‘I have definitely become a free speech fundamentalist,’ says Flemming Rose. Perhaps that should not be surprising. It was, after all, Rose who, as culture editor of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, helped launch the Danish cartoon controversy in 2005. He had picked up on a  story about the difficulties that children’s author Kåre Bluitgen had faced in finding an illustrator for a book he was writing on Islam. Every illustrator that Bluitgen had contacted had been worried that he would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker ritually murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim incensed by his anti-Islamic films. Rose wanted, he said, to see ‘how deep this self-censorship lies in the Danish public’. So he set a challenge to Danish cartoonists: draw a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed and we will publish a selection  in Jyllands-Posten.

Rose approached 42 cartoonists, 12 of whom accepted the challenge. Their caricatures, including Kurt Westergaard’s infamous image of the prophet wearing a turban in the form of a bomb, were published in Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. ‘The modern secular society,’ Rose wrote in a commentary, ‘is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.’

To Rose’s critics, the very act of publishing the cartoons, and of provoking Muslims into a response, was irresponsible, even racist, particularly against the background of Denmark’s growing hostility to immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, and even more so given Jyllands-Posten’s role in feeding such hostility. In the eyes of his critics, Rose has always been a ‘free speech fundamentalist’, and not in a good way.  Not so, Rose insists. When he published the cartoons, he believed in free speech but, he says, did not fully understand its true significance. The controversy itself that made him think about the real meaning of freedom of expression, and challenged many of his preconceptions.

The contemporary debate about free speech has been shaped by two key confrontations over the past two decades. The first was the Salman Rushdie affair, the second the Danish cartoons controversy.  The controversy over The Satanic Verses was a cultural and political watershed, the storm through which many of the issues that have become the defining problems of our age first emerged into popular consciousness – the nature of Islam, and of its relationship to the West, the meaning of multiculturalism, the fear of terrorism, the boundaries of tolerance in a liberal society, the limits of free speech in a plural world.

If the controversy over The Satanic Verses provided a glimpse of the world as it would come to be, that over the Danish cartoons helped lay bare the anatomy of the world as it had become. ‘The context was very different,’ says Rose about the two controversies. ‘I followed the Rushdie affair, but at that time the big global story was the breakdown of communism in Eastern Europe.’ The ‘debate about migration, integration and diversity’ is very different now than it was in 1989, he believes, and ‘far more complex’.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Rushdie affair and the cartoons controversy lay less in the context than in the attitudes, particularly the attitudes of liberal intellectuals towards free speech and the idea of giving offence. In 1989, there had been much equivocation by politicians and intellectuals, but with one or two exceptions, such as John le Carré, who claimed that ‘there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity’, and Germaine Greer, who allegedly declared that ‘jail is a good place for writers’, no one seriously doubted Rushdie’s right to publish his novel. There was little equivocation over the Danish cartoons, just a widespread acceptance that Jyllands-Posten had been in the wrong, and even more so the newspapers and magazines that had republished the cartoons. Writers and artists, many insisted, had a responsibility to desist from giving offence and upsetting religious sensibilities.

‘I understand your concerns,’ Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, told delegates at an Organisation of Islamic Conference summit in Mecca in 2005, ‘and would like to emphasise that I regret any statement or act that could express a lack of respect for the religion of others.’ The European Union, too, expressed ‘regret’ about the publication of the cartoons. ‘These kinds of drawings can add to the growing Islamophobia in Europe,’claimed Franco Frattini, EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security. Former US President Bill Clinton condemned ‘these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam’ and feared that anti-Semitism had been replaced by anti-Islamic prejudice.

The difference in attitudes revealed how the very landscape of free speech had been transformed. Peter Mayer had been CEO of Penguin, Rushdie’s publishers at the time of the fatwa. He talked publicly about those events for the first time in an interview he gave for my book From Fatwa to Jihad.  Early on the morning of Valentine’s Day 1989, Mayer received a call from Patrick Wright, Penguin’s head of sales in London. Had he seen the headlines about the fatwa, Wright asked him. ‘What’s a fatwa?’ asked a bemused Mayer. It was not just the idea of a fatwa that was new; neither Mayer nor Penguin had even begun to think about the issues that were soon to dominate their lives. ‘We had never had to have this kind of discussion before,’ Mayer observed. ‘Today there is a constant stream of discussion about multiculturalism and minority rights and sharia law. Not then. We had never had to think about free speech or about why we were publishers.’

The fatwa ushered in not just a new kind of debate but a new kind of violence, new at least in the contemporary world. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were assaulted and even murdered. In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor of literature and translator of The Satanic Verses, was knifed to death on the campus of Tsukuba University. That same month, another translator of Rushdie’s novel, the Italian Ettore Capriolo, was beaten up and stabbed in his Milan apartment. In October 1993, William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, was shot three times and left for dead outside his home in Oslo.  Bookshops were firebombed for stocking the novel.

Mayer himself was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation.  ‘I had letters delivered to me written in blood,’ he remembered. ‘I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.’

And yet neither Mayer nor Penguin had countenanced backing down. ‘I told the  board, “You have to take the long view. Any climbdown now will only encourage future terrorist attacks by individuals or groups offended for whatever reason by other books that we or any publisher might publish. If we capitulate, there will be no publishing as we know it.”’ Mayer and his colleagues recognised that ‘what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book.  How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it. We all came to agree that all we could do, as individuals or as a company, was to uphold the principles that underlay our profession and which, since the invention of movable type, have brought it respect. We were publishers. I thought that meant something. We all did’.

Nygaard, too, was resolute in his refusal to give way. He spent weeks in hospital, followed by months of rehabilitation. It was two years before he could fully use his arms and legs again. ‘Journalists kept asking me, “Will you stop publishing The Satanic Verses?”’, he told me in an interview. ‘I said, “Absolutely not.”’

Mayer and Nygaard belonged to a world in which the defence of free speech was seen as an irrevocable duty. That world no longer exists, swept away in part by the reverberations of the Rushdie affair. In the world to which Mayer and Nygaard belonged, speech was seen as an inherent good, the fullest extension of which was a necessary condition for the elucidation of truth, the expression of moral autonomy, the maintenance of social progress and the development of other liberties. Of course, the traditional liberal defence of free speech was shot through with hypocrisy. Defenders of free expression were often wont to cite a whole host of harms – from the incitement to hatred to threats to national security, from the promotion of blasphemy to the spread of slander – as reasons for curtailing speech that they found particularly obnoxious. Yet, however hypocritical liberal arguments may have seemed, and notwithstanding the fact that most free speech advocates accepted that the line had to be drawn somewhere, there was nevertheless an acknowledgement that speech was truly important and that restrictions on free speech should the exception rather than the norm.

By the time of the Danish cartoons, free speech had come to be seen as a threat to liberty as much as its shield. By its very nature, many now argued, speech damaged basic freedoms. It was not intrinsically a good but inherently a problem because speech inevitably offends and harms. Speech, therefore, had to be restrained, not in exceptional circumstances, but all the time and everywhere, especially in diverse societies with a variety of deeply held views and beliefs. Censorship, and self-censorship, had to become the norm.

We live in a world, so the argument ran, in which there are deep-seated conflicts between cultures embodying different values. For such diverse societies to function and to be fair, we need to show respect for other peoples, cultures, and viewpoints.  Social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are given equal recognition and respect. The avoidance of cultural pain has, therefore, come to be regarded as more important than the abstract right to freedom of expression.  As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ Or, as the Muslim philosopher and spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques Shabbir Akhtar claimed at the height of the Rushdie affair, ‘Self-censorship is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business.’

Rose captures well this transformation in attitudes in his description of how the meaning of tolerance has been remade. Tolerance, Rose observes, should be ‘about the ability to be exposed, and to accept things you don’t like’, the ability ‘to live with what you find distasteful, what you don’t like, what you abhor’. But the concept has, in recent years, been ‘turned on its head’. Tolerance ‘is no longer about the ability to tolerate things for which we do not care, but more about the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may not care to hear. Jyllands-Posten was criticised for being intolerant. That suggests that tolerance is something demanded of the one who speaks, or the one who draws the cartoon, or writes the novel, rather than something demanded of the one who listens, or looks at the cartoon or reads the novel. That’s why I say that tolerance has been turned on its head’.

Tolerance, in other words, used to mean the acceptance of diversity and difference. Today it has come to mean the very opposite: the refusal to accept diversity and difference, the insistence that others abide by my views of what is acceptable and unacceptable. Once every group insists that other groups have to respect its boundaries then every social conversation has to take place across a barbed wire fence of ‘tolerance’.

Nowhere is this trend clearer than in India. There is a long history of applying heavy-handed censorship supposedly to ease fraught relationships between different communities, a process that in recent decades has greatly intensified. Hand in hand with more oppressive censorship has come, however, not a more peaceful society, but one in which the sense of a common nation has increasingly broken down into sectarian rivalries, as every group demands its right not to be offended. The confrontation over The Satanic Verses was a classic example. In 1988, the authorities caved into Islamist pressure and banned Rushdie’s novel.  Not only did this embolden Muslims to continue pushing for censorship but it encouraged other groups to follow suit.  Hindus, Rose suggests, ‘learnt from Muslims. Because the Indian government gave into the Muslims, the Hindus then came forward and said, “We also want to be accommodated in the same way. We want things we don’t like banned.” What it shows is that if you start to give in, there is no end to it.’

A week after I interviewed Rose, a train of events were set off that perfectly illustrated his observations. Salman Rushdie had been due to give a talk at the Jaipur Literature Festival about his Booker-winning novel Midnight’s Children, the film of which is to be released later this year.  Muslim activists issued threats. Instead of standing up to the bullies, both local and state governments caved in, exerting pressure on the festival organisers to keep Rushdie away. The organizers in turn surrendered, condemning four writers, Hari Kunzru, Amitava Kumar, Jeet Thayil and Rushir Joshi, all speakers at the festival who had shown solidarity with Rushdie by reading from The Satanic Verses. The readings, the organisers insisted, were ‘unnecessary provocations’ and they threatened that ‘all necessary, consequential action’ would be taken against any others who followed suit. Emboldened by this show of weakness, Muslim activists pushed further still, forcing organisers to abandon subsequent plans for Rushdie to talk to the festival by video link.

Next it was the turn of Hindus. A week after Islamists kept Rushdie out of Jaipur, Hindu activists forced Pune’s Symbiosis University to cancel a screening of Jashn-e-Azadi, a new film about Kashmir, because it was ‘anti-India’, and to abandon a four-day seminar on the issue. If Muslims could suppress material they found obnoxious, the Hindu activists insisted, so could they.

And then, the following week, Sikhs picked up the baton. The American comedian Jay Leno had suggested that US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was so rich that he could hire the Golden Temple in Amritsar as his summer home. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, the so-called Sikh parliament in India, lodged a protest with the US ambassador to Delhi and called for worldwide protests against this insufferable insult. One Sikh filed a lawsuit against Leno in the American courts for ‘exposing Sikhs and their religion to hatred, contempt, ridicule and obloquy’.

‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage,’ as the novelist Monica Ali has vividly observed, ‘you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours.”’ The demand that one should not give offence has created not a less conflicted world, but one that has become more sectarian, fragmented and tribal.

Tolerance, in the way that Rose defines it, cannot, however, be a one-way street.  If, as he insists, Muslims have to accept the right of others to blaspheme or cause offence, surely those others accept the right of Muslims (and of anyone else) to do the same? In reality, the opposite has happened. Hand in hand with the criminalising of criticism or ridicule of Islam has come the criminalising of Islamic dissent. Take Britain. Islamist preachers, such as Abu Hamza, whose incendiary sermons at Finsbury Park Mosque in north London were supposed to have influenced the 7/7 bombers, and Abu Izzadeen who was filmed praising jihad as the ‘responsibility of every single Muslim’, have received long prison sentences for sermons deemed unacceptable. Most bizarre was the trial and conviction (subsequently overturned on appeal) of Samina Malik, a 23-year-old fantasist from West London who dreamed of jihad, and wrote awful poetry under the moniker of the ‘Lyrical Terrorist’, including such unforgettable lines as  ‘Let us make Jihad / Move to the front line / To chop chop head of kuffar swine.’ Malik was convicted in effect for the thoughts and desires in her unhinged head.

Rose accepts that at the time he first published the cartoons he would probably have argued for the imprisonment of Hamza, Izzadeen and Malik. What the cartoon controversy taught him, however, he insists, is that Muslims have as much right to offend and to abuse, his beliefs as he has to offend and to abuse theirs. He has ‘definitely become a free speech fundamentalist’.  So where would he now draw the line when it comes to freedom of expression? ‘At incitement to violence,’ Rose responds, but only ‘incitement to violence in the First Amendment sense. There needs to be a clear and present danger that violence will follow words in a quite short time frame’.

In October 2007, around 300 Muslims gathered outside the Danish Embassy in London, protesting about the cartoons. Four of the protestors were imprisoned for between four and six years for shouting slogans such as ‘Annihilate those who insult Islam’, ‘Bomb, bomb Denmark. Bomb, bomb USA’ and ‘Europe, you will pay with your blood’. Had they committed a crime? No, says Rose. ‘There was no clear and present danger that those words would be followed up by action.’ The protestors, in other words, had been incarcerated not so much for bad acts as for bad thoughts.

The imprisoning of the radical preachers and the cartoon protestors has led to cries of ‘Islamophobia’. Western governments, many claim, are deliberately targeting Muslims for possessing unacceptable thoughts. Yet, many of those now crying ‘foul’ are the ones who have paved the way for such actions. It is true that over the past decade the war on terror has provided a pretext to impose greater restrictions on civil liberties. It would be wrong, however, to pin the blame for such curtailment of free expression simply on ‘Islamophobia’. The authorities have been able to curtail Islamic dissent by exploiting a culture of censorship that already existed, a culture created by the campaign against offensive, blasphemous and hateful speech. Western governments have seized upon the idea that it is wrong to give offence and transformed it into a weapon against radical Muslims as well as against critics of Islam. The moral of the story is that one should be careful what one wishes for. If we invite the state to define the boundaries of acceptable speech, we should not be surprised if it is not just speech to which we object that gets curtailed.

Critics of Jyllands-Posten retort that the cartoon controversy had little to do with free speech. It was simply about targeting Muslims. It is true that Jyllands-Posten is, as the critics suggest, a conservative paper, often hostile to immigration and obsessed by the threat of Islam.  The sociologist Jytte Klausen points out in The Cartoons that Shook the World, her academic study of the controversy, that between February 2005 and October 2007, the paper published no fewer than 200 articles about the Islamist preacher Sheikh Raed Hlayel. That gives a sense of the background and the obsessions against which the cartoon controversy developed. But such criticism is an argument against Jyllands-Posten‘s political stance, not against its right to publish cartoons that some may see as offensive or blasphemous. After all, it is not just those with nice liberal views who have the right to free speech; though increasingly many have come to believe that it should be.

More pertinent, perhaps, is the charge that, far from being a defender of free speech, Jyllands-Posten betrays double standards. A few years before the Mohammed controversy, the newspaper had refused to publish cartoons about Jesus by the caricaturist Christoffer Zieler. ‘I don’t think Jyllands-Posten’s readers will enjoy the drawings,’ the editor Carsten Juste wrote to Zieler. ‘As a matter of fact, I think they will provoke an outcry.’

Rose dismisses the charge of double standards.  The drawings, he claims, had actually been rejected because they had been ‘of poor quality’, but the editor ‘had made the mistake of not telling the artist directly’, instead ‘rejecting his work with reference to the possible offence it might cause to the paper’s readership’. Jyllands-Posten has, he says, often published cartoons offensive to Christians and Jews, including ones by Kurt Westergaard. One Westergaard cartoon depicts Jesus on the cross with dollar signs in his eyes; another shows  an undernourished Palestinian is caught up in a barbed-wire fence  in he shape of the Star of David. ‘We were not specifically trying to offend Muslims rather than anyone else’, Rose insists.

Whatever what one thinks of this defence – and I, for one, remain, to say the least, unconvinced – there is no denying the long history of liberal hypocrisy about free speech. John Milton, whose Areopagitica, his famous 1644 ‘speech for the liberty of unlicenc’d printing’, is still rightly regarded as one of the great defences of free speech, opposed the extension of freedoms to Catholics. John Locke, upon whose work rests the philosophical foundations of liberalism, and whose Letter Concerning Toleration is a key text in the development of modern liberal ideas about freedom of expression and worship, similarly drew the line at extending freedom and liberties to Catholics and to atheists. ‘No opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society,’ he insisted, ‘are to be tolerated.’

Many contemporary defenders of free speech would similarly draw the line at Muslims, often for many of the same reasons. From Geert Wilders’ campaign to outlaw the Qur’an, to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s support for the Swiss ban on the building of minarets, to Martin Amis’ ‘thought experiment’ on how ‘the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order’ – hypocrisy and double standards are rife in contemporary debates about freedom and liberties. Such double standards can, of course, work both ways. While some are reluctant to extend basic freedoms to Muslims, or hold Muslims to standards not demanded of non-Muslims, others on the contrary are happy to criticise or ridicule Christianity or conservatism or communism in a way that they would not dream of doing to Islam.

Double standards need to be confronted, not by extending restrictions, but by extending speech, by ensuring not that everyone is equally deprived of liberties, but that all are equally sheltered by them. To see how we should deal with double standards today, we only have to ask ourselves how we should have responded in the age of Milton and Locke. Should we have suggested that the best way to deal with their anti-Catholic bigotry was to extend to everyone the restrictions that Milton and Locke wished imposed on Catholics? Or should we have argued that restrictions on Catholics were wrong and that all deserved liberty? With four centuries’ worth of hindsight the answer to most people is crystal clear. It should be equally so today, in response to free speech and the hypocrisy of anti-Muslim prejudices.

Prejudice reveals itself not simply in double standards but also in a distorted image of the ‘Other’. In the case of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper used the publication of the cartoons to play upon tawdry stereotypes of Muslims, helping promote the idea that the views of radical Islamists represented that of all Muslims.

The publication of the cartoons caused no immediate reaction, even in Denmark. Only when journalists, disappointed by the lack of controversy, contacted a number of imams for their response, did Islamists begin to recognise the opportunity provided not just by the caricatures themselves but also by the sensitivity of Danish society to their publication. Among the first contacted was the controversial cleric Ahmed Abu Laban, infamous for his support for Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. He seized upon the cartoons to transform himself into a spokesman for Denmark’s Muslims. His Islamic Society of Denmark was closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood but had little support among Danish Muslims. Danish Muslims, as Jytte Klausen points out, ‘are for the most part politically placid and disinclined to support Islamic radicals and extremists.’ But, observes Klausen, Jyllands-Posten’s ‘attack on the “mad mullahs” stereotyped all Danish Muslims as radical extremists’.

Rose acknowledges that this was exactly what happened. ‘I think it was a mistake,’ he says, ‘a mistake not just made by Jyllands-Posten but a mistake broadly being made by the media, that every time you wanted to hear a Muslim voice, you went to one of these radical imams. That reinforced that sense of us vs them.’  It was more than a ‘mistake’. Jyllands-Posten‘s campaign grew out of a particular political vision of the world, of Islam and of the West. The idea of a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West, an idea first popularised by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington a decade before 9/11, has for many come to define the following decade. It is the story of a West under siege from the barbarian hordes, of a global struggle between good and evil. The myth of a world defined by the clash of civilizations has helped fuel wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and erode rights and liberties, at home and abroad, from the imposition of draconian domestic anti-terror laws to the use of torture, from the obscenity of extraordinary rendition to the affront that is Guantanamo Bay. And Jyllands-Posten has played its role in promoting the myths, in building up the stereotypes, in helping undermine freedoms and liberties.

It is not, however, just conservatives, or those hostile to Islam, who have come to see the world in this way. Many of the fiercest critics of the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, many of Jyllands- Posten‘s harshest opponents, have themselves helped promote the idea of a world divided into irreconcilable cultures.

There were many Danish Muslims who were happy to see the publication of the cartoons. Bunyamin Simsek is a councillor in the city of Aarhus. He is religious – he attends mosque, does not drink or eat pork and fasts at Ramadan. But he is also secular. ‘There is,’ he insists,  ‘a large group of Muslims in this city who want to live in a secular society and adhere to the principle that religion is an issue between them and God and not something that should involve society.’ Appalled by the way that people like Abu Laban had come to be seen as the authentic spokesmen for Muslim concerns, Simsek set up a network of Muslims opposed to the Islamists and helped organise a counter demonstration to the cartoon protests.  ‘We wanted to show that not all Danish Muslims are Islamists’, he said. ‘In fact very few are. But it is the Islamists like Raed Hlayhel and Abu Laban who get all the hearing.’

Voices such as Simsek’s were rarely heard in the media because they did not fit into the narrative of what constituted a Muslim, a narrative promoted by liberals as well as conservatives, by those sympathetic to Islam as well as those hostile to the faith. The Danish MP Nasser Khader, like Simsek a critic of the campaign against the cartoons, tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing newspaper highly critical of Jyllands-Posten and of the publication of the cartoons. ‘He said to me that the cartoons insulted all Muslims’, Khader recalled.  ‘I said I was not insulted. He said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”.’

For left and right, for liberal and conservative, to be a ‘proper’ Muslim is to be offended by the cartoons. Once Muslim authenticity is so defined, then only a figure such as Abu Laban can be seen as a true Muslim voice. Bunyamin Simsek and Nasser Khader – and Salman Rushdie – come to be regarded as too Westernised, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. It is an argument both rooted in a racist stereotype of what it is to be an authentic Muslim and one that helps reinforce that stereotype. And because only one side of the conversation is regarded as  ‘authentic’, what is often in reality a debate within a community comes to be seen as offence to that community. Nor is it just of Muslims of which this is true. The Sikh protestors who forced Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti offstage in 2004, a year before the cartoons were published, were seen as more authentically Sikh than Kaur Bhatti herself.  And so have Jewish, Christian, Hindu and a host of other protestors who have in recent years cried ‘Offence!’ about films, plays, novels or art that they have disliked.

Both sides in this debate about Islam have hijacked the issue of free speech, bending and distorting the concept of liberty until it has become almost meaningless. On the one side are those who ostensibly defend free speech, but do so only in tribal terms, for whom the defence of free speech is a weapon to be wielded by the West against Islam, a means of depriving Muslims of basic liberties.  On the other are those who ostensibly defend liberties, and Muslims, but only by constraining free speech, incarcerating the very means by which we are able to think and debate and argue, and to create a more progressive society. Both sides are, in their different ways, enemies of free speech, of liberty, of our essential humanness. Seven years on from the cartoon crisis, two decades after the Rushdie affair, 40 years after the founding of Index on Censorship, our task today is not just to defend free speech but to liberate it, too, from the shackles of bad faith.


This essay was published in the special 40th anniversary issue of Index on Censorship as ‘Enemies of Free Speech’. The interview with Flemming Rose was conducted specifically for this essay. Most of the other interviews are taken from my book From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and its Legacy. The Jesus and Mo cartoon comes from the wonderful Jesus and Mo website.


  1. Bill Habergham

    Dear Mr Malik,

    I am new to your writing, but have greatly enjoyed your thoughtful and reasoned analysis in various essays on this site, of western society and free speech in the age of large scale immigration over the last 40 years or so.

    I am English and Christian and my wife is Javanese/Arab and a proud Muslim. From her mothers Arab side she is actually a descendant of the prophet himself. We celebrate both faiths and my wife having lived here for 7 years adores the English countryside, and way of life and loves to vote and participate in political discourse. ( coming from Singapore although she has a vote it does not usually change much!)

    Her regular comment whenever another Islamist “preacher” or “community leader” is wheeled out to make comment is “what is wrong with you white guys, why don’t you ever stand up for what you claim to believe in, why don’t you stand up for your history , your culture and your way of life”. My only rather pathetic defence is that ” we no longer allowed to for fear of the ultimate sanction of being called a racist by anyone who disagrees with us.

    In most Muslim countries our marriage would not be recognised and one of our biggest debates are often with White “multi culturalists” who,as you say, do not see my wife as an authentic Muslim because she does not conform with what are in effect racist stereotypes of how Muslims should dress, act,think or for that matter, who they should marry.The guys with the beards and loudest and most aggressive voices have become the voice of Islam in this country and we now fear a sectarian future. When was the last time you heard a leading politician in this country talk or use the word ” liberty” let alone “individual liberty”. Group rights, group identity appear to be the future and we fear that in the future those who wish to stand outside any sanctioned “group” will actually have no future.

    Keep shouting your views Mr Malik and we help you as we can.

    Kind Regards,

    Bill Habergham

  2. redkabukicho

    As usual, your essay is thought-provoking. I will share it with the people I know. It’s true, only the the ones who are shouting and burning are heard, but they’re not always a correct representation of those they claim to represent.

    One thing I didn’t quite understand:
    “…he insists, is that Muslims have as much right to offend and to abuse, his beliefs as he has to offend and to abuse theirs.” Is he saying he is willfully trying to offend and abuse others? Or that if he does so accidentally, he still has the right? Enlighten me. :l

    • Those actual words are, of course, mine, not Rose’s. And my point is that those who (rightly) insist that people should be able to say things that some Muslims might offensive or even abusive must also accept that Muslims (and everybody else) should be able to say things that others might find offensive or abusive. Tolerance, as I said, cannot be a one way street. And that is true whether or not the offence is deliberate or accidental.

      • redkabukicho

        “Tolerance, as I said, cannot be a one way street. And that is true whether or not the offence is deliberate or accidental”

        I now see what you mean. Your writing style tends to leave me confused sometimes as to what you’re trying to say. Thank you for the clarification and looking forward to your next post.

  3. RvB

    It’s too bad that you take so very, very long to get to the point. It’s all a near-interminable rehash of the Rusdhie/Motoons affair until we get to the end, where you make a valid and important argument about Bunyamin Simsek, Nasser Khader, and Salman Rushdie being just as much a legitimate voice for Muslims (the cultural kind if perhaps not the deeply pious variety) as the firebrand Muslim preachers whom the media have typically interviewed if a Muslim “spokesman” was needed.

    And then, just as I am about to agree with you, the piece goes off the rails by your seeming to say that those militantly opposed to Muslim censorship are on the whole just as censorious themselves (e.g., Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, Martin Amis). If I understand you correctly, both sides are, in the end, equally guilty of hijacking/raping free speech.

    Even if that were true (and it isn’t), the kind of censorship advocated by radical Muslims is the kind that, if we kafirs don’t comply with their demands, ends in firebombed publishers’ offices, and in the slashed throats of authors, editors, filmmakers, translators, cartoonists, and so on. By contrast, the ostensible censorship of their ideological foes consists at most of some intemperate editorials à la Theo van Gogh’s, or a strident little movie à la Geert Wilders’, or a relatively middling cartoon like Kurt Westergaard’s.

    Does anyone really believe the claim of equivalency there? Death threats and violence are not free speech. In fact, they’re CRIMES. Essays and movies and drawings are NOT crimes, last I checked, and will NEVER be crimes if I have anything to do with it. Well, maybe in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia they are. But not in Denmark. Not in the UK. Not in the US. Not in Holland. Not in France.

    If Muslims choose NOT to live in a Islam-revering theocracy, they are most welcome here, and they will truly be my brothers and sisters if they abide by the same rules that the rest of us do. However, if they DO insist that heads (sometimes literally) roll whenever some pious ass in their midst insists that his religious feelings have been hurt, they are likewise invited to kiss my ass and leave for sunnier, Mohammed-worshiping shores.

    Perhaps I misunderstood, and you are talking about the so-called progressives and bien pensants who claim that expressions like Fitna and the Motoons must be curtailed so as not to give rise to “Islamophobia.” Maybe THEY’re the ones you mean when you bring up “the other side” in the debate. I hope so.

    One more point, about Wilders. I don’t like the man. Wouldn’t vote for him if I could. But you mischaracterize his views on “banning” the Koran. Wilders’ talk of declaring legal limits on the sale of the Koran stems from the fact that ‘Mein Kampf’ is considered so dangerous that the Dutch state has declared the sale of the book illegal. Given that reason (hate-filled, dangerous, spreads ideas that undermine the state), Wilders thinks the same limitations ought to be placed on the frequently violence-inducing tract that is the Koran. He’s not in fact pushing for either book to be banned, except in a mental exercise to show that, in his views, the Dutch government and courts are measuring with two yardsticks.

    For the record, I wish for both books (and even the Bible) to be legally available, although I frankly hold all in extremely low regard.

    • First, my apologies for not writing the essay that you wanted. I tend to write the essay that I want to write. And as it was a historical overview of the free speech debate over the past two decades, I had thought – well, that a bit of historical overview (or ‘interminable rehashing’ as you put it) might not come amiss.

      Second, I’ve clearly missed the line in the essay where I say that death threats and violence are the equivalent of intemperate editorials or a strident little movie or a relatively middling cartoon. I’m one of those unfortunate people who think that liberty and freedom of expression mean just that – liberty and freedom of expression. One of those unfortunate people who think that calling for books to be banned, or for the mass deportations of Muslims, or for bans on the building of mosques and minarets does not accord with the greater extension of liberty and free speech. And that those who call for such bans or actions, especially in the name of liberty and freedom, should be called to account.

      As for Wilders’ views on the Qur’an, it might help to click on the link I provided to the article he wrote on his own website:

      The root of the problem is fascist Islam, the sick ideology of Allah and Mohammed as laid down in the Islamic Mein Kampf: the Koran…
Why don’t we ban that miserable book? After all, we also decided to ban Mein Kampf!… I am fed up with the Koran in the Netherlands: let’s ban that fascist book.

      That seems pretty clear to me.

      • RvB

        “Perfectly clear” is that he mentions it in the context of Mein Kampf. Which you forgot to mention in your post. The Mein Kampf analogy — seeing as that book is banned in Holland — is a rather crucial point here, if you’re inclined to grasp it, rather than dismiss it or (worse) ignore it.

        Anyway… I wish you the best, especially as I suspect we have way more in common than we disagree about. Onwards.

      • Yes Wilders mentions Mein Kampf, but not for the reasons that you suggested he did. Nowhere does he even hint, as you claim, that his call for a ban is simply ‘a mental exercise’. And it is bizarre suggest that ‘He’s not in fact pushing for either book to be banned’. He wants to ban the Qur’an, full stop. He drags in Mein Kampf to bolster his case for censorship not to suggest the possibility that neither should be banned. It is this kind of apologetic reading of people like Wilders, applying double standards to him because you approve of his attack on Islam, that I was criticizing in the essay.

  4. RvB

    One more thing. I guess one reason I responded strongly to the false equivalency you seem to observe between the anti-free-speech exploits of radical Muslims on the one hand, and those of people like Wilders, Amis, and Hirsi Ali on the other, is your involvement with Index on Censorship, and your reverent mention of it in the last sentence.

    To me, your equivalency argument carries an echo of the infamously vile Index piece by Rohan Jayasekera in which he posthumously taunted Theo van Gogh — who had just been sadistically butchered by a Muslim extremist, in broad daylight, in the streets of the freest city in all of Europe. Index’s intrepid correspondent clearly implied that Theo had it coming. He wrote that Theo had “roared his Muslim critics into silence with obscenities” and that the man’s sundry writings and films constituted “abuse of his right to free speech.” Given the place he worked for, that was quite the screed.

    I do not believe you subscribe to the same worldview as Jayasekera, but I’m uneasy about your final paragraph. You do actually ascribe equal blame to both ‘parties’ in this conflict, do you?

    If I write or say something radical, even outrageous, then others are allowed to pen furious editorials in response, stage a demonstration, etc. That is an appropriate and more or less proportionate response. Putting a bullet through my brain isn’t. So please let’s not pretend that, if Amis and Hirsi Ali are (in your book) proponents of censorship, they are in any way the equivalent of the fundie thugs whose aversion to the free speech of others finds its expression in blood rather than ink.

    • Yes, I work on projects with Index on Censorship, and for a while was on its board. That does not mean that I agree with Index’s stance on everything, nor agree everything written by its staff or supporters. In fact I have been publicly highly critical of Index’s stance even while I was on the board. Both the staff and the board at Index have a variety of views, particularly on issues such as hate speech. I happen to take a more ‘fundamentalist’ position than most. And I profoundly disagreed with Rohan Jayasekera’s article. But what has any of this to do with my post here? If the fact that I have an essay published in Index on Censorship, rather than what I actually wrote, led you to jump to conclusions about what I might believe, more fool you. Again you drag in the ‘equivalency’ argument. If you can show me where, here or anywhere else, I have claimed that murders or death threats are the equivalent of illiberal arguments, please do so. The fact is, it is so much bluster to camouflage your own unwillingness to challenge illiberal, censorious views, when those views come not from Islamists but from the likes of Amis or Wilders. That’s what I call double standards.

      • Look who’s jumping to conclusions now, and who’s engaging in “bad faith.” I have stated that I don’t like Wilders, wouldn’t vote for the man if I could, and that I am passionately opposed to governments banning ANY book at all. As for Hirsi Ali and my supposed unwillingness to “challenge illiberal, censorious views,” the interview I did with her for the American magazine Reason might disabuse you of that notion.

      • I have no idea what you are complaining about. You claimed that I had ‘mischaracterized [Wilder’s] views about “banning” the Koran’ and that Wilders is not in fact pushing for either [Mein Kampf or the Qur’an] to be banned’. I showed that you were wrong. You maintained that I had suggested some kind of equivalency between murder and calls for censorship. I challenged you to produce some evidence. You wrote that you had ‘responded strongly’ to my argument because of my ‘involvement with Index on Censorship’. I took you up on that. And as for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I know her, I admire her courage, but I still say that she is wrong, and illiberal, in her support for the Swiss ban on the building of minarets. So, what’s the problem?

  5. Hellosnackbar

    The banning of minarets in Switzerland was a product of a referendum.
    Surely a referendum is true democracy(notice how this instrument is almost absent from other so called democracies)
    I’m an atheist who believes in free speech(the George Orwell quote “liberty is the right to tell others that which they may not want to hear” characterises my attitude.
    My beef with Islam is their supremacist,totalitarian attitude relying totally on submission to imaginary Allah(free speech)
    Their lack of integration and their community self imposition of apartheid
    does not encourage friendly assimilation.
    I regard Islamophobia as a very silly word the phobia suffix suggests irrational fear.
    I personally find your writing very good and wish you every success

    • DHMCarver

      So Hellosnackbar, I presume that you think a vote to strip black people of their right to vote in the US would also be “true democracy”? Most of the infamous Jim Crow laws in the US were the product of votes, or of actions taken by duly elected legislatures in their capacity as representatives of the people — and in the South, when politicians started working to reverse some of those laws, they often lost their elective office.

      Rule by referendum is merely a polite way to have mob rule. There needs to be a balance struck between the will of the people and the rights of minorities.

    • I certainly don’t think that democracy or referendums are an expression of ‘mob rule’, But nor do I think that just because an opinion has democratic mandate, that opinion must be right. The ban on the building of minarets is wrong, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali was wrong to support it.

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