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?