Thursday, June 17, 2010

Freedom of Speech

Caroline Fourest (pictured below) is a French feminist and journalist, who calls herself an "anti-racist." She has clashed publicly with Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim intellectual who has advocated integration of Muslims into European society. Fourest, however, accuses him of "double discourse," meaning that he says one thing before a secular French public and another before Muslims in a restricted forum. She objects, among other things, to his advocacy of separate swimming facilities for men and women. According to the lecture "The Muslim Women" by Ramadan, girls should not risk revealing their bodies to men, which would thus prohibit women from the freedom of participating in sports.

Such a small concession might not seem to foretell the end of Western freedoms, but it is one of those things that, for Fourest, represent the opening wedge to more radical demands for inclusion of Muslim law within French secular society. In her most recent book, The Last Utopia: Threats Against Universalism, she writes that the "perspective of a world in which all human beings are free and equal, without difference," is coming to an end. She blames this demise on the "philosophical and political formulation" underlying multiculturalism, which she considers a new form of racism. As she writes: "History has proven sufficiently that 'difference-ism' -- the doctrine that regards the Other as so different that he must be treated differently and by different criteria -- unavoidably leads to inequality." In the name of "toleration," the West puts up with behavior that goes against its "fundamental values."

"Never before," she writes, "did the republican French model, whose origin is the Revolution, stand before such a dissolution. More an more intellectuals want to acclimatize multiculturalism and 'open up' laicism." Thus, the French law banning religious symbols (including female head covering) in public schools is criticized as "intolerant" of difference.

Fourest was a journalist working for Charlie Hebdo, a left-wing satirical weekly, at the time of the Mohammed cartoons controversy. It published the twelve offending Danish cartoons and added a few more of is own, for which it was condemned by French president Jacques Chirac for "inflaming passions." Chirac went on to say: "Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided."

Obviously France is not the U.S.A., but it is worth noting that no major U.S. paper published the cartoons either.

Charlie Hebdo was sued by French Islamic organizations in 2007, who claimed that the cartoons linked terrorism and Islam. At the time, Charlie Hebdo's publisher made Fourest's point: "It's racist to imagine that they [Muslims] can't take a joke." The publisher was acquitted.

I am on the side of Fourest and Charlie Hebdo, but I would add a distinction -- and this is the subject of the book I am editing, on the historical origins of the right of freedom of speech. Fourest argues on the basis of what she calls "universalism." Universalism is an idea, certainly a noble one, but Fourest and most intellectuals who advocate it ignore the tremendous historical work that has made this idea second nature to us in the West. It is very much a Western "cultural product," the result of generations of our forefathers fighting for liberty and the rights of individuals. God may have wanted us to be free, but freedom is something people have to fight for, indeed in every generation. The protesters in Iran are learning this. Universal declarations, such as the 1948 U.N. Resolution on Human Rights, are not worth the piece of paper they are printed on. Third World dictators have been able to use that document for their own non-rights purposes.

The problem with the universal values of equality that Fourest advocates, based on the abstract notion that people are "equal," is that Islam is also a universalist system: everyone should be a Muslim. Moreover, Islam has a rather long historical tradition to which it appeals in advocating its universalism. It spread rapidly in its early decades by forcing everyone to convert, and this success has given its leading adherents a triumphalist mentality. Indeed, as V.S. Naipaul has written, in the non-Arabic Muslim countries (Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia) there has been a continuing attempt to eradicate vestiges of the pre-Muslim societies. In other words, "history" for Iran begins with Islam, not with the Persian dynasty. Talk about universalism.

It would no doubt sound ethnocentric to an intellectual like Fourest to claim that the secular values of France are "French" values that, having been historically achieved, are worth preserving. Such a defense, however, is as reasonable as a defense by non-Frenchmen in France of values that are the products of their own historical, national, or religious traditions. The question would then come down to: which values should reign in France? French values or the values of immigrants? Unfortunately, multiculturalism has become such a powerful ideology that most intellectuals are afraid to buck it.

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