Posted on April 5, 2017

The Short Path From Censorship to Violence

Brendan O'Neill, Spectator, April 3, 2017

The news that Ayaan Hirsi Ali has cancelled her speaking tour of Australia due to ‘security concerns’ should concern anyone who believes in freedom. It is a dark day when a woman who fled to the West to escape the Islamist suffocations of Somalia, and precisely so that she might think and speak freely, feels she cannot say certain things in certain places. That even a Western, liberal, democratic nation like Australia cannot guarantee Hirsi Ali the freedom to speak her mind without suffering censorship or harm is deeply worrying. It points to the mainstreaming of intolerance, to the adoption by certain people in the West of the illiberalism that makes up the very Islamist outlook that Hirsi Ali and others have sought to escape.

Hirsi Ali’s Oz tour, ‘Hero of Heresy’, had been due to kick off this Thursday. She would have visited Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, hosted by Think Inc., an organisation devoted to ‘the promotion of intellectual discourse’. But today, citing, among other things, ‘security concerns’, Think Inc. announced the tour was off.

This isn’t the first time Hirsi Ali has effectively been hounded out of even tolerant nations, made to feel unwelcome in the West because of her strong, critical take on Islam and its treatment of women. She had to leave her adopted home of Holland after receiving death threats for her involvement in the 2004 Islam-critical film Submission (the film’s director, Theo van Gogh, was stabbed to death by an Islamist). She still has heavy security whenever she speaks in public. Certain campuses in the US have made it clear she isn’t welcome, because she’s ‘Islamophobic’. That is, she criticises Islam, which today is treated as a species of mental illness. How perverse that even a woman who has suffered under extreme forms of Islam can be treated as dangerous for daring to ridicule that religion.

Hirsi Ali’s troubles in Australia are striking because they point to a really worrying interplay between the polite intolerance of ‘Islamophobia’ and the more violent urge in certain sections of society to punish and maybe even kill critics of Islam.

So before this morning’s reports of a security threat to Hirsi Ali, there had been a ‘respectable’ campaign to keep her out of Oz. Four hundred Muslim women and other concerned citizens, including academics, a museum director and, hilariously, human-rights activists, signed a petition saying Hirsi Ali’s rhetoric poses a threat to social peace and the safety of Muslims Down Under. ‘Against a backdrop of increasing global Islamophobia, Hirsi Ali’s divisive rhetoric simply serves to increase hostility and hatred towards women,’ the petition says. In short, her words are inflammatory, violent even, and they directly harm Muslims. So shut them down, shut her up, keep her out. ‘Australia deserves better than this,’ the petition said.

In a video watched and shared tens of thousands of times by both Islamic and so-called liberal activists, Muslim women are shown denouncing Hirsi Ali, accusing her of ‘repeat[ing] the language of our oppressors’. The video says Hirsi Ali uses the same Islam-critical rhetoric that has been used in recent years to ‘justify wars, invasion and genocide’. So her words are warlike, evil, destructive. It also says she uses ‘the language of patriarchy’. This is perverse. It’s patriarchal to criticise the Islamist repression of women? And, by extension, is it anti-patriarchal to defend the Islamist ideology from a woman’s ‘divisive’ criticism?

Then came some kind of security threat, some promise of violence that caused her to cancel her tour. It’s time we realised that these things are intimately related; that respectable society’s creeping intolerance of critical thought fuels other, more extreme people’s conviction that such thought must be punished – harshly, if necessary. 

The more people depict certain ideas as unfit for public life, the more they send out a signal that the people who hold those ideas are dangerous and wicked, and possibly fair game for violence. They branded Hirsi Ali an enemy of public order and decency, no doubt making it easier for others to fantasise about punishing her. They said she would harm Australia and its Muslims, no doubt giving others the idea that she should therefore be kept out of Australia by any means necessary.

Where some want to crush the likes of Hirsi Ali or Charlie Hebdo with laws and bans, others want to crush them with violence. Different means, yes; but these two sections of society, the chin-strokers and the gun-strokers, share the same aim: to silence people whose ideas they dislike. The bookish censor lends moral authority to the violent censor. From the failure to stand up for Salman Rushdie to the No Platforming of the likes of Hirsi Ali today, too many thinkers in the supposedly tolerant West unwittingly give a nod of approval to efforts to shut down ‘dangerous’ people. The signal we should be sending to society is not that some ideas are too dangerous for public life, but that no ideas, even ridicule of Islam, will ever be silenced or punished; that it is unacceptable ever to harm someone simply for what they think and say.