Defending the Right to Offend

04/20/2015 10:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
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This article is based on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's speech in Berlin on April 19.

It is nearly 10 years since a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, unleashing a storm of protest by Muslims around the world, and exposing a rift in Europe between true believers in free expression and those prepared to appease religious zealots. At around that time, I came to Berlin to defend the right to offend. Sadly, that right is less secure today than it was in 2005.

Think only of the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris on January 7, and the gruesome shootings of the people in the Jewish deli that same day. And then consider the bewildering comments by the American cartoonist Garry Trudeau in a speech he gave ten days ago, in which he condemned "free speech absolutists" for not using "judgment and common sense." By publishing "crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons," Trudeau declared, "Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech." He even criticized the French authorities for arresting "Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks." Would he have preferred them to arrest Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo?

I am a free speech absolutist. Perhaps the biggest tragedy in the West today is the fact that freedom of speech is no longer a right that we can take for granted. It is now a privilege available only to those with armed security.

Those who want to silence the debate on Islam -- on what is explicitly done in the name of Muhammad, and according to the instructions of the Quran -- are not only threatened with physical assassination, but must also endure systematic attempts at character assassination.

But I will not be silenced by threats. How can I be silent? Has the threat from radical Islam diminished since 2005? Am I to say nothing when Ethiopian Christians are brutally beheaded by supporters of the so-called Islamic State in Libya? Am I to be silent as the mayhem caused by the jihadists drives thousands to risk their lives, desperately fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe? I shall not be silent. And least of all in Germany.

Berlin is a city heavy with history. Yesterday, I walked along the Holocaust memorial. I walked past the memorial for 2,000 fallen Soviet soldiers. In Germany, totalitarian ideology is not something that belongs in the distant past or that brings catastrophe to people in distant countries. World War II, the disaster unleashed by Nazism, ended less than 70 years ago. And it is just over 25 years since another less violent, but equally dictatorial regime collapsed in this very city.

Germans understand, I hope, that a bad idea starts small, in the head of one individual, and it grows unnoticed by most people initially, much like a cancer. And when ignored in the early phases, when the believers are still small in number, it presents a much bigger problem when, like cancer, it threatens to destroy the entire body.

I believe that Islam unreformed is a totalitarian system that is at once religious and political. I respect religion and religious people. My rejection of the faith that my parents raised me in is not because I object to religion. My objection is to the political dimension of Islam. I object to Sharia Law. I object to jihad. I object to the precept of commanding right and forbidding wrong. I celebrate life before death, and therefore I object to Islam's excessive investment in life after death.

I object to the teachings and practice of Mohammad after his move to Medina in the year 622. I object to the passages in the Quran and the Hadith that order the believer to kill the infidels wherever you find them. And I object to the practices that can all too easily be justifed on the basis of these texts. I object to the segregation of men and women. I object to taking girls and women as slaves. I object to the mass rape of women. I object to child brides. I object to those who take gay men to the tallest building and throw them down, and -- if the victims are still alive -- stone them. And I object, as every German should, to the jihadists' revival of anti-Semitism.

I confess that I once believed that Muhammad's instructions and the commands in the Quran were there for me to submit to, not to question. I have learned to question. I have learned to doubt. It was a long and hard process. I stand here today before you to promote a message of optimism in my book, Heretic. I spell out in there that we need to distinguish between Islam, a system of ideas, and Muslims, our fellow human beings.

Islam as a system of ideas, unreformed, is not a religion of peace.

But I am optimistic that it could become a religion, and it could become one of peace, only if reformed. Why am I so optimistic? I am so optimistic because there are Muslims who are risking their lives to reform it -- to identify what, in the teachings of Muhammad, should be left behind in history, and what should be preserved.

I distinguish between three sets of Muslims. The first set I label the Medina Muslims. In the popular press, they are described as extremists, radicals, fundamentalists and the like. What they have in common is a burning desire to apply Muhammad's example in Medina to twenty-first century society. They aspire to create a Sharia-based government. Some of them have local ambitions, some of them have regional ambitions, and some of them have global ambitions. Some of them want to wage jihad, or Holy War, to get to realize their objective, and some of them think that it wiser to preach to reach that same objective.

The second group are the Mecca Muslims. I think they are the largest in number. In their daily lives they may or may not observe. The Mecca Muslims are caught between two worlds. On the one hand, they are attracted to modernity and they enjoy modern amenities. They vote with their feet for modernity, and sometimes desperately so, like the boats full of people fleeing the chaos caused by the Medina Muslims in Libya. But they also cling to the Quran and Muhammad's teachings.

Some of the more pious ones, if they make it to the West, "cocoon" their children from modernity. They say: You can't watch television. You can't wear makeup. You can't have a boyfriend or a girlfriend.

And finally, number three, the dissidents. It is these brave Muslim men and women who are confronting the reality that unreformed Islam is simply not compatible with modern morals.

Today, there is a desperate and unequal struggle between the Medina Muslims and the dissidents of Islam for the hearts and minds of the Mecca Muslims. In this struggle, it is of great importance that we back the right side. Earlier this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated the words of former president Christian Wulff that "Islam belongs to Germany." In using those words, I believe she let down the dissidents.

I admire and respect Chancellor Merkel. And because of that, I had expected that she would appreciate, better than other Western leaders, two key points. First, there is that crucial difference between ideas and people. Jews are people. Muslims are people. Jewish Germans and Muslim Germans belong in Germany, indeed. But Islam is a set of ideas that is in desperate need of a reformation; a set of ideas that cannot "belong" to a truly free and open society.

Second, having grown up in a Protestant family, and behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, Chancellor Merkel should appreciate, better than most, the importance of religious reformation and the pathology of totalitarian ideas when they are applied in practice.

I understand Chancellor Merkel's dilemma. I understand the need to make Muslims feel at home here in Germany, the need not to empower racists and xenophobes, and the need to address the sensitivity that many German citizens who are Muslim display when their religion is criticized. But appeasing the proponents of unreformed Islam is not the answer.

The war within Islam, between those who seek to reform and the Medina Muslims, is not only playing out in Muslim-majority countries, but all across the world, including here in Germany. As the New York Times reported this weekend, there are now more British Muslims who are serving in the so-called Islamic State than in the British military. Men and women from over 90 countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join IS, including an estimated 650 from Germany. After France, the largest number of ISIS recruits come from Germany and Britain, according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. The German intelligence service estimates that there are 30 different Islamist groups operating in this country.

The people who go from Europe to Syria could not be more diverse in background. Some of them are young, some old, some wealthy and well educated, others poor and ill-educated. Some have no criminal record, some do. What do they have in common? The answer is: Conviction. The conviction that by joining the Caliphate they are serving Allah and will live according to the instructions of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the West, we apply counter terrorism measures to dissuade our Muslim citizens from sneaking out to what is really a state of evil. We explain their choices by speculating about their social conditions, their confused identities, their hardships at home. What we don't do is to attempt to persuade them to reject the ideology of IS, an ideology that is directly derived from Islamic scripture, Islamic teachings, and Islamic tradition.

Berlin is a city full of history and monuments. And the most recent monuments give us snippets of the story of the Soviet Union. Communism was not defeated because of the nuclear arms race and the proxy wars that the two super powers fought on other continents. Communism was defeated on the battlefield of ideas.

An elaborate set of tools was employed to help, to protect, and to encourage dissidents of the Eastern Bloc. As a dissident of Islam, I propose that we amend five key tenets of Islam:

  1. The status of the Quran as the last and immutable word of God and the infallibility of Muhammad as the last divinely inspired messenger,
  2. Islam's emphasis on the afterlife over the here-and-now,
  3. The claim of Sharia to be a comprehensive system of law governing both the spiritual and temporal realms,
  4. The obligation on ordinary Muslims to command right and forbid wrong,
  5. The concept of jihad or holy war.

I understand that such a reformation of Islam will take generations to achieve. But we need to begin somewhere. We need to side with the dissidents.

For us to help them, we must above all defend free speech. And the right to free speech must include the right to offend. We must stop this indulgence in self censorship. We must not pay attention to the "honor brigade," a term coined by Asra Nomani, a Muslim reformer who understands intimately the tools that are being used to shut down debate on Islam.

I began by referring to the events of 10 years ago, when it was Danish cartoonists who were being threatened with death for drawing cartoons of Muhammad. I want to end with a quote from a man who was killed for defending his right to offend.

In his last testament, published on Thursday, Stéphane Charbonnier brilliantly and provocatively summed up the great issue of our time: "The issue," he wrote, just days before he was murdered:

Is neither the Koran nor the Bible -- which are soporific, incoherent and poorly written novels -- in themselves, but their faithful adherents who read them as one would read the installation instructions for Ikea furniture, acting as if the whole universe might crumble were they not precisely to obey every step of the instructions...

I must follow the dotted lines whilst slitting the infidels' throat lest God should deprive me of Club Med after my death.

Take any cookbook, claim that everything it contains is the Truth and apply what these Holy Writings advocate literally, to yourself and to others. What do you get? A bloodbath.

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This article is based on Ayaan Hirsi Ali's speech in Berlin on April 19. Her new book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now. She is a Fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a Visiting Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and founder of the AHA Foundation.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote -- "Islam belongs to Germany" -- to President Joachim Gauck. The quote belongs to former president Christian Wulff.