Twelve voices defend freedom as Big Media cowers

Posted: Mar 20, 2006 12:05 AM

Last month, 12 mainly European-based, mainly Muslim or ex-Muslim intellectuals, alarmed by the spell on free speech cast by Cartoon Rage 2006, signed onto an anti-totalitarian manifesto for freedom of expression published by Denmark's Jylland-Posten.

"After having overcome fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism," the manifesto began.

"We, writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all."

Among the dozen signatories were Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Ugandan-born Canadian writer Irshad Manji; Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie, and Pakistani-born writer Ibn Warraq.

Rounding out the list were a few French writers, a Bangledeshi, a Lebanese and several Iranians. What is striking is that none of them come from that "world" they hailed, the one that overcame fascism, Nazism and communism -- not merely "Stalinism." (One signatory is billed as an Iranian communist, which may account for the jarring distinction.)

Not only that, but, as the blogger Belmont Club pointed out, the manifesto was printed, "not in The New York Times, Le Monde or the Times of London, but of all places, in a provincial Danish newspaper of no particular fame."

All of which should shove a big, fat question mark onto the "world" stage to ask where these brave signatories' writerly, journalistic and intellectual brethren are on this one, not to mention Big Media coverage. After all, the world didn't overcome fascism, Nazism and communism with the silent treatment, restrained rhetoric or exquisite editorial discretion. But beyond the blogosphere, coverage of the manifesto -- not the last word on the subject, but certainly a start -- has been sparse, just as though freedom of speech weren't in peril. And just as though the signatories, for affirming freedom of speech, weren't either.

But they are. A crude death threat has been posted at the British Muslim Web site, -- the kind of Web site where, as Time magazine reported after the London underground bombings last year, a poem said to have been posted by Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi glorified terror-bombings in Iraq, and another user wrote that "killing Americans is not murder, it is retaliation." This time, under a thread entitled "Writers Slam Islamic 'Totalitarianism,'" the names of the Free Expression 12 appeared and someone wrote:

"Now we have drawn out a hit list of a 'Who's Who' guide to slam into. Take your time but make sure their (sic) gone soon -- oh, and don't hold out for a fatwa it isn't really required here." And then: "Has anyone got that Christian kaffir 'Ibn Warraq's' real name yet?"

Scrolling through such illiterate spewings is a little like reading an interactive bathroom wall; but since the Internet has linked and even activated jihadi terrorists, it's not something to ignore. The poster continued: "Well them (sic) disbelievers (the signatories) have in effect signed a death wish via this statement so to hell with them, we'll just provide the help that they so dearly crave."

I asked Ibn Warraq, author of the superb "Why I Am Not a Muslim" (Prometheus, 2003) written after the Rushdie affair, about the threat.

"We must take it seriously in one sense, but we mustn't let it stop us in our tracks," he said. He's right, of course; although most of the "world" -- writers, journalists, intellectuals -- have already been stopped in their tracks, intimidated, paralyzed, almost dysfunctionally so. How to jump-start them again?

As far as I can tell, the manifesto has inspired just one outlet, an Irish Web site called The Blanket, to publish the Danish cartoons "in protest against totalitarianism," editor Anthony McIntyre said last week. This makes The Blanket, which will also be profiling the manifesto signers, the sole journal in the British Isles, online or on paper, to do so. "We wanted to show solidarity with those writers who were prepared to stick their necks out in defense of free speech," McIntyre said.

So here we are, living in a world where a manifesto for free speech constitutes "(sticking) their necks out," draws death threats on the one hand, and silence on the other. Why did they sign it, then? Ibn Warraq offered the words of John Stuart Mill: "A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight; nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by exertions of better men than himself."