Flemming Rose, The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-939709-42-4
The author was the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten who, in 2005, in reaction to several episodes of Western self-censorship in apprehension of Islamic anger, invited forty cartoonists to submit to the newspaper drawings of Mohammed. Some of the twelve cartoons that were eventually published satirized Jyllands-Posten’s project while others did not show the Muslim prophet at all. Only a few could be characterized by an objective observer as an affront to religion.
But objective observers were irrelevant. A few months after publication, the cartoons were combined with some really offensive ones by Danish Muslim clerics and widely publicized as all being from the newspaper, purportedly to demonstrate anti-Muslim hatred—ironically, in one of the most tolerant of nations. The results included death threats, plots, and actual attempts against the cartoonists and against Rose himself, a bomb plot against the newspaper, attacks against Danish embassies, a boycott of Danish goods, and riots in Africa and the Middle East that killed over 200 people.
It is not clear how much of the outrage can be attributed to the mere fact of printing drawings of Mohammed and how much to perceived insults in the cartoons. Rose analyzes the competing Muslim positions on depictions of Mohammed. These range from acceptance—such depictions appear in Muslim art—to neutrality concerning non-Muslims’ activities in this regard, to the fury of the “grievance fundamentalists” (in Rose’s apt phrase), whose position is that no one anywhere can be allowed to contravene the strictest interpretation of any Islamic tenet or even custom. It was this segment of Muslims that produces the murderers, would-be murderers, bombers, and rioters who violently assault any critic of any aspect of Islamic practice. The cases of Theo van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are only the best-known instances of people living in Europe whose words have brought them death or a life under constant threat. The number of Muslims who have been murdered or executed for “blasphemy” or “apostasy” is unknown, but clearly large.
Much of this will be familiar to readers of this review. The real impact of the book lies in Rose’s examination of the wider effects of these attempts to suppress free speech. Surprisingly, many Western commentators, journalists, writers, and that amorphous group, “public intellectuals,” disgraced themselves by siding with the censors. Muslim intolerance was supported by individuals who otherwise supported freedom: critics who defend the right of publications, museums, and galleries to show anti-Christian and anti-Semitic works indicted Jyllens-Posten for its insensitivity to the feelings of Muslims. There is ample evidence that many artists, writers, academics, politicians, and ordinary citizens accord the same privileged status to Islam, acceding to the grievance fundamentalists’ demands that it alone be sacrosanct and immune to criticism while Islamists are free to insult and defame other religions.
Where does the “global debate” stand now? The popular outrage at the Charlie Hebdo massacre was a bright spot in the defence of freedom, although even that was not unanimous. Nor has it lasted very long in the face of subsequent assertions of “Islamophobia” whenever anyone publicly discusses jihad terrorism, beheadings, or forced marriage. Grievance fundamentalists habitually characterize the exercise of free speech as the offence and violent responders as the victims, claiming to see Islamophobia not only in criticisms, but even in straightforward reporting of facts. Around Europe, in some jurisdictions in North America, and in the United Nations, Islam enjoys special immunity. Regardless of their phrasing, proposed and actual prohibitions of “blasphemy” and “hate speech” are asymmetrically aimed at protecting Islamic beliefs and customs (see the UN resolutions sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and Quebec’s Bill 59). In practice, both verbal and physical attacks against other religions are often ignored or rationalized away.
But although the book understandably concentrates on events involving Islam, the issue extends much further. For the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, Canada and Canadian academia are the core interests. We have had some egregious examples of censorship. The attempts of human rights commissions to punish critics (frequently critics of some aspects of Islam), at last curbed by the abolition of Section 13; the failure of university administrators to ensure the safe and orderly occurrence of invited lectures by conservative or otherwise controversial speakers; the restrictions on some communications to specified forms or to specified areas of campus; the persecution of Philippe Rushton, Thomas Flanagan, and other academics who voiced controversial opinions; all of these and others show that our campuses are not exempt from the attitude of Canadian Human Rights Commission investigator Dean Steacy, who during a hearing notoriously opined that "Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value....”
Perhaps even more dangerous is that fear leads to self-censorship, so that controversial opinions are not even voiced. Fear of being targeted by murderers is understandable enough, although Rose gives inspiring examples of journalists who stood up for freedom even during the Nazi occupation of Denmark; we can even empathize with those who shy away from teaching about politically incorrect theories and data for fear of losing their job or of blocking their career progress. But how does that serve the two causes to which academics are supposedly devoted: the truth, and our students?
I, and most likely many of us, have been approached after a faculty or academic senate meeting by colleagues—senior, tenured full professors—who look around to see who may be listening before expressing their agreement and their pleasure that someone had said what they were afraid to say. Social psychologists have documented what most people know: publicly dissenting from what appears to be the common opinion is scary, and dissenters may incur disapproval and dislike. Rose’s book leaves us with an uncomfortable question: where some people have risked their life to exercise their freedom of speech, what are we willing to risk?