Cliff May

It’s funny, in an Orwellian way, that in Europe there are now militant groups with such cutesy names as Sharia4Belgium and Sharia4Holland. Less funny, but perhaps more Orwellian, is this: Last month, the European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) held an event in Amsterdam featuring two speakers who favor liberalizing Islam. More than 20 members of the pro-Sharia groups pushed their way in shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” They demanded the event be stopped, called the speakers apostates, spat on them, threw eggs at them and threatened to kill them. Proud of these actions and apparently not overly concerned with legal consequences, they even made a YouTube video of their “protest.”

Now here’s the least funny and most Orwellian part: Very few Europeans – very few journalists, politicians, members of the self-proclaimed Human Rights community, Muslim organizations claiming to be moderate – have expressed outrage over this boot-stomping suppression of free speech in a city, country and continent that claim to value freedom and tolerance. Imagine if the situation had been slightly different -- if, say, a Muslim Brotherhood event had been violently disrupted by spitting, egg-throwing, death-threatening Christians or Jews.

Roberta Bonazzi, EFD’s Italian-born executive director – a friend and colleague -- bravely vowed not to be silenced. “We are united and will continue to support inspirational Muslim reformers across Europe,” she said. The speakers she had attempted to feature also kept a stiff upper lip. Irshad Manji, Canadian author of “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith,” said that she and Dutch Parliamentarian Tofik Dibi had “refused to leave, even when police asked. We wouldn’t play on jihadi terms.” Dibi, of the Green-Left party (and of Moroccan descent), said “the disruption shows that even in the Netherlands it is necessary to continue the debate on reforming Islam.”

Necessary, yes; safe, no. In Europe, increasingly, free speech ends where Islam, Islamism and even Islamic terrorism begin. Two months ago, the Paris offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were firebombed and its staff targeted with death threats after publication of an issue “edited” by the Prophet Mohammad.

In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered on an Amsterdam street: He had directed a film about the treatment of women in Islamic societies. The film’s author, Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian and writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, also was subjected to death threats. She subsequently fled to America.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten published a dozen cartoons satirizing terrorism in the name of Islam. That led to protests, riots, death threats, an assassination plot and the bombing of the Danish embassy in Pakistan.

All of this continues a trend begun more than a generation ago: In 1989, Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered any Muslim willing and able to murder British author Salman Rushdie whose novel, The Satanic Verses, Khomeini deemed blasphemous. Rushdie has required body guards ever since.

Had he been resident in any of the more than 50 states that hold membership in the Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (formerly called the Organization of the Islamic Conference but the new name is so much friendlier), that probably would not have saved him. Last year, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, defended a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law for having said something some Muslims found offensive. One of Taseer’s own bodyguards shot him 27 times with an MP5 sub-machine. Many Pakistani clerics and religious scholars praised the killer and prohibited praying at Taseer’s funeral.

Not a single OIC member state seriously guarantees freedom of speech. Some, notably Saudi Arabia, also actively prohibit freedom of worship. Nevertheless, in association with the OIC, the U.S. State Department last month hosted, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended, a three-day, closed-door international conference in Washington on combating religious “intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatization.”

Behind those closed doors, the conference reinforced the OIC tenet that all religions are equal – though one is more equal than others. OIC members are concerned only about the “defamation” of Islam and, evidently, they do not view militant Muslims attacking reformist Muslims as defaming their faith.

Nina Shea, who serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, was able to attend parts of the conference. She argued that the Obama administration “erred” in portraying it as “as a meeting of minds between the OIC and America on freedoms of religion and speech.” On the contrary, the conference “immediately reignited OIC demands for the West to punish anti-Islamic speech” as Saudi clerics and Iranian mullahs interpret that term.

Shea noted, too, that speakers at the conference “gave a sweeping overview of American founding principles on religious freedom and how they have been breached time and again in American history by attacks against a broad variety of religious minority groups — including now against Muslims.” The audience was reassured that “the Obama administration is working diligently to prosecute American Islamophobes and is transforming the U.S. Justice Department into the conscience of the nation, though it could no doubt learn a thing or two from the assembled delegates …”

From which delegates exactly? The Saudis whose school textbooks describe Jews as apes and Christians as swine? Or those of the European Union which, in response to the violence incited over the Danish cartoons, has mandated religious hate-speech codes that shield Islamic militants from criticism but, as the attack against EFD’s speakers illustrates, do little to protect the rights of liberal Muslims, much less of non-Muslims?

Will the day come when Europeans and Americans again stand up on their hind legs and defend their freedoms, values and traditions? Or have we effectively given up the fight in an attempt to appease such groups as the OIC and Sharia4Belgium? If only Orwell were still with us: I bet he’d have some pungent answers to these questions.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.