Their concerns were explicitly for their personal safety. Given our shamefully ineffectual response to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, their concerns were perfectly understandable.
Nature, arguably the most influential scientific journal on the planet, recently published a lengthy whitewash of Islam (Z. Sardar “Beyond the troubled relationship.” Nature 448, 131-133; 2007). The author began, as though atop a minaret, by simply declaring the religion of Islam to be “intrinsically rational.” He then went on to argue, amid a highly idiosyncratic reading of history and theology, that this rational religion’s current wallowing in the violent depths of unreason can be fully ascribed to the legacy of colonialism. After some negotiation, Nature also agreed to publish a brief response from me. What readers of my letter to the editor could not know, however, was that it was only published after perfectly factual sentences deemed offensive to Islam were expunged. I understood the editors’ concerns at the time: not only did they have Britain’s suffocating libel laws to worry about, but Muslim physicians and engineers in the UK had just revealed a penchant for suicide bombing. I was grateful that Nature published my letter at all.
In a thrillingly ironic turn of events, a shorter version of the very essay you are now reading was originally commissioned by the opinion page of Washington Post and then rejected because it was deemed too critical of Islam. Please note, this essay was destined for the opinion page of the paper, which had solicited my response to the controversy over Wilders’ film. The irony of its rejection seemed entirely lost on the Post, which responded to my subsequent expression of amazement by offering to pay me a “kill fee.” I declined.
I could list other examples of encounters with editors and publishers, as can many writers, all illustrating a single fact: While it remains taboo to criticize religious faith in general, it is considered especially unwise to criticize Islam. Only Muslims hound and hunt and murder their apostates, infidels, and critics in the 21st century. There are, to be sure, reasons why this is so. Some of these reasons have to do with accidents of history and geopolitics, but others can be directly traced to doctrines sanctifying violence which are unique to Islam.
A point of comparison: The controversy of over Fitna was immediately followed by ubiquitous media coverage of a scandal involving the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). In Texas, police raided an FLDS compound and took hundreds of women and underage girls into custody to spare them the continued, sacramental predations of their menfolk. While mainstream Mormonism is now granted the deference accorded to all major religions in the United States, its fundamentalist branch, with its commitment to polygamy, spousal abuse, forced marriage, child brides (and, therefore, child rape) is often portrayed in the press as a depraved cult. But one could easily argue that Islam, considered both in the aggregate and in terms of its most negative instances, is far more despicable than fundamentalist Mormonism. The Muslim world can match the FLDS sin for sin—Muslims commonly practice polygamy, forced-marriage (often between underage girls and older men), and wife-beating—but add to these indiscretions the surpassing evils of honor killing, female “circumcision,” widespread support for terrorism, a pornographic fascination with videos showing the butchery of infidels and apostates, a vibrant form of anti-semitism that is explicitly genocidal in its aspirations, and an aptitude for producing children’s books and television programs which exalt suicide-bombing and depict Jews as “apes and pigs.”
Any honest comparison between these two faiths reveals a bizarre double standard in our treatment of religion. We can openly celebrate the marginalization of FLDS men and the rescue of their women and children. But, leaving aside the practical and political impossibility of doing so, could we even allow ourselves to contemplate liberating the women and children of traditional Islam?
What about all the civil, freedom-loving, moderate Muslims who are just as appalled by Muslim intolerance as I am? No doubt millions of men and women fit this description, but vocal moderates are very difficult to find. Wherever “moderate Islam” does announce itself, one often discovers frank Islamism lurking just a euphemism or two beneath the surface. The subterfuge is rendered all but invisible to the general public by political correctness, wishful thinking, and “white guilt.” This is where we find sinister people successfully posing as “moderates”—people like Tariq Ramadan who, while lionized by liberal Europeans as the epitome of cosmopolitan Islam, cannot bring himself to actually condemn honor killing in round terms (he recommends that the practice be suspended, pending further study). Moderation is also attributed to groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamist public relations firm posing as a civil-rights lobby.
Even when one finds a true voice of Muslim moderation, it often seems distinguished by a lack of candor above all things. Take someone like Reza Aslan, author of No God But God: I debated Aslan for Book TV on the general subject of religion and modernity. During the course of our debate, I had a few unkind words to say about the Muslim Brotherhood. While admitting that there is a difference between the Brotherhood and a full-blown jihadist organization like al Qaeda, I said that their ideology was “close enough” to be of concern. Aslan responded with a grandiose, ad hominem attack saying, “that indicates the profound unsophistication that you have about this region. You could not be more wrong.” He then claimed that I’d taken my view of Islam from “Fox News.” Such maneuvers, coming from a polished, Iranian-born scholar of Islam carry the weight of authority, especially in front of an audience of people who are desperate to believe the threat of Islam has been grossly exaggerated. The problem, however, is that the credo of the Muslim Brotherhood actually happens to be “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
The connection between the doctrine of Islam and Islamist violence is simply not open to dispute. It’s not that critics of religion like myself speculate that such a connection might exist: the point is that Islamists themselves acknowledge and demonstrate this connection at every opportunity and to deny it is to retreat within a fantasy world of political correctness and religious apology. Many western scholars, like the much admired Karen Armstrong, appear to live in just such a place. All of their talk about how benign Islam “really” is, and about how the problem of fundamentalism exists in all religions, only obfuscates what may be the most pressing issue of our time: Islam, as it is currently understood and practiced by vast numbers of the world’s Muslims, is antithetical to civil society. A recent poll showed that thirty-six percent of British Muslims (ages 16-24) believe that a person should be killed for leaving the faith. Sixty-eight percent of British Muslims feel that their neighbors who insult Islam should be arrested and prosecuted, and seventy-eight percent think that the Danish cartoonists should have been brought to justice. And these are British Muslims.
Occasionally, however, a lone voice can be heard acknowledging the obvious. Hassan Butt wrote in the Guardian:
When I was still a member of what is probably best termed the British Jihadi Network, a series of semi-autonomous British Muslim terrorist groups linked by a single ideology, I remember how we used to laugh in celebration whenever people on TV proclaimed that the sole cause for Islamic acts of terror like 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7 was Western foreign policy. By blaming the government for our actions, those who pushed the ‘Blair’s bombs’ line did our propaganda work for us. More important, they also helped to draw away any critical examination from the real engine of our violence: Islamic theology.
It is astounding how infrequently one hears such candor among the public voices of “moderate” Islam. This is what we owe the true moderates of the Muslim world: we must hold their co-religionists to the same standards of civility and reasonableness that we take for granted in all other people. Only our willingness to openly criticize Islam for its all-too-obvious failings can make it safe for Muslim moderates, secularists, apostates—and, indeed, women—to rise up and reform their faith.
And if anyone in this debate can be credibly accused of racism, it is the western apologists and “multiculturalists” who deem Arabs and Muslims too immature to shoulder the responsibilities of civil discourse. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali has pointed out, there is a calamitous form of “affirmative action” at work, especially in western Europe, where Muslim immigrants are systematically exempted from western standards of moral order in the name of paying “respect” to the glaring pathologies in their culture. Hirsi Ali has also observed that there is a quasi-racist double-think on display whenever western powers trumpet that “Islam is peace,” all the while taking heroic measures to guard against the next occasion when the barbarians run amok in response to a film, cartoon, opera, novel, beauty pageant—or the mere naming of a teddy bear.
Have you seen the Danish cartoons that so roiled the Muslim world? Probably not, as their publication was suppressed by almost every newspaper, magazine, and television station in the United States. Given their volcanic reception—hundreds of thousands of Muslims rioted, hundreds of people were killed—their sheer banality should have rendered these drawings extraordinarily newsworthy. One magazine which did print them, Free Inquiry (for which I am proud to have written), had its stock banned from every Borders and Waldenbooks in the country. These are precisely the sorts of capitulations that we must avoid in the future.
The lesson we should draw from the Fitna controversy is that we need more criticism of Islam, not less. Let it come down in such torrents that not even the most deluded Islamist could conceive of containing it. As Ibn Warraq, author of the revelatory Why I Am Not a Muslim, said in response to recent events:
It is perverse for the western media to lament the lack of an Islamic reformation and willfully ignore works such as Wilders’ film, Fitna. How do they think reformation will come about if not with criticism? There is no such right as ‘the right not to be offended’; indeed, I am deeply offended by the contents of the Koran, with its overt hatred of Christians, Jews, apostates, non-believers, homosexuals but cannot demand its suppression.
It is time we recognized that those who claim the “right not to be offended” have also announced their hatred of civil society.
May 5, 2008