Why the West Must Defend Freedom of Speech

Meredith Doig / 02 October 2014

Our changing world

Our human rights and freedoms are now recognised as the basis of Western secular society. It wasn’t always so. Four hundred years ago, Europe was riven by wars of religion. Religion within a territory was uniform: imposed and enforced by the state. Torture and death awaited those who were accused of witchcraft, blasphemy, heresy or atheism. We arrived at our present state of tolerance and freedom through long years of struggle by our forebears.

By the early 20th century we had won the battle for freedom of speech based on the philosophy and arguments of Voltaire, John Stewart Mill, G W Foote and others. But the Second World War and the revelation of the genocidal consequences of Nazi racism led to revulsion across the Western world, and the realisation that freedom of speech could go too  far in inciting hatred of minorities. The rights of minorities became the frontline in the battle for human rights and freedom itself.

The other important change at that time was recognition of the individual, rather than the group, as the rightful repository of rights and freedoms. This view was enshrined in the Universal Declaration  of  Human Rights of 1948 and the International Bill of  Rights. This change has had a dramatic effect in transforming society for the better, allowing individual development and fulfilment, and helping eliminate the  last vestiges of class privilege.

The Holocaust showed the world that the persecution of minorities can have appalling consequences, and the lesson was well-learned. The past 60 years have seen an historic transformation in Western society. In the United States the civil rights movement achieved the almost total integration of African Americans into mainstream society; in South Africa, decades of oppression came to an end with the abandonment of apartheid; and despite lingering opposition from religious zealots, gays and lesbians have achieved a semblance of equality in the West.

For thousands of years populations had been relatively stable with little intermingling of cultures. Migration, when it occurred, often followed conquest. The United States of America provided the model for peaceful migration and assimilation. A strong national identity based on shared values and a secular constitution enabled this great nation to develop from a mix of colonies and cultures to the leading world power within just a few hundred years. After decades of ‘whites only’ immigration, Australia has followed a similar path in pursuing a more open-door policy on immigration.

The new Europe

Unlike the United States or Australia, Europe lacks a strong national identity, a unified secular constitution, or even stable boundaries. The recent enlargement of the European Union has bought Western Europe an influx of workers from Eastern states, and with a new set of  religiously-minded  politicians from Greece to Lithuania  more used  to a dominant  church than to a secular society. Few of the new European states are entirely comfortable with the Western European emphasis on secularism.

Meanwhile, the rate of immigration  into Western countries from the less developed world has been accelerating. According to the International Herald Tribune (9 June 2006), the number of foreign-born workers in Spain increased six-fold from 1994to 2004. In Italy in the same period the number increased four-fold. Much of this immigration has been from North Africa where, according to the Population Reference Bureau, the 2005 population of 193 million is still growing by more than 4 million per year. Immigration pressure from North Africa into Europe is therefore expected to remain high for the foreseeable future. The great majority of immigrants are Muslims. Demographers are predicting that the combined effect of immigration and the high birth rates common in immigrant communities will lead to many of Europe’s cities having Muslim majority populations by 2050.

Muslims come to Europe in search of a  better  life, some to escape from tyranny or oppression at home, others simply for greater economic opportunity. But government policies of multiculturalism  have  meant that immigrants have not been encouraged to integrate into mainstream European society, and the special needs of these communities have been neglected. As a result, youth unemployment in many of Europe’s inner cities has reached levels of 40% or more, and many young immigrants feel alienated from the rest of society.

Radical Islam

Into this vacuum has come radical Islam, a well-funded, well-organised  fundamentalist creed  that provides  a new, strong sense of identity for many young Muslims. Radical Islam has its own clear agenda: the eventual submission of the entire world to Islam. To achieve this it must separate Muslim society from the rest, promoting the idea of the ‘Muslim exception’. It rejects Western values as having nothing to teach Muslims: the only decent life is submission to the will of Allah – as expounded by the radical imams and mullahs. It is a totalitarian creed, at odds with the real needs of Muslims.

Radical Islam eschews all friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims, creating a ghetto mindset in its followers and denying them the contact and skills they need to fully develop as citizens. It has promoted the notion that all of the ills of the Islamic world are the fault of Western greed and duplicity. lt rejects the Western way of life as decadent, and fails to appreciate the universal values of individual freedom and autonomy, democracy and social responsibility on which Western civilisation is based. Radical Islam has betrayed an entire generation of young Muslims.

This totalitarian creed is being preached and taught in Islamic schools and mosques across Europe by organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood , which advocates the creation of Islamic government, and whose slogan includes the phrase: ‘… death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes’. The Brotherhood reportedly controls around 25% of the mosques in France and is growing in influence in many other European countries. We all need fellowship, but the Islamic extremists have perverted this basic human need in the name of their uncompromising creed.

Meanwhile, any criticism of the extremists is met with cries of ‘Islampohobia’ – a highly effective method of demonising their opponents by confusing criticism of Islamic extremism with hatred of Muslims. They are not at all the same thing. As the Quranic scholar Hassan Fatemolla has said ‘Muslims are the first victims of Islamic extremism’.

By encouraging young Muslims to close ranks and distance themselves from the rest of  society, the lslamists are doing young Muslims a terrible wrong. Governments meanwhile are leaving these young people to their fate. Our governments have failed to recognise the difference between the demands of the lslamists and the needs of our Muslim fellow-citizens. Here are two recent quotes from Muslim Londoners:

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]I’m tired of certain bodies, i.e. Muslim Council of Britain [MCB], making statements in my name. I didn’t elect them. lmran, London[/quote]

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]… it’s like a dictatorship that is appointed over the Muslim community. And it’s the government that helps these kind of organisations replicate dictatorial political cultures from abroad here in the UK. They don’t represent us, and the police should be talking to us Muslims through our local elected councillors and not tin-pot imams, mosques or the MCB. That’s what destroys the relationship, particularly amongst those of us born in the UK. Why should we be talked to differently to the rest of Britain? Surayya Khan, London[/quote]

Radical Islam is well  organised and well  funded. Saudi Arabia is known to have poured billions of dollars into the creation of a worldwide network of madrassas (Qur ‘anic schools), centres of  Islamic studies, charities, information centres, sharia councils, Muslim parliaments,  newspapers,  training  programs, as well as support for imams, mullahs, seminars and conferences. Most, if not  all, of this  funding  is spent on the promotion of their radical agenda, based on a literal interpretation of the Qur ‘an. In  some parts  of the world the radical indoctrination and rote learning provided by Saudi-funded madrassas is the only education many young Muslims ever receive. It is hard to imagine an education less well suited to helping them adapt to modem life, or less likely to provide them with the skills they  need  to compete in  the modem  world.

The threat to freedom of expression

The violent reaction across the Muslim world to the publication of the Danish cartoons provided a chilling example of just how powerful radical Islam has become. Following a visit to the Middle East by some Danish imams, a decision was taken at the Islamic summit in Riyadh in early December 2005 to make an example of the Danish cartoons. Two months later ‘spontaneous ‘ demonstrations broke out all over the Middle East. I would like to spend just a few minutes in an attempt to analyse this reaction and draw some conclusions.

Flemming Rose, cultural editor of Jyllands-Posten said:

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a non-believer, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission …[/quote]

The lslamists are demanding deference and submission, not merely respect.

The insult to Muslims was in the eye of the beholder. No one was forced to see the cartoons. The purpose of the protests was clear. It was to protest not about hurt feelings but about the fact that a  newspaper dared publish something or which the lslamists did not approve. Certainly we should show respect to the feelings of others and observe their customs when we are their guests. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans.’ We should not seek gratuitously to offend anyone’s sensibilities. But Islamic laws and Islamic taboos do not apply to non-Muslims, nor should they.

Calls by Muslim, Christian and other religious leaders at the United Nations, at the European Commission and in national governments to provide protection for religion are misplaced. People have human rights, religions and ideas do not. There can be no human progress if ideas cannot be challenged.

Limits to freedom of expression

The right to freedom of expression is not absolute in any country; governments always prohibit certain types of expression. Under international law, restrictions on free speech are required to meet a strict three part test: they must be provided by law, pursue an aim recognized as legitimate, and be proportionate to the accomplishment of that aim. Amongst the aims considered legitimate are protection of the rights and reputations of others (prevention of defamation), and the protection of national security and public order, health and morals. It is generally recognised that restrictions should be the exception and free expression the rule.

On this basis it is clear that expressing opposition to any religious belief or practice should be considered legitimate, and the publication of the Danish cartoons was therefore entirely legitimate. On the other hand , it is surely illegitimate for anyone to seek to impose their religious beliefs on others by force and the violent protests against the publication of the cartoons were therefore illegitimate.

Inoffensive ideas don’t need protection because no one is interested in suppressing them. It is only the thoughts and ideas that might offend that need protection. The price I pay for my freedom of expression is your right to yours, even if you offend me. But equally, no one has the right to impose their beliefs, customs and taboos on those who do not share their faith.

Freedom of expression is – uniquely – that freedom which enables us to defend all our other rights and freedoms. Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press how are we even to know about, far less expose tyranny, corruption, incompetence, injustice and oppression?

But even without legal sanctions, freedom of expression can sometimes be limited by social pressure, so that it becomes difficult to speak openly of sensitive issues. What may start as a well-meaning attempt to promote tolerance can lead to political correctness and the suppression of free speech.

The problem is exacerbated  when a tolerant society is confronted with an intolerant minority bent on subverting that tolerance. lf Western society were intolerant the problem would not arise, but it is precisely because we are a tolerant society that we are vulnerable. The challenge is to preserve the freedoms we have won while learning to protect them. But in the new Europe this doesn’t seem to be happening.

Let me quote from an email I received this week from my Danish friends:

[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]The very Islamists  who  set  the  [cartoons]  affair in motion have reason to consider subsequent developments as an outstanding  success, giving them semi-official recognition and  increased political and moral standing with the security police.[/quote]

Only yesterday Minister for Church Affairs Bertel Haarder – who found his name on an ‘official enemies’ list issued with impunity by The Islamic Faith Community – admitted that he no longer dares speak his mind for fear of having to live under police protection [Jyllands-Posten  11 June 2006].

Since the Muhammad Affair, Denmark may fairly be described as a place where not even members of the government dare speak freely for fear of being killed, and where those who openly threaten their critics are praised by the police and treated as victims by the academic, cultural and media elites.


Freedom of expression in the West is under sustained attack from radical Islam. Joining in the attack are the leaders of some other religions, keen to seize on the chance of increased concessions to organised religion, and politicians and cultural leaders, misled by the shrill voices of the Islamists. All are calling for limits to freedom of expression on the grounds of religious freedom.

To weaken freedom of expression is to weaken our ability to expose injustice and oppression. Yet self­ censorship has been at work in the Western press ever since the murder  of Theo van Gogh. Without press freedom how will we ever know about, far less expose tyranny, corruption and injustice?

To understand what lies in store if we do not defend this freedom, we need look no further than the 2005 World Press Freedom Index. Of the 167 states in the index, Denmark stands proudly at the top alongside six other West European countries.

Not one of the world’s 56 Islamic states is in the top half of the table. The highest-ranking is Kuwait in 85th position. Turkey, soon to be a candidate for entry to the European Union and one of the few Muslim majority states with a secular constitution, stands at 98. The Sudan is at 133, Egypt at 143, and Pakistan at 150. Saudi Arabia, guardian of the Islamic holy places and paymasters to radical Islam worldwide, stands miserably at 154. These states are in good company. Down there with them sit China, Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea. And virtually at the bottom of the Press Freedom Index, in 164th place out of 167, stands Iran, for the past 27 years the model Islamic state. That is the kind of society you create when your laws are defined by the Islamists.

Correlation does not demonstrate cause, but I think the message is clear. The West can remain free, safeguarding the right to freedom of expression as the guarantor of all our other rights and freedoms, or it can allow itself to submit to the demands of radical Islam. It cannot do both.


Roy Brown is a British-born human rights activist based in Switzerland. Since his retirement at age 50 following a successful career in the computer industry, Roy has devoted the majority of his waking hours to promoting human rights and human development programs in developing countries.

This paper was Roy's keynote address at the national June 2006 "Separating Church and State: Keeping God out of Government" conference, supported by the RSA, the Victorian Humanist Society and the Australian National Secular Association.

All the more reason.