One of the glories of the Western Enlightenment, especially as embodied in the lifeblood of political democracies, is freedom of expression, the right to give voice in public spaces to unpopular, tasteless, provocative, and even outrageous ideas, and especially those critical of the prevailing political order, without fear of retaliation. In the United States, particularly, the right to express ideas and opinions are extended to symbolic acts, such as burning the American flag, as a way of dramatizing the repudiation of official policies, or more broadly, the right to challenge the symbolic ascendancy of nationalism and patriotism. The U.S. Supreme Court has generally takes a very broad view of freedom of expression, but finds some outer limits. It indicated famously that it would validate laws prohibiting members of an audience from falsely shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. It explained that the likely result is panic and a stampede that can hurt of kill. Even at the height of the Cold War, with McCarthyism creating waves of conformity, the endorsement of Communist ideas were generally allowed, although loyalty oaths for certain types of employment were imposed and actual, and even suspected, Communist Party affiliations were punished both formally and informally. The dividing line in wartime and during periods of national tension is very thin as exemplified in the United States by past laws on seditious speech and required loyalty oaths, which, when the crisis expires, are often in retrospect disowned as mistakes.

The Rushdie Fatwa

These issues are often more easily be balanced by delicate legal and politics acrobatics within national political space, but finding a comparable balance globally has become far more precarious, if it is possible at all. The exceedingly difficult nature of the problem became evident to many after Salmon Rushdie in 1988 published Satantic Verses to Western critical acclaim and widespread Eastern censure, climaxing in the issuance of a fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989 that declared it a duty of Muslims to kill Rushdie and to hold mortally accountable anyone anywhere who was associated with the publication of the book. Demonstrating that such words have deadly consequences, a Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarishi, was stabbed to death in 1991, as was an Italian translator of Satanic Verses. In addition, a Norwegian publisher of the book was violently attacked and barely survived. Rushdie himself went into hiding for about a decade with Britain effectively providing twenty-four hour police protection. In most countries with large Muslim populations, the book was banned, with the notable exception of Turkey, and bookstores in the West that carried the book were threatened, and several were burned. Obviously, the fatwa had severe harmful effects on a variety of ‘innocent’ persons that carried far beyond Iran, the country of utterance by its supreme leader, that is, if innocence is assessed by Western liberal norms.

In 1998, Iran’s President Mohamed Khatami appeared to withdraw support for the fatwa, and seemed eager to bring to an end the anti-Rushdie worldwide campaign, but the fatwa remains formally in effect as it can only be withdrawn by the person who issued it, and Khomeini had died long before Khatami spoke out, even assuming, which is highly unlikely, that the author of the fatwa might have been later inclined to back away from the harshness of the original condemnation. Had Khomeini been alive in 1998, he would have almost certainly reaffirmed the fatwa, and might likely have gone on to challenge Khatami’s qualifications to provide secular leadership for the country. With respect to the treatment of the Rushdie book, there exists a definite clash of values and rights. In most countries in the West, this publication was immediately treated as an important work of literature by a renowned author whose publication was initially not thought as posing any challenge to freedom of expression, while in many Islamic societies, the book was immediately viewed as offensive to deeply held community and religious beliefs as to make its availability and distribution arguably unacceptable, and regarded by public authorities as such a grave threat to public order to lead several governments to ban its publication. This diversity about matters of cultural and religious propriety and the fixing of some limits on free expressions seems inevitable in a state-centric and multi-civilizational world that contains contradictory assessments of the balance between individual freedom and community values. This diversity is an accurate reflection of the world order that currently exists, and is incapable of being persuasively resolved by resort to claimed universal principle. Despite the worldwide rise of human rights, universal norms cannot resolve difficult controversies about rights and values, although almost everywhere except Iran the Khomeini fatwa was treated as a deeply troubling precedent. The fatwa claimed an unreviewable authority to mandate death by unreviewable decree to the author of a book and those who facilitated publication even though in their political space no law was broken or widely endorsed moral position was affronted. This fatwa was indeed a bridge too far!

How to prevent such abuses in the future is a daunting challenge. It is difficult to propose a better response than the ancient encouragement of comity among countries, but this reliance on reciprocal courtesy and respect among sovereign states can hardly be expected to exert much influence on those who act on the basis of genuinely held fundamentalist beliefs about good and evil. It is inevitable that there will at some point arise somewhere on the planet behavior that will give rise elsewhere to the formulation and implementation of efforts to punish or react to controversial ideas that are found offensive within and beyond territory.

The Danish Cartoon Controversy

In many ways just as insulting to Muslim sensibilities around the world as Satanic Verses was the Danish newspaper’s publication in 2005 of twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed in a derogatory manner. In response, riots leading to several deaths took place in Asian countries. The Danish official defensive response to criticism after the event was to call attention to the existence of national penal laws that prohibited blasphemy or discriminatory statements. It was a curious gesture because, at the same time, the Danish prosecutor declared the inapplicability of these laws in this instance because the cartoons addressed matters of ‘public interest’ whose publication was thus entitled to special protection. Here, there was more at stake than the trouble caused overseas. The cartoons also caused intense discomfort to Muslim minorities living in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. The publication and political debate that followed was properly regarded as confirming the reality of an Islamophobic climate of opinion taking shape in Europe. The Danish response was essentially premised on freedom of expression as insulating even deliberately insulting remarks and images associated with religions and their sanctified leadership. In this respect, Copenhagen was arguing that Islam was not being singled out. Every religion, including Christianity, it was said, had been at various times attacked in a manner that could be construed as blasphemous. But what here of the predictable impact of the cartoons, causing violent reactions around the world and intensifying hostility to Muslims within Denmark? Is this not analogous to shouting fire in a crowded theater? That is, the publisher and editor of the Danish newspaper should have anticipated these harmful effects, although some observers have argued that the riots were not foreseen, and were primarily caused by the cartoons. Seen in this manner, the ensuing violence was mainly the result of opportunistic and irresponsible mainstream religious figures in several Muslim countries seizing the inflamed moment by agitating mobs to bolster their own personal influence. Unlike Rushdie, who acted perfectly reasonably, given his British residence and citizenship, the Danish provocation should arguably have been avoided by self-censorship, and the violent responses in Asia were exaggerated reactions that also should never have happened. It is generally desirable to encourage free expression without the state administering the limits, but in that case it is up to the state to prevent riots and societal violence.

The challenge is a difficult one. It could be argued that a stronger civic tradition on Rushdie’s part, but even more so in relation to Khomeini, would have produced self-censorship. Long after the event, Rushdie expressed surprise, and even a tinge of remorse, that his novel had become an occasion for such a violent and enraged backlash. Long after the fact he gave the impression on occasion that he might not have written such a book had he anticipated the consequences for himself and others. In contrast, the Danish newspaper was forewarned of inflammatory effects but went ahead without any hesitation. In effect, self-censorship does not currently protect against the harmful effects of incendiary forms of expression in the hostile and commercially driven, even hateful, environment that exists, and even promotes a culture war against or on behalf of the Muslim world.