Last month, Islamic radicals threatened to kill actor and Muslim convert Omar Sharif. Sharif had recently played St. Peter in an Italian TV film and spoke highly of the role, saying that he "seemed to hear voices" during filming and that "it will be difficult for me to play other roles from now on." Although Sharif's comments seem innocuous, they prompted a death threat. According to the Adnkronos International news agency, a message on a web forum which has been used by al Qaeda in the past linked to another website that threatened Sharif's life. The website containing the threat said, "Omar Sharif has stated that he has embraced the crusader idolatry. He is a crusader who is offending Islam and Muslims and receiving applause from the Italian people. I give you this advice, brothers, you must kill him."
This incident is relatively minor in the grand scheme of the war against radical Islam, but telling. It provides another glimpse into the Islamists' single minded fanaticism and their willingness to punish any type of ideological non-conformity.
The threat against Sharif largely fell below the media's radar. Indeed, aside from a few high profile examples - such as the fatwa directed at Salman Rushdie after he published The Satanic Verses and last year's slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh - the mainstream media has given little coverage to the widespread Islamist assault against free speech.
While the public has not forgotten the Rushdie Fatwa, our collective memory of the incident's seriousness has faded. In fact, a number of physical attacks connected with the Rushdie Fatwa occurred in the West. The Wikipedia entry on Salman Rushdie explains. "At the University of California at Berkeley, bookstores carrying [The Satanic Verses] were firebombed. . . . Muslim communities throughout the world held public rallies in which copies of the book were burned. In 1991, Rushdie's Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed and killed in Tokyo, and his Italian translator was beaten and stabbed in Milan. In 1993, Rushdie's Norwegian publisher William Nygaard was shot and severely injured in an attack outside his house in Oslo. Thirty-seven guests died when their hotel in Sivas, Turkey was burnt down by locals protesting against Aziz Nesin, Rushdie's Turkish translator."
The van Gogh murder further extended this battle against free speech. Shortly before his death, van Gogh directed a film called Submission, which was designed to dramatize the mistreatment of women born into Muslim families. In response, Islamic radical Mohammed Bouyeri murdered van Gogh on November 2, 2004, shooting him six times before slitting van Gogh's throat with a kitchen knife and then using the knife to impale a five page note to his chest.
While the Rushdie and van Gogh incidents are the two most prominent attacks on critics of Islam in the last two decades, they are only part of a broader trend. The note that Bouyeri gruesomely tacked to Theo van Gogh's chest also threatened Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch MP from a Somali Muslim background. By that time, however, death threats were old hat to Hirsi Ali. She has said in an interview that she was living underground just weeks before her 2003 election to the Dutch parliament because of comments she had made in a televised debate.
According to Hirsi Ali, she was provoked during that debate and ended up blurting out, "it's my religion, and my culture, and I can call it backward if I want." But the real problem, insofar as the radical Muslims who threatened Hirsi Ali were concerned, wasn't her criticism of Islam, but her admission that she had left the faith. Many Muslims believe that apostasy from Islam is punishable by death, and the threats that Hirsi Ali received drove her into hiding.
A little over two months after van Gogh's murder, Islamic extremists struck again in the Netherlands. In January 2005, the Moroccan-Dutch painter Rachid Ben Ali was forced into hiding after one of his shows featured satirical work critical of Islamic militants' violence. The combination of this and the van Gogh murder caused even the New York Times to ask, "Can angry young Muslims dictate what is and is not acceptable in the traditionally open-minded world of Dutch arts? In the last few weeks, it appears the answer has been yes."
Sadly, the paper also reported that in response to this effort to impose an agenda by brute force, "a few people have quietly asked if self-censorship might be acceptable to keep the social peace."
Moving beyond the Netherlands, many others living in the West have been threatened for speech that allegedly offends Islam. In 2001, author Khalid Durán produced a book called Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews for the American Jewish Committee. Shortly before the book's publication, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued two press releases insulting Durán and demanding that his book be withheld until a group of CAIR approved academics could review it "for stereotypical or inaccurate content."
Daniel Pipes reported that a number of Islamic publications followed CAIR's lead by attacking Durán's book, with the charges against the volume escalating with each retelling. Thus, Cairo's Al-Wafd condemned Durán for "spreading anti-Muslim propaganda" and for his "distortions of Islamic concepts." By early June 2001, 'Abd al-Mun'im Abu Zant, a powerful Islamist leader in Jordan, declared that Durán "should be regarded as an apostate" and called for a fatwa that "religiously condones Durán's death." (CAIR, incidentally, did not condemn Abu Zant for seeking this fatwa. Instead, it brazenly criticized the American Jewish Committee for publicizing Abu Zant's remarks.)
Both the Rushdie affair and the threats against Durán show how technology has indeed made the world smaller. They are examples of Middle Eastern Muslims attempting to stifle the speech of those who live in the West. The internet has hastened such efforts. In late January, I uncovered a password protected Arabic language website, Barsomyat.com, that was frequented by Middle Eastern Muslims, predominantly Egyptians. The purpose of Barsomyat.com was to systematically track Christians who were active in religious debates against Muslims on the internet chat service PalTalk. Barsomyat featured pictures of these Christians (some of which were obviously obtained by hacking into the Christians' computers) along with death threats and attempts to track down the subjects' physical addresses. Even Barsomyat.com banner showed the website's intentions toward Christians, as it pictured a sheep - obviously intended to represent Christianity - getting its throat slit.
Not surprisingly, the Islamist attack on free speech is even more successful outside of the West. There are numerous examples of people in the Middle East and elsewhere being silenced or seriously threatened because of allegedly offensive speech. In 2002, for example, the governor of Nigeria's Zamfara state issued a fatwa calling for the death of journalist Isioma Daniel after she suggested that, had Prophet Muhammad been alive, he may have wanted to marry one of the beauty queens at the 2002 Miss World pageant. After Daniel's article, riots by Muslim youths left more than 100 dead and 500 injured, and the pageant's organizers were forced to move it out of Nigeria. Daniel appears to be living in hiding to this day.
Another example is Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, who had a fatwa issued against her in 1993 after the publication of her novel Lajja (Shame), which depicted the persecution of Bangladesh's Hindu minority. The Hindustan Times recently reported that Nasreen "had to leave the country overnight to save her life and his been on the run since then."
Unfortunately, we in the West haven't always been vigilant about standing behind speech rights. Too often, when Islamists threaten free expression, some Westerners clamor to make excuses for them. In 1997, for example, Salman Rushdie and novelist John le Carré had a high profile feud in the letters section of the Guardian. In the course of the feud, le Carré said that Rushdie bore the responsibility for the bounty on his head because "there is no law in life or nature that says that great religions may be insulted with impunity."
Beyond the apologists, Western legal systems are often confused about the intersection of free expression and religion. Religious vilification laws, for example, are counterproductive because they signal that the slander of a religion can be punishable by law.
Standing up for free speech in the face of religious fanaticism should be automatic for anybody who understands the classical liberal principles upon which Western society was built. Unfortunately, it seems that many Westerners either fail to understand these principles, or else fail to grasp the reality of the threat. Ultimately, it is Salman Rushdie's response to John le Carré that encapsulates the consequences of not recognizing the current Islamist attack on free speech: "John le Carré is right to say that free speech isn't an absolute. We have the freedoms we fight for, and we lose those we don't defend."