Herngaard Peter, Freedom of speech


Freedom of Speech, Frredom from speech, and the Wests Double Standard : A
Muslims View


I was deeply offended by the events described in an article in the
Sep. 25, 1995 issue of “Qadhaya Dowaliyah” (“International Affairs” an
Arabic weekly issued in Pakistan).

It describes the furious reaction of many German intellectuals to the
announcement of the Frankfurt based German Book Publishers Association
that the prestigious Book Peace Award for the year 1995 would be
awarded to Professor Annemarie Schimmel. Dr. Schimmel is an eminent
Orientalist whose academic and literary achievements are
extraordinary. She was born in Germany in April 1922.

She started to learn Arabic and Persian when she was 15 years old. She
got her PhD from the University of Berlin at the age of 20 and became
a full professor at the age of 25. Dr. Schimmel taught in German,
Turkish, and Indian universities as well as in Harvard. She is a world
authority on Islamic Mysticism and her book, The Mystical Dimensions
of Islam, is one of the most authoritative references on the subject.
She has a good command of 12 languages and has translated many
Oriental poems into German. She is the author of more than one hundred
books, essays, and articles written in different languages. She was a
member of the official delegation that accompanied the German
President in his latest visit to Pakistan and Central Asia. After more
than 50 years of scholarly achievements, Dr. Schimmel has been chosen
to receive the German Book Peace Award for 1995 which she is due to
receive on Oct. 15. As soon as it became known that Dr. Schimmel would
be the recipient of this important award, many German intellectuals
expressed their indignation at the decision. Hundreds of writers,
academics, publishers, and book store owners signed a petition urging
the German Book Publishers Association not to grant Dr. Schimmel the
award. Moreover, some members of the German Parliament strongly
protested giving the award to her as a “farce.” The German President,
who is scheduled to deliver the award to Dr. Schimmel, was put under
intense pressure to dissuade him from handing the award to her.

“Why are so many people angry at this lady despite her brilliant
academic achievements?”, I asked myself. Is she a Nazi war criminal?
Is she a neo-Nazi? Is she a racist ? Is she a child molester or a drug
addict? What crime on Earth could this professor have committed to
cause such a wave of indignation in a country like Germany ? I could
not find any answer that make sense. The article provided the answer
which has deeply hurt me. Dr. Schimmel’s crime was that she described
Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, as an insult to the
feelings of millions of Muslims. That is all. Her grievous and
intolerable mistake was defending the right of hundreds of millions of
Muslims to express their anger at the words that Salman Rushdie had
written in his book. The German intellectuals wrote in their petitions
against Dr. Schimmel that she provided moral support to Muslim
fundamentalists with her criticism of Rushdie. Moreover, granting an
award to her is “a slap on the face” of those who are campaigning
against terrorism inspired by religion. The fact that Dr Schimmel has
expressed her disapproval of the death sentence issued against Rushdie
did not abate the criticism against her. The only cheerful news in
this sad episode is that the German President is still determined to
hand the award to Dr. Schimmel and give a speech honoring her on Oct.
15. He described the protesters as “believers in the theory of clash
of civilizations.” He also emphasized the need for understanding and
having a dialogue with the Islamic civilization. As to Dr. Schimmel,
she has been asked lately “Is it true that you have described yourself
as a 50% Muslim?” She answered: “This is at least. I love the Islamic
civilization and always try to defend it, especially in today’s

The whole affair has bewildered me for a while. Is it a crime to
defend the feelings of Muslims ? Is it a crime for Muslims to express
their anger at hurtful remarks ? Is it unacceptable in today’s world
that a religious group get angry when their sacred scripture is
described as “Satanic” and the wives of their beloved Prophet are
described as “whores” ? Is expressing indignation at offensive books
wrong ? Should an outstanding scholar be punished for defending the
abused group’s right to express their true feelings ? Why did the West
insist that Muslims were wrong when they reacted angrily to the
publication of Rushdie’s book ? Why did Western countries not accept
Muslims’ requests to put a ban on the book ?

Some Westerners would attribute the reason for the West’s reaction to
the desire of some Muslims to end Rushie’s life. However, it is a
known fact that so many Muslims have stated that killing Rushdie is
wrong as a matter of principle and that attempts to kill him would
give him so much credit, wealth, and fame that he otherwise could have
never achieved. Furthermore, It is very clear from what happened to
Dr. Schimmel that Western intellectuals still consider any person who
criticizes Rushdie to be a wrongdoer regardless of that person’s
disapproval of Rushdie’s killing.

As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of Westerners would
justify the West’s attitude by citing the magic phrase “Freedom of
Speech.” If one argues with them “Do you mean absolute freedom of
speech even offensive and hurtful speech?”, they would proudly affirm:
“Yes unconditional freedom of speech. Anyone is entitled to express
his/her views regardless of whether others will be pleased or offended
by these views.” If you ask them: “Is this theory practiced
unconditionally in the West today?” So many would not hesitate to give
an affirmative answer. At this stage one should say “It is not the
first time in history that so many have been so wrong for so long.”
The truth of the matter is there is no such thing as absolute freedom
of speech neither in the West nor any where else. Skeptics would,
rightly, demand evidence for this claim. Here are some haphazardly
collected examples that I have mostly encountered by chance while
reading Western newspapers, magazines, and books in the last few

Let us start with Germany. In 1991, Guenter Deckert, leader of the
ultra-right-wing National Democratic Party organized a lecture at
which an American speaker claimed that the Auschwitz gassing of Jews
never took place. Deckert was prosecuted and convicted for arranging
the lecture under a statute prohibiting incitement to racial hatred.
In March 1994 he was tried again. Finally, he was given only a
suspended one-year jail sentence and a light fine. The judges were
criticized by other judges for the light sentence. The Federal Court
of Justice overturned the light sentence and ordered another trial.
The public was outraged by the series of events and the law responded.
In April 1994, the German constitutional court declared that denials
of the Holocaust are not protected by free speech. In order not to be
outdone, the German Parliament passed a law declaring it a crime
punishable by 5 years in prison to deny the Holocaust whether or not
the speaker believes the denials.

A German publisher based in Munich withdrew and destroyed the German
language version of an American book titled, Eye for an Eye, by John
Sack (Basic Book, 1993) because it alleged that Stalin had
deliberately chosen Jews to oversee secret police activities in the
former German territories of post war Poland.

In Austria, one can get a prison sentence for denying the existence of
the Nazi gas chambers. In 1992, the government modified the language
of the law such that it would be considered a crime “to deny, grossly
minimize, praise or justify through printed works, over the airwaves,
or in any other medium the National Socialist genocide or any other
National Socialist crime.”

In Denmark, when a woman wrote a letter to a newspaper describing
homosexuality as “the ugliest kind of adultery”, she and the editor
who published her letter were targeted for prosecution.

In Japan, a 250,000 circulation magazine, Marco Polo, carried, in its
Feb. 1995 issue, an article claiming to present the new historical
truth and argue that Nazi gas chambers are historically dubious. The
reaction to the article was swift and severe. Major industrial firms
such as Volkswagen and Mitsubishi cancelled their advertising in
protest. The publishing house of Marco Polo withdrew all copies of the
February issue, announced that it was dismissing Marco Polo staff, and
shut down the magazine itself.

In Australia, any unfair written material that could be described as
inciting racial vilification is banned by the 1989 Anti-Discrimination
act. The writer and the publisher of such material may be exposed to
damages of up to $40,000.

In Britain, laws against blasphemy still exist. British Muslims tried
to make use of these laws against Salman Rushdie. They discovered that
only blasphemy against Christianity is outlawed. That is, one is free
to blaspheme against the religion of one’s neighbor as long as the
neighbor does not happen to be a Christian. Therefore, the Satanic
Verses was not proscribed. Ironically, a Pakistani movie ridiculing
Rushdie and the whole affair of the Satanic Verses was banned from

In France, the French national assembly, in 1990, passed new laws to
toughen the existing measures against racism, “The measures also
outlaw revisionism — a historical tendency rife among extreme
right-wing activists which consists of questioning the truth of the
Jewish Holocaust in World War II.” Many intellectuals were disturbed
by the words “measures” that “outlaw … questioning” included in the
French legislation.

In June 1995, Princeton University professor, Bernard Lewis, was fined
$2,062 for having denied that Armenians were victims of genocide in
Ottoman Turkey early in this century. Moreover, Lewis was ordered to
publish the court ruling in the daily Le Monde and warned that he
risked further judicial action if he repeats his denial on French
soil. Professor Lewis did not contest “the terrible human tragedy of
the deportation” of the Armenians. But he considers that there was no
“systematic annihilation” and that most of the victims died of
“famine, disease, exhaustion or cold.” That is why, in an interview
published by Le Monde in November 1993, when he was asked why Turkey
still refused “to recognize the genocide of the Armenians’, Lewis
replied: “You mean why do they refuse to recognize the Armenian
version of that event?”

This comment led to a storm of protest from the Armenian community in
Paris. Thirty university teachers published an open letter accusing
Lewis of “betraying the truth and insulting the victims of Turkish
brutality.” At first they tried to prosecute Lewis under the Loi
Gayssot, passed in 1990, which makes denying the Holocaust a criminal
offense. But it was pointed out to the Armenians that the communist
deputy Gayssot had restricted his new law to those denying the truth
of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. It should be noted that Lewis is
a historian whose specialty is the history of Ottoman Turkey. He is
recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject.

In Aug. 17, 1995, A book published in Switzerland by the “Algerian
committee of free activists” has been banned from entering French
territory because “Its distribution is liable to affect public
order…its underlying tone is anti-French”, said the spokesman of the
French interior ministry.

In the U.S., the government cannot do much to silence obnoxious speech
because of the first amendment to the constitution. However,
nongovernmental institutions, especially the media and the
universities have taken the lead. At the university of Michigan, a
student said in a classroom discussion that he considered
homosexuality a disease treatable with therapy. He was summoned to a
formal disciplinary hearing for violating the school’s policy of
prohibiting speech that victimizes people on basis of sexual
orientation. The case has generated a lawsuit in federal courts.
Another student who denounced Dr. Martin Luther King as a communist
has been sentenced by his university’s judicial board to thirty hours
of community service.

The American Media has a long history of voluntary censorship. For
example, a series of films which explained why Muslims were growing
more furious with the West, were taken off-air in the US. Broadcasters
were faced with a lobby against them and there was a threat to
advertising. The films titled, Roots of Muslim Anger, were made by Dr.
Robert Fisk who has received the British Press Award as the best
British foreign reporter for “Foreign reporting at its finest.” The
reason for the intense lobbying against the series was that it
considered Israel responsible for many Muslim grievances against the
West. An imposing scholar such as Noam Chomsky who has been described
by the New York Times as “arguably the most important intellectual
alive” has never appeared in any of the US major television networks
because his views always upset the American elite.

House speaker Newt Gingrich has dismissed a House historian when it
was brought to his knowledge that she has once written: “The Nazi
point of view, however unpopular, is still a point of view, and is not

In the summer of 1995, The War Veterans Lobby (one of the most
powerful lobbies in Washington) has lobbied successfully to remove all
the material describing the tragedies caused by the American atomic
bombs thrown on Japan in 1945 from a World War II exhibition in
Washington. Several historians protested the move as enforcing a kind
of “patriotically correct history” which has no thing to do with the
“real history.”

In 1986, author George Gilder (whose book Wealth and Poverty was a
worldwide best seller in 1981) had a great difficulty in finding a
publisher to republish his earlier book, Sexual Suicide, because of
protests from feminists who think (as one of them has recently said on
ABC) that “Sexual differences should not even be studied.”

Oxford University Press rejected Professor John Vincent’s book, A Very
Short Introduction to History, which it had previously welcomed. The
reason was that Vincent had not been politically correct. He had used
the word “men” instead of “people”, referred to historians as “he”
thereby excluding women historians, etc.

Michael Jackson’s latest album generated a wave of protest because
some of the words therein were deemed racist by some American Jews.
Charges of anti-semitism prompted Jackson back to the studio to get
rid of the offensive words.

In Canada, CTV Television network on its popular morning show “Canada
AM” has, on Oct. 15, 1994, hosted Josef Lepid, a leading Israeli
political commentator, who, on the air, called for “a decent Jew in
Canada” to assassinate Victor Ostrovosky (a former Israeli
intelligence officer and author of two books exposing Israeli
intelligence secret operations). The incident received conspicuous
silence in the Canadian media. The very same commentators who had
clamored for Rushdie’s right of free speech uttered no words in
support of Ostrovosky’s same right.

A couple of years ago, a British historian was giving lectures in
Canada in which he denied the Holocaust. He was arrested and deported
by the Canadian authorities. Also, a school teacher was relieved of
all teaching duties because he taught his students to disbelieve that
the Holocaust has ever happened.

A university professor wrote on his campus journal that a woman who
had been raped by her partner should bear some of the responsibility
for the rape especially if she was improperly dressed. His comments
prompted a huge outcry on campus. He was forced into early retirement.

It seems that the West does not only lack absolute freedom of speech,
it lacks absolute freedom of thinking as well. One might enjoy the
hospitality of German prisons (for 5 full years) for ‘believing’ that
the Holocaust has never happened. In France, one does not have to be a
‘true believer’, merely questioning the Holocaust will do. One wonders
what should be the punishment if some people deny World War II
altogether. Perhaps, they should be executed. In North America, one
would ‘only’ lose one’s job for disbelieving in the Holocaust. This
‘leniency’ is perhaps due to the fact that American jails are
overcrowded. Questioning the differences between men and women is a
taboo that any ‘decent’ human being should not discuss. Charges of
sexism are used to deter those who contemplate exceeding the
acceptable limits. Discussions about homosexuality and race are
similarly stifled.

The seldom acknowledged fact is that thought control does exist in the
West. It is practiced by the governments, the media, the universities,
and more importantly by the politically correct crowd. Several
insightful Western intellectuals have recognized this fact. For
example, Alexis de Tocqueville described America (at a time when
America was considered the freest place in the world) by saying: “I
know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind
and real freedom of discussion as in America.” George Santayana had
this to say about the same theme: “There is no country in which people
live under more overpowering compulsions…You must wave, you must
shout, you must go with the irresistible crowd: otherwise you will
feel like a traitor, a soulless outcast…In a country where all men
are free, every man finds that what most matters has been settled for
him beforehand.”

It should not be construed however that freedoms of thought and speech
are nonexistent in the West. Such a conclusion would be untrue and
unfair. As a matter of fact, the West does enjoy more freedom of
speech than anywhere else in the world today. One cannot ignore the
freedom to protest, demonstrate, and strike provided by Western
constitutions. One cannot disregard the relatively open and free
discussions and debates taking place in parliaments and lecture rooms
throughout the West. One cannot dismiss the role of Western media in
exposing politicians misdemeanor as insignificant. For example, one
cannot forget the role of the Washington Post in the Watergate affair.
Nevertheless, these freedoms are neither unlimited nor unconditional.
Opinions which might irritate powerful groups, important interests, or
significant segments of the population are silenced by many
‘nonviolent’ means. George Orwell in his article, The Freedom of the
Press, has eloquently described the status of Western press:
“Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark
without the need for any official ban…[the] press is extremely
centralised and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every
motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind
of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well
as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an
orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking
people will accept without question…Anyone who challenges the
prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising
effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given
a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow

Let us now try to honestly address the ticklish question of free
speech. Should there be freedom of speech? Certainly. Absolute freedom
of speech? Certainly not. Why? Offensive speech have disastrous
consequences affecting individuals and the society at large. It leads
to the spread of hatred, animosity, and divisiveness. For example, how
many human beings would accept others to accuse their mothers of being
whores ? Should the society protect the freedom of speech of the
accuser or the freedom from offensive speech of the accused ? If one
whole group in the society is denigrated as ‘niggers’ by another
group, should the society protect the freedom of speech of the
offending group or the freedom from speech of the offended group ? If
non-Jews accuse Jews of conspiring to exterminate all other races,
whose freedom should be protected ? If men describe women as sources
of all evil, whose freedom should be protected ? When a group of
women, whom one billion Muslims revere more than their own mothers,
have been gratuitously defamed by Rushdie as whores, whose freedom
should have been protected ? In general, societies have little to lose
and so much to gain by proscribing outrageous speech. In fact, all
human societies have, to one degree or another, practiced freedom from
speech. However, not all societies have been honest to admit what they
practice. The Quran has been unequivocal in forbidding all kinds of
insulting speech: “O you who believe Let not some men among you
ridicule others: it may be that the latter are better than the former.
Nor let some women ridicule others: it may be that the latter are
better than the former, nor defame nor be sarcastic of each other, nor
call each other by offensive nicknames…” (49:11)

However, in limiting freedom of speech for the purposes of social
peace and harmony, no society should go to the extreme of “outlaw …
questioning.” This is the mentality of the dark ages, the Inquisition,
and some ailing dictatorial regimes. The whole world must struggle to
wipe out all the traces of this mentality rather than enforcing it by
democratic legislation. Objective inquiry must never be banned for any
reason whatsoever. If some people, for whatever reason, exploit the
freedom of inquiry to incite racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious
vilification, then a line has to be drawn between benign and malicious
motives without sacrificing the priceless freedoms of thinking,
questioning, and inquiring. It is exactly the same line that has to be
drawn to distinguish between freedom of speech and freedom from
speech. The Canadian Supreme Court has recently (July 20) drawn a
similar line in its decisive ruling on libel law: “criticism, yes, but
accusations rooted in non-facts that do gratuitous damage to the
reputation of individuals, no.” The Quran does not only guarantee the
freedom of thinking and questioning, it considers the act of thinking
a sign of good faith. Thinking and reflection are considered among the
characteristics of righteousness: “In the creation of the heavens and
the earth and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs
for people of understanding. Those who celebrate the praises of Allah,
standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides and reflect upon the
creation of the heavens and the earth..” (3:190-191) The Quran in its
numerous arguments with the unbelievers cites compelling evidence for
them; not to make them believe, but to make them think: “…Thus does
Allah make clear to you His signs: in order that you may reflect”
(2:219) “…Such are the similitudes which We propound to people, that
they may think” (59:21)

To sum up, the whole Rushdie affair and its protracted aftermath has
never been a mere question of free speech in the West as any simple
comparison between the fate of professor Lewis in France and the
treatment professor Schimmel received in Germany would clearly reveal.
The support which Rushdie has received in the West and the defamation
which Dr. Schimmel has been subjected to in Germany have more to do
with Western “Islamphobia” than with absolute freedom of expression.
The Western blatant indifference towards the feelings of Muslims is
due to intense Western misunderstanding, suspicion, and fear of
Muslims and Islam. Had the West really believed in and practiced
absolute freedom of speech, then Muslims would have been very wrong to
demand a ban on the Satanic Verses since it would have been a
violation of a well-established Western tradition. But the West has
never practiced this imaginary absolute freedom of speech and probably
never will. It is not at all unprecedented that Western publishing
houses have voluntarily ( for fear of fines or of upsetting the
public) refrained from publishing a book. Upsetting Muslims, on the
other hand, was deemed by the publishers of the Satanic Verses to make
the book far more saleable. The publishers realized the simple fact
that Muslims in the West are neither powerful nor respectable and that
perturbing them would attract the attention of so many readers who
would have otherwise never paid any attention to the book. Muslims in
the West are the least studied, the least understood, the least
trusted, and the least respected minority group. According to a
nationwide poll conducted for the American Muslim Council, 67% of
Americans had favorable opinions of Roman Catholicism, 52% of Judaism,
39% of Christian fundamentalism and only 23% had a favorable opinion
of Islam. Muslims in the West, especially in some European countries
such as Germany, France, and Britain, live under conditions that can
at best be described as contemptuous tolerance.

Therefore, my conclusion is that Muslims should not have reacted the
way they did with respect to Rushdie’s insults. They must learn how to
create a respectable and powerful presence for themselves in the West
first before asking the West to be considerate to their feelings. They
ought to understand the lesson that something is far more deeply
rooted in the Western tradition than free speech and that is: double


The writer of this article can be reached at
[email protected]

From [email protected] Thu Jan 2 06:10:52 PST 1997
Article: 90549 of alt.revisionism
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From: [email protected] (Peter Herngaard)
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Date: Thu, 2 Jan 1997 2:10:49 GMT
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