Ayaan Hirsi Ali on free speech

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Image: Church and State
When the Cartoon Crisis was at its peak in January and February 2006, I recognized among critical Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West a pattern similar to the one I had seen among Soviet dissidents. I found it striking that so many Muslim dissidents, regardless of where they positioned themselves in the political spectrum, supported the cartoons’ publication.

By Flemming Rose | Church and State

They viewed the drawings as input to the struggle for free speech and free religious exercise against totalitarian regimes and movements. Like the Soviet dissidents, they were speaking out against the fear society and warning of the consequences of bowing down to intimidation.

That view was evident in a manifesto published in several European newspapers (including Jyllands-Posten) in February 2006, titled “Together Facing the New Totalitarianism.”[1] That manifesto was a reaction against the violence and threats that had issued from publication of the cartoons. It was signed by prominent former Muslims and secular Muslims, all of whom had grown up in Muslim societies and were now critical of Islam as a political instrument of persecution wielded against freethinkers. All had personally received threats because of their opinions, though they assumed widely different political standpoints—from Iranian-born communist Maryam Namazie and left-wing activist Chahla Chafiq to the liberal Ayaan Hirsi Ali from Somalia; from practicing Muslim Irshad Manji to atheists Ibn Warraq and Salman Rushdie; from professors Antoine Sfeir and Mehdi Mozaffari to author Taslima Nasreen. In addition, the statement was signed by three French intellectuals: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Caroline Fourest, and Philippe Val. The latter two were from the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that was sued in 2007 for reprinting the cartoons, only to be acquitted.

The statement read:

After having overcome fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism. We writers, journalists, intellectuals, call for resistance to religious totalitarianism and for the promotion of freedom, equal opportunity and secular values for all. Recent events, prompted by the publication of drawings of Muhammad in European newspapers, have revealed the necessity of the struggle for these universal values. This struggle will not be won by arms, but in the ideological field.

Islamism is a reactionary ideology that kills equality, freedom, and secularism wherever it is present. Its victory can only lead to a world of injustice and domination: men over women, fundamentalists over others. On the contrary, we must ensure access to universal rights for the oppressed or those discriminated against.

The statement concluded:

We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of “Islamophobia,” a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatization of those who believe in it. We defend the universality of the freedom of expression, so that a critical spirit can exist in every continent, towards each and every maltreatment and dogma. We appeal to democrats and free spirits in every country that our century may be one of light and not dark.

As a reaction to the debate on the Muhammad cartoons, so-called Councils of Ex-Muslims were established in a number of European countries under the unifying banner “We have renounced religion!” The significance of this movement for people of Muslim background and their rights as individuals to convert, give up, or practice their religion can hardly be exaggerated, but it was also of considerable importance for Europe as a community upholding the freedom and rights of the individual. The Councils of Ex-Muslims began speaking out against the culture of fear in Muslim societies, challenging intimidation of the individual by Islamic movements and governments. Rejecting fear, they openly stepped forward and appeared, with their photographs, on websites and brochures for branches set up in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, and other countries. It was a direct challenge to the totalitarian society, which can only exist as long as its people submit to the intimidation that forms the basis of social control.[2]

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