I've recently been reading the excellent book by Nick Cohen called "You Can't Read This Book"; though a more accurate title would be "You Should Read This Book".
Cohen tackles the long-overlooked issue of censorship in the modern era; specifically in the last twenty-five years since the publication of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses". He focuses on censorship based on fear of reprisal from religious groups (including Islamists and Hindu extremists); he also looks at the ways that the rich and powerful use their influence to silence critics (in the workplace as well as in the media), in particular how the UK's absurd libel laws are abused to silence unwanted publications, and use such crippling financial punishments to keep others quiet.
As Cohen points out, we naively think that we are living in an unprecedented age of freedom. But there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
It's worth remembering what "freedom of speech" really means in the West, and what is needed to maintain it. "Freedom of speech" means you are free to say what you like: criticise, lambast, or insult, if the mood suits you. If a person doesn't like what you say, they are free to reply in a like mind. As long as what you say is not openly dishonest, "freedom of speech" means exactly that: the freedom to say what you like.
Of course, we are all human. If you say what you really think all the time, you may quickly run out of friends and get into fights with strangers. But when you live in a country that abides by the principle of freedom of speech, hearing things you don't like from time to time is the price you pay. As the saying goes: if you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen.
If you can't handle people's criticism, then go somewhere where you won't be criticised.
It is this basic principle that comes to mind when I think about the frenzy of hate that was first stirred by the publication of "The Satanic Verses", and more recently by the Danish cartoons that poked fun at Mohammed and Islamic Fundamentalism.
The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism put the West's liberal values to the test. The vast majority of Muslims in the West are moderate; many of those are non-practising Muslims born in the West, or brought up in the West, who have little in common with the way Islam is practised in the Middle East or Pakistan. But Islamic extremism in the West is a more recent phenomenon, one that has grown in the last twenty years or so, often as the children of Muslim immigrants became seduced by the simplicity of the "old culture".
This reverence of the "old culture" in Islam is a simple reversion to the tenets of Sharia law and a literal understanding of the Koran. There is no room for compromise; you either obey or are an infidel. In this mentality, Western liberalism was the enemy: "freedom of speech" was therefore an enemy of Islam.
The publication of "The Satanic Verses" was the first time that the liberalism and "free speech" in the modern era were tested by the reactionary forces of Islamic Fundamentalism, and were found sorely lacking. In his novel, Rushdie, in the middle of a contemporary tale about South Asians in Britain, he took a look at the origins of Islam, and drew his own conclusions. For doing that, a "fatwa" was pronounced upon him by Ayatollah Khomeini: in effect a declaration of war by Iran's supreme leader against the person of Salman Rushdie.
The liberal West's reaction was two-fold: publishers were terrified of publishing works that might be deemed offensive to Islam (which could mean almost anything that was not openly supportive or sympathetic); and Western liberals turned on those who were willing to speak their minds on the injustices of Islam, called them "racists", or criticised those authors for putting the lives of the wider public under threat by their irresponsible actions.
This tendency by liberals to misrepresent and black-mark those who are still willing to hold up the values of free speech is the most shameful way in which the West has turned its value of "free speech" on its head. For the meaning of "free speech" for the last twenty years, especially from some aspects of the liberal elite, has come to mean tolerating the views of those who wish to destroy and kill them. This might be justifiable if it meant that the liberal elite were at least free to equally deride and discredit the intolerant and hateful words of the Islamic Fundamentalism they indulge, but they were not.
The traumatic experience of Salman Rushdie's "fatwa" left the West's liberal elite too terrified to challenge the reactionary forces of Islamism, as they still are today. Thus it has given the extremists the "proof" that the liberal West was soft and decadent, there for the taking. If no-one in the West was ready to intellectually fight for its core values of free speech, while at the same time indulging those of Islamic extremism, what did that say for how strong they thought of their own?
Islamic Fundamentalism has grown around the world, and in the West in particular, on the back of the idea that Muslims are victims to a Zionist conspiracy, and that the West is a decadent and morally vacuous society in league with the Zionists. In this mindset, it makes "Zionism" and the West legitimate targets. If the West is to destroy this perception, its own values must be restored and fought for on the intellectual battlefield.
"Freedom of speech" is one of the West's most integral values. As said before, this means accepting hearing things that you won't like. To act violently whenever someone pokes fun at you or criticises you is not the act of an adult living in a civilised society: it is the act of a petulant child.
Islamists living in the West who are offended by cartoons that make fun of their religion are therefore entirely missing the point of living in the West. If they do not like, they always can choose to live where they know their views will not be challenged. In fact, it would be fair to say that for the West to recapture the full value of "free speech", such outraged Islamists should be encouraged to do so; the alternative is to create a state within a state where Islamists have complete control over their religion, and no-one is able to challenge them under threat of death. To an extent, in the UK in particular, this already exists in faith schools that clearly flout the basic tenets of Western values; possibly even the law itself. When there are imams that live in the UK that encourage violence against "infidels" what they are really saying is: I do not accept the values and laws of the UK. This is what the law, police and prison is for.
If religious extremists (of any faith) who live in the UK cannot accept criticism and advocate violence against Britons, they have no place in a free society. It is as simple as that.
The views here are not based on racism; and they are certainly not based on right-wing conservatism. The points made here are simply about free speech and rationalism. It is irrational and self-defeating to have a society based on free speech that is terrified of speaking freely about Islam, or any other religion. Similarly, it is irrational and self-defeating to have a section of a free society (such as Islamic Fundamentalists) that are against freedom.
The irony is that Islamic Fundamentalists come the the UK and other Western nations in order to take advantage of freedoms unavailable in their own country. The best method to fight against Fundamentalism is education and intellectually challenging its ignorant and prejudiced points of view. This is what should be done in countries such as Pakistan, as well as in towns and cities in the UK where Fundamentalism is growing in Muslim communities.
Where this method fails, the law should swiftly step in to prevent female exploitation, hate crime and worse.