Free Speech Isn’t Free

Anne Applebaum contrasts the treatment of two high profile critics of radical Islam and thereby highlights the question of how far Western governments must go in protecting free speech. She notes that Salman Rushdie is still alive nearly two decades after a fatwa was placed on him by Ayatollah Khomeini because the British government has protected him ever since. Meanwhile, Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has been living in fear.

Hirsi Ali has been under Dutch police protection since 2002, when her public comments about mistreatment of women in the Dutch Muslim community and references to herself as “secular” led to death threats in Holland. Though encouraged to remain in the country — and promised security protection — by the government then in power, the mood in Holland changed in 2004. That year, a fanatic named Mohammed Bouyeri infamously murdered Theo Van Gogh, the director of a film about the oppression of Muslim women — and then thrust a knife bearing a note threatening Hirsi Ali, who wrote the film’s script, into the victim’s chest.


Unlike the British, who have gotten used to the idea that faraway events can affect them, the Dutch, at least in this century, are more insular. That helps explain why, in 2006, the Dutch government tried to revoke Hirsi Ali’s citizenship over an old immigration controversy, and why her neighbors went to court that year to have her evicted from her home (they claimed the security threat posed by her presence impinged upon their human rights). But although she did finally move to the United States, the argument continued in her absence. Last week, the Dutch government abruptly cut off her security funding, forcing her to return briefly to Holland.

The reasons given were financial, but there was clearly more to it. To put it bluntly, many in Holland find her too loud, too public in her condemnation of radical Islam. She doesn’t sound conciliatory, in the modern continental fashion. Compare her description of Islam as “brutal, bigoted, fixated on controlling women” with the German judge who, citing the Koran, in January told a Muslim woman trying to obtain a divorce from her violent husband that she should have “expected” her husband to deploy the corporal punishment his religion approves. Hirsi Ali herself says she is often told, in so many words, that she’s “brought her problems on herself.” Now the Dutch prime minister openly says he wants her to deal with them alone.


Whether or not the Dutch like it — and I’m sure most of them don’t — revoking her police protection will send a clear message to the world: that the Dutch are no longer willing to protect their own traditions of free speech. Resources will be found, and she will recover. But will Holland?

To put it mildly, allowing outspoken critics of Islam to be murdered or leave in fear of same would have a chilling effect on free speech. How far, though, must governments go in providing personal protection for controversial figures? Where does one draw the line?

The cases of Rushie and Hirsi Ali would seem reasonably clear: they’re very high profile figures and the death threats against them were made in a very high profile way and are quite credible, indeed. But, surely, everyone who says or writes inflammatory things that might make some lunatic want to kill them isn’t entitled to Secret Service protection?

FILED UNDER: Europe, Religion, Terrorism, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. kb says:

    Where does one draw the line?

    Well in this case , it seems the Dutch government drew the line when Hirsi Ali decided to take up permanent residence in another country.

    I really don’t see why the Dutch government should be obliged to pay for the protection for someone who
    has decided to live (and pay taxes) somewhere else.

  2. Grewgills says:

    That helps explain why, in 2006, the Dutch government tried to revoke Hirsi Ali’s citizenship over an old immigration controversy

    The move to revoke Hirsi Ali’s citizenship came shortly after a Zembla expose that publicly revealed the circumstances of her immigration. The controversy about her immigration papers was not about the false name as some suggest but that she applied for asylum stating that she had come directly from Somalia where she faced persecution rather than by way of Kenya, then Germany where she did not face immediate danger. Her political allies made sure she did not lose her citizenship.
    This controversy was compounded by her stand in the Taida Pasic case where an 18 year old Kosovan refugee was deported months before she was to graduate high school due to iregularities in her immigration paperwork.

    Last week, the Dutch government abruptly cut off her security funding, forcing her to return briefly to Holland.

    She was given warning. The Dutch government payed for round the clock security including 6 guards, secure car and house at a cost of several millions of euro per year. This security continued to be payed for a full year after she moved her permanent residence to the US. If she moves back the Netherlands she will continue to receive security regardless of some bellyaching. I don’t think it reasonable to expect the Dutch government to continue to pay for her security indefinitely if she is not a resident. At some point either the American government, AEI, or she should pick up the tab.

  3. pa says:

    kb has a good point. However, let’s consider the case of the many others in addition to Hirsi Ali who require protection against such threats in their home countries (e.g., the Modoggie artist in Norway, Flemming Rose who published the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark, Salman Rushdie, and a long list of others).

    Instead of government using its resources to provide protection for the threatened party, perhaps it should use its resources to eliminate those who make the threats. A two-armed approach would be required: (1) legislation that prohibits threats of the sort we are discussing here (which probably already is on the books) and (2) determined efforts to find, prosecute, and imprison those who are guilty of making such threats (which is surely not being done, even when such laws exist). A clear distinction must be made between acceptable and unacceptable forms of speech, without religious dispensation granted to those who, for example, threaten Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie and succeeded in killing Theo van Gogh.

    It seems that these governments have very little interest in eliminating the threat by finding and prosecuting those who make threats, and they instead place all blame on the victims. Eliminating this problem would, of course, require the recognition that we are in a war against a violent culture and an abandonment of the politically correct and multicultural attitudes that make government unwilling or unable to fight a culture that has such unacceptable standards. No hope of that happening.