When speaking out isn't allowed

Posted: Oct 22, 2002 12:00 AM
In a time of more controlled chaos, linking the Rev. Jerry Falwell to French author Michel Houellebecq would be unthinkable. After all, what could the founder of the Moral Majority possibly have in common with uh Franch authair known for novels of emotional desolation and sexual explicitness? Not much -- until lately. Just as politics makes strange bedfellows, religion has paired this unlikely duo -- but not on the topic of religion. That would be impossible given the celebrated Houellebecq rejects monotheism altogether, and Falwell is a famous Christian preacher of the Religious Right. And while both men share an unfavorable view of Islam (Houellebecq is no fan of Christianity or Judaism, either), that alone doesn't team them up. What really unites the man of God with the man of letters, whether they know it or not, is the international furor they have kicked up simply by expressing themselves. In voicing bluntly critical opinions of Islam, they have inadvertently revealed the shocking extent to which our freedom of speech has been curtailed, and the still more shocking extent that Western society is willing to accommodate itself to the new limitations. In Houellebecq's case, spoken candor and a new novel that includes Muslim-terrorist characters has landed him in a Parisian courtroom where he now stands trial for having called Islam a name: "the stupidest religion." While this schoolyard-level charge is almost laughable, the case is no joke: If found guilty, he could spend a year in prison and pay a heavy fine. Why? Dalil Boubakeur of the Paris mosque, one of four plaintiffs, put it this way to the London Telegraph: "Words have a price. One can kill with a word. Freedom of expression stops at the point at which it does damage and the Muslim community feels insulted." In Boubakeur's worldview, "community" feelings trump personal opinion every time; in the event this case isn't dismissed, the future of public discourse is none too good. What we have here in Paris is a little wave of sharia law lapping at Western justice. In the case against Houellebecq, there's no comprehension of what free speech means (insults included), nor any understanding of it being a keystone of civilization. Instead, there is only the drive to censor. Meanwhile, I'm curious: Where exactly is it that can one "kill with a word?" Iran? (More on that below.) Maybe no one ever thought French schools would go multi-culti to the point of eliminating old Voltaire and his quotable chestnut -- the one that says, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" -- but it looks as they have consigned this all-important lesson to the dead (white and male) file. But it's not just Muslims who have missed out. According to the Telegraph, "Mr. Houellebecq has won the backing only of diehard free speech activists and a handful of fellow writers." Two questions: What are the members of the French intelligentsia afraid of? What aren't they afraid of? Then there's Falwell. Earlier this month, the good reverend had the audacity to speak his mind about Mohammed, the Islamic prophet. "I think Mohammed was a terrorist," he told CBS. "I read enough by both Muslims and non-Muslims [to decide] he was a violent man, a man of war." With these comments, Falwell may have bypassed a court trial, but for exercising his right of free speech he now finds himself sentenced to death -- to death! -- by an Iranian cleric described in news accounts as a personal representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Also slapped with death sentences for criticizing Islam are the Revs. Donald Graham and Pat Robertson.) Now, let's be serious: Given their many official, if futile, attempts to cobble together a working definition of terrorism that excludes explosive-strapped humans bent on self-detonating in crowds of people, Hezbollah-supporting-Iranians and other Islamics are hardly the people to resolve whether Mohammed was a terrorist. To be sure, history tells us Mohammed, at the very least, terrorized his rivals and opponents, many of whom were killed at his behest. But that's neither here nor there. Surely, Falwell's contention is debatable -- and without chopping off his head. And surely Falwell's right to express himself is one well worth defending, particularly when weighed against censorship and threats of murder. You'd never know it. As in Houellebecq's case, Falwell has had to stand virtually alone, even apologize, having been castigated, repudiated and blamed for everything from the resurgence of Islamists in the Pakistani elections, to Muslim-Hindu violence in India. But how much easier it is for the truly enlightened among us to dump on Falwell, a man who threatens no one, than to stand up against a repressive movement that threatens us all.