Freedom of Speech Cannot Be Taken for Granted

On Wednesday Ayaan Hirsi Ali received a received an award from Jyllands-Posten for her “unshakeable faith that it was worth fighting for [her] points of view”. Our Danish correspondent TB has translated a editorial about the occasion, which was published in Thursday’s Jyllands-Posten:

Freedom Fighter

The famous Danish writer N.F.S. Grundtvig [pdf] and author Poul Henningsen agreed upon one thing: freedom of speech cannot be abused.

On the contrary, they said: It is by its abuse that freedom of expression shall be known. Implicitly meaning that freedom of speech should be used to say the things that other people do not want to hear. That does not mean that there exist no limits of freedom of speech. There are. But when you cross that limit you have not abused freedom of speech, but — if you are later judged by a jury — have committed a crime.

The notion held by some that one can abuse freedom of speech is one of many misunderstandings conceived among public debaters. Another misunderstanding relates to the fact that many view freedom of speech as a tool which should be used exclusively as an instrument to attack and expose the current rulers of society. This is a central part of the way the press uses its freedom of speech, but it is not the only one.

– – – – – – – –

In his classic work “About Freedom” from 1869, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill underlined the necessity of not letting oneself submit to the tyranny of public opinion. Translated into our time it implies the will to challenge broadly accepted truths, reveal the hypocrisy and delusions of “the chattering classes” and a refusal to give in to threats and violence committed in the name of a religion.

That is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been doing since about ten years ago, when as a refugee from Somalia she began participating in the public debate in Holland about Islam and women’s rights, freedom of religion and freedom of speech, immigration and integration. And that is why she received Jyllands-Posten‘s Freedom of Speech Prize yesterday. Hirsi Ali came into the light of the international media when her friend Theo Van Gogh was murdered in the streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim in 2004. It happened after she had worked with him on the movie “Submission”, which criticized the Islamic view of women. Hirsi Ali gave up her career as an elected politician and left Holland in 2006 to settle in the USA where she is now attached to the American Enterprise Institute think tank. At the same time that Hirsi Ali was honored yesterday, her third book in Danish was published. Nomad is the title, and one must hope that it, like the two earlier books, will be read and discussed everywhere in Danish society. In her book Hirsi Ali warns about the danger of self-censorship as a consequence of mass riots, intimidation, murder and exclusion of those who criticize Islam.

“That is why people gradually begin to get used to not say certain things. The finely-masked net of self-censorship begins to tighten around the individual consciousness, and will next impose itself on groups of people, and after that on the very thoughts and the way they are expressed,” Hirsi Ali writes.

“When Westerners do not criticize or question certain dogmas, certain aspects of Islam, they fail to support those Muslims who also try to doubt these subjects. They abjure their own values. And when they do that, their society is doomed,” the author concludes.

Well spoken, and a reminder to those who curse every time someone in the free West allows themselves to raise the debate about self-censorship. Freedom of speech cannot be taken for granted. This is also apparent in the new report — published today — from Freedom House about global freedom of the press. For the eighth year in a row the development is negative, meaning that only one out of every six persons lives today in a country with a free press. Denmark and most countries the West are still among them. It is people like Hirsi Ali who contribute to that freedom. And it is a voice like that of Hirsi Ali, who by her history and personal experience can give hope to those who do not have the possibility of raising their voices and speaking freely.

One thought on “Freedom of Speech Cannot Be Taken for Granted

  1. The Scottish writer James Kelman has also written on the subject of self-censorship within a society. Check out “And the Judges Said …”

Comments are closed.