Jake Witzenfeld, president of Cambridge University’s Israel Society canceled a talk by Benny Morris, a distinguished Israeli historian, for fear the Israel Society would be portrayed as a mouthpiece for Islamophobia.
The trial of Geert Wilders, in Holland, has received almost no attention from the media panjandrums in the West for fear the issue might lead to Muslim incitement, particularly in cities like Rotterdam where the Islamic population is near a majority.
Yale University Press refused to publish cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed in a book about the cartoons and the aftermath of the original publication, for fear of a possible violent response from Islamic adherents.
Yes, these craven responses all appear with the word “fear” since that word has trampled the meaning of freedom in nations that have fought for its defense over centuries. In one moment, intimidation has trumped free speech and cowardice has subordinated any display of courage.
I find it astonishing that a heralded center of learning, a major university press and a nation that once fought against totalitarian impulses could so easily justify their actions. Whatever happened to a belief in freedom of speech and a faith in the power of debate to reveal the truth that counters censorship?
It is instructive that the fear someone might claim you are racist or Islamophic — even if you know you aren’t and if you know the speaker isn’t — may justify a refusal to hear someone’s point of view. Following this precedent, any serious discussion of Middle East politics, or Muslim-inspired terrorism of religion itself should be banned since there are invariably those who will portray opinions they don’t like as hateful and, yes, racist.
What these three illustrations demonstrate is that slander can be converted into an effective weapon to stifle expression. When Muslims are concerned about opinions that don’t fit with their worldview, they can raise the specter of retaliation and attack a speaker with epithets, such as Islamophia, and mirabile dictu speech is silenced.
It is hard to know exactly when this form of preemptive capitulation began.
However, when the United Kingdom refused to admit Geert Wilders for a public presentation fearing his speech might be a source of incitement, this nation that carried the banner of free speech from the Magna Carta to the defense of liberty in World War II seems to have lost its way. Apparently the most basic right, the one generations had taken for granted, is now in jeopardy in the very venues liberty once found a congenial home.
From Voltaire to Jefferson, warnings about the way free speech can be imperiled filled the pages of various broadsides. It is remarkable that the canon on free speech can be so easily overturned by the masters of political correctness.
Alas, if free speech can be denied to Geert Wilders or leading intellectuals, it can be denied to anyone. Would I be permitted to speak at Cambridge University if I did not comply with the prevailing intellectual orthodoxy? Could I publish a book that points to the imperial goals in Islam? Would it be possible to invite an Israeli scholar who defends his nation’s policies to a forum at a Middle East Studies program anywhere in the West?
After all, a few sentences twisted into an incendiary comment by a concerned listener can result in violent repercussions. Or, claims about the speaker – true or not – may result in the withdrawal of an invitation. Universities are so skittish at the moment that even the appearance of potential controversy is conspicuously avoided.
Tolstoy once noted that “The opinion of a revered writer or thinker can have a deep influence on society; it can also be a big obstacle to understanding the truth.” Indeed that is the case with many venerated thinkers. But it is also true that the biggest obstacle in pursuit of the truth is the systematic interference of free speech, an interference that becomes particularly lamentable when it is done voluntarily, when the invocation of fear is sufficient to drown out expression.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books).
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