Using riots, mayhem, and murder to “protest” an asinine trailer for an anti-Mohammad video on the Internet, the Middle East’s mobs, assassins, and hostile regimes have vetoed freedom of speech in the United States. Not only did America’s overseas diplomatic officers and staff have to hunker down under siege for a week, individual citizens here at home have good reason to fear that if they criticize the wrong religion, the response could be catastrophic for themselves, for others, or both. Neither the First Amendment nor the United States government, it seems, can do much about it.
I’ve seen this sort of thing before in another context. In the wake of the Beirut Spring in 2005, when massive demonstrations forced the end of Syria’s military occupation, Lebanon had decent provisions for freedom of speech—at least by regional standards and at least on paper. The country was theoretically free. But free speech was extra-legally and extra-judicially nullified by terrorists backed by a foreign police state. A wave of car bombs targeted journalists, activists, and officials critical of Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad. Everyone needed to watch what he said. Those who didn’t might be killed.
This is the terrorist’s veto. Now it’s our turn. A week after region-wide riots started in Cairo, Hezbollah sent half a million supporters into the streets of Beirut’s southern suburbs, ostensibly to protest the trailer for the now-infamous movie on YouTube. The mob screamed the same tired slogans we’re accustomed to hearing—“Death to America” and “Death to Israel”—but Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said something new. “The U.S. should understand that if it broadcasts the film in full it will face very dangerous repercussions around the world.”
Hezbollah is technologically advanced and media-savvy. Nasrallah knows perfectly well that when an individual uploads a video to YouTube, it doesn’t count as “the United States broadcasting a film.” That’s actually his point. He’s not threatening the United States in the abstract. He’s threatening you. If you insult Hassan Nasrallah’s religion on the Internet, terrorists may come after you.
You’re kidding yourself if you think he’s bluffing or that this is just talk. He’s not and it isn’t. There are precedents. In 1989, Iran’s blood-soaked ruler Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie to death for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses. Terrorists and death squads went after him and anyone who dared to publish, translate, or sell his books all over the world. They set bookstores in the United States and the United Kingdom on fire. They firebombed a small newspaper office in New York City with Molotov cocktails. They killed dozens of people around the globe as far away as Japan. Rushdie spent years in hiding under the assumed name Joseph Anton and still lives with the knowledge that he could be murdered at any time. Just a few days ago, the Iranian government increased the bounty on his head to $3.3 million.
Rushdie is lucky compared with some. In 2004, an Islamist maniac with a butcher’s knife stabbed Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to death on an Amsterdam street over a short film, Submission, about women’s rights in Muslim societies. A blood-curdling note pinned to his corpse said the local Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was “next.” Ali eventually fled the Netherlands, where she was once a member of parliament, and lives today in the United States under armed guard.
She’s not the only one who has to live this way now. Paul Berman compiled quite a list of names in his 2010 book, The Flight of the Intellectuals. Dutch politician Ahmed Aboutaleb, British writer and occasional City Journal contributor Ibn Warraq, and Italian journalist Magdi Allam all have bodyguards or have had to go into hiding. They’re liberal Arabs who live in the West, but non-Arabs are just as frequently targeted. A would-be assassin attacked Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in his own house with an axe. An international terrorist cell went after Swedish artist Lars Vilks. French writer Caroline Fourest and French philosophy professor Robert Redeker joined the ranks of those under guard, and Seattle Weekly cartoonist Molly Norris also went into hiding. She had to enter the FBI’s witness-protection program after Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (whom the United States later vaporized with a Predator drone) placed her on one of his hit lists. These names are but a sample. Berman’s list is more inclusive, but not exhaustive.
Terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism have been going after apostates and blasphemers for years. But the Egyptian government, supposedly an ally of the United States, just filed international arrest warrants for eight American citizens allegedly involved in the now-notorious video. All are currently in the United States, so unless they’re kidnapped, there’s no chance they’ll ever see the inside of an Egyptian courtroom. But the prosecutor’s office in Cairo says they may receive the death penalty if they’re convicted. And who can say that death squads will never go after them, Rushdie style, if they’re convicted in absentia or even beforehand?
Six months ago in the New Republic, Berman reviewed a book by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea called Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide. It makes for sobering reading. Islamist murder and intimidation campaigns against apostates and blasphemers are so widespread and common nowadays that the authors managed to write 448 pages about them and only cover 20 countries. Religious minorities are the principal victims, but so are liberals, free-thinkers, and humanists from every religious community. “Our survey,” they write, “shows that in Muslim-majority countries and areas, restrictions on freedom of religion and expression, based on prohibitions of blasphemy, apostasy, and ‘insulting Islam,’ are pervasive, thwart freedom, and cause suffering to millions of people.”
Berman wrote that, in light of the recent and current civil wars and election results in the Middle East, this worldwide campaign “is about to make a gigantic and intimidating lurch forward, beyond anything we have so far seen.”
He was right. And it’s here.