It's been a tough year for freedom of expression in Europe.
On November 2, 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was butchered in an Amsterdam street by Mohammed Bouyeri, a radical Muslim enraged over Submission, van Gogh's blunt film about women's subjugation under Islam. For many Europeans, the murder of one of the Netherlands' most outspoken public figures underscored the importance of protecting freedom of expression. ("Long live the Netherlands, long live free speech!" read one anonymous note placed amid the thousands of flowers and memorial tributes at the scene of the crime.) Many members of Europe's fast-growing Muslim communities, however—along with more than a few non-Muslims eager to keep the peace in an increasingly anxious and divided continent—draw a very different lesson: the need to curb freedom of expression out of respect for Muslim sensitivities.
The latter view was expressed succinctly by Copenhagen imam Ahmed Abu Laban, who charged that Submission had "crossed the limits of freedom of speech" and demanded "an open debate on these limits." Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain agreed. "Is freedom of expression without bounds?" he asked. "Muslims are not alone in saying 'No' and in calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs."
These voices have not gone unheard. In the year since van Gogh's murder, the "limits" and "safeguards" called for by Laban and Sacranie have begun to be put in place. A brief overview:
• Many art curators—a breed that normally revels in provocation—have decided that provoking Muslims is verboten. In January, the World Culture Museum in Gothenburg, Sweden, took down a painting, Scène d'amour, described by its artist, Louzla Darabi, as a "response to Muslim hypocrisy about sexuality, above all women's sexuality"; in October, London's Tate Gallery removed John Latham's God Is Great, a work that incorporated copies of the Bible and the Koran. (Latham accused the gallery of cowardice.)
• Judges have done their part. In May, ruling on a petition by the Muslim Union of Italy, a magistrate in the northern Italian city of Bergamo ordered writer Oriana Fallaci to stand trial for vilifying Islam in her book The Force of Reason. (She had previously been acquitted on a similar offense in France.) In September, the European Court of Human Rights affirmed a Turkish court's conviction of a publisher for issuing a novel, Abdullah Riza Ergüven's Yasak Tümceler, that purportedly "insulted the Prophet and religion."
• Legislatures have taken action. In April, after virtually no public discussion, Norway's Parliament passed a law that punishes offensive remarks about any religion with up to three years' imprisonment—and places the burden of proof on the accused. Three months later, Britain's House of Commons approved a bill that would criminalize "words or behavior" that might "stir up racial or religious hatred." (On October 25, the bill's most restrictive provisions were rejected by the House of Lords—an ironic example of a non-democratically elected body standing up for democracy by rebuking a democratically elected body.)
For some Europeans in the expression business, government limits haven't been necessary: they've opted for self-censorship. After being "warned by Muslim friends" shortly after van Gogh's murder, Dutch movie director Albert Ter Heerdt decided to "postpone" a sequel to his "multicultural comedy" Shouf Shouf Habibi! And in January producer Gijs van de Westelaken canceled a screening of Submission at the Rotterdam Film Festival, whose theme was "censored films." (Instead, the audience saw two pictures sympathetic to suicide bombers.)
Defenders of this many-fronted assault on free speech routinely tag critics of Islam as racists. Of course, Islam is not a race but a religion whose ideology should, in a democratic society, be entirely open to criticism—and, for that matter, to parody and mockery. Outraged by the House of Commons measure, comedian Rowan Atkinson (who plays the character Mr. Bean on television) commented: "For telling a good and incisive religious joke, you should be praised. For telling a bad one, you should be ridiculed and reviled. The idea that you could be prosecuted for the telling of either is quite fantastic." Atkinson was nearly alone among British authors, artists, and entertainers in his vocal criticism of the bill.
To be sure, the readiness to sacrifice freedom is not ubiquitous. In late September, responding to reports that Danish artists were so scared of retaliation that none dared illustrate a new book on Mohammed (who, some Muslims believe, should not be depicted pictorially), the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten invited artists to send in drawings of the prophet. The 12 submitted portraits that Jyllands-Posten published—some of them less than entirely respectful of Islam's founder—caused an uproar. Artists and editors received death threats; the embassies of several Muslim countries lodged a complaint with Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who refused to meet with them "because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so"); and 5,000 Muslims protested in the streets of Copenhagen. Jyllands-Posten's besieged editors, however, stood firm, writing, "Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure—unconditionally!"
As the end of 2005 approaches, it's an attitude that's in visible decline in many parts of Europe.
Bruce Bawer is an American writer who lives in Norway. His book, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within, will be published by Doubleday in February.
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