If Kafka met Monty Python, and George Orwell edited their collaboration, they might have come up with something like the following real-life exchange.
It took place in an Australian court where two Christian pastors were found guilty of "religious vilification" of Muslims by lecturing to their flock on Islam -- a set-up that right away projects grimly satirical possibilities. At one point during the trial, defendant Daniel Scot began to read Quranic verses in his own defense. The Pakistani-born pastor hoped to prove to the judge that his discussion on the inferior status of women under Islam, for example, had a specific textual basis in the Quran.
As he began to read, a lawyer for the Islamic Council of Victoria, the plaintiff in the case, objected. Reading these verses aloud, she said, would in itself be vilification. Scot, ultimately convicted, put it best: "How can it be vilifying to Muslims when I am just reading from the Quran?"
Like a frustrating dream, the Australian experience echoes a depressingly similar situation in this country. Not in a court, not at a church-sponsored seminar, but in journalism. In the marketplace, literally, of ideas. I'm talking about an online bookstore run under the imprimatur of National Review magazine. There, "The Life and Religion of Mohammed" (Roman Catholic Books, 2005) by J.L. Menezes, a Roman Catholic priest, used to be for sale. So did "The Sword of the Prophet," (Regina Orthodox Press, 2002) by Serge Trifkovic.
Suddenly, last week, they weren't. It seems that the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) decided National Review shouldn't sell these books. The magazine could have told the, shall we say, controversial Muslim lobby group -- three of whose former associates have been indicted on terrorism-related charges, and whose executive director, Nihad Awad, has publicly declared his support for Hamas -- to run along and boycott books somewhere else. Instead, National Review whipped those tomes off their e-shelves practically before CAIR could get its "action alert" online. Just a little pressure -- including a CAIR letter about the books to Boeing Corp., a big National Review advertiser -- did the dirty trick. (CAIR promised to copy its letter to ambassadors of Muslim nations that buy Boeing planes.)
Here's the thing. I am not writing to mount a defense of these eminently defensible books, nasty bits and all, including, according to advertising copy, "the dark mind of Mohammed," his multiple wives (among them a little girl), "rapine," "warfare," "conquests" and "butcheries." Suffice it to say, as crack scholar-author of Islam Robert Spencer has written, "Everything with which CAIR took issue can be readily established from Islamic sources." (And if that doesn't suffice, read his analysis, "CAIR's War Against National Review," at www.frontpagemag.com.) He should know. Not only is Spencer familiar with the books in question, he happens to have written the ad copy for the Menezes book CAIR found so objectionable.
Of greater concern is the philosophical battle National Review declined to fight, and the reasons the magazine declined to fight it. According to National Review editor Rich Lowry's post at National Review Online, because the magazine's book service is put together by an independent publisher, and since the CAIR-provoking copy wasn't written by a National Review staffer, Lowry saw no capitulation in removing the Menezes book at CAIR's behest. (National Review recently returned "The Sword of the Prophet" to its bookstore.) "In contrast," he wrote, "Robert Spencer and some others on the right feel very strongly that it is important to discredit Mohammed and Islam as such in order to win the war on terror. That's certainly their prerogative, but it is not the tack NR has taken ... ."
This statement reveals an unnerving disconnect. The study undertaken by Spencer and kindred Islamic scholars isn't calculated to "discredit Mohammed and Islam" -- as if "discrediting" Mohammed and Islam would convince jihadis to make peace. The fact is, a thorough examination of the expansionist, religious-cum-political ideology of Islam is vital to any successful defense against its jihadist expression. Ignoring facts about Mohammed and Islam, given their role in animating terrorism, would be like ignoring facts about Marx and communism in that earlier ideological struggle National Review championed -- worse, even, considering the inspiration Muslims draw from the personal life of Mohammed.
But what may be most damaging about National Review's act of reference-cleansing is that it helps legitimize CAIR's drive to tar all criticism of Islam as "hate speech" and, thus, squelch it.
This, of course, was roughly what an Australian court ruled against Preacher Scot. It can't happen here? Maybe not. But the only way to preserve freedom of speech is to speak freely.