Islam, Terrorism, and Censorship

In his newest book, Paul Cliteur, author and jurisprudence professor at Leiden University, examines a largely forgotten 1987 German television comedy skit that sparked Muslim protests. Cliteur asserts that the incident, involving Dutch comedian Rudi Carrell, became the forerunner for other protests, many of them deadly violent, that now characterize the ongoing conflict between Islamic theoterrorism and Western free speech. In Theoterrorism v. Freedom of Speech:  From Incident to Precedent (Amsterdam University Press, 2019), Cliteur calls the Carrell incident a turning point in global politics. It made the West conclude that offending Islam was a global capital offense and it brought about the start of a precipitous decline in Western civil liberties. 

Born in the Netherlands, Carrell began appearing on German television in the mid-1960s, ultimately attracting 20 million viewers. In 1987, eight years after the Ayatollah Khomeini established an anti-Western theocracy in Iran and instituted strict Islamic sharia, Carrell depicted women throwing their underwear at Khomeini’s feet. The sketch poked fun at the Ayatollah’s edict forbidding Iranian women to show their hair or body shape.

After the show aired, an Iranian ambassador complained to the German government that Muslims “all over the world” had hurt feelings. Iranian consulates in West Berlin and Hamburg closed. A Frankfurt-to-Tehran flight was delayed for six hours while the ground crew, under Tehran’s command, protested. Iran expelled two West German diplomats and Iranian students demanded an apology during a government-incited protest at the West German Embassy. Carrell received death threats and required police protection.  

The German Foreign Ministry apologized for Carrell’s insensitivity but restated the German government’s commitment to freedom of the press and artistic expression. The entertainer feared for his life and issued a public apology, saying he hadn’t meant to “offend the feelings of believers.”  He also expressed regret to the Iranian ambassador.

The Carrell broadcast also impacted the Netherlands. Eight days after the German program, Dutch radio scheduled a rebroadcast. Minutes before it began, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs asked the broadcaster to reconsider, even though shutting down the program violated Dutch laws guaranteeing freedom of the press from government interference. The Dutch Minister was concerned a rebroadcast would cause repercussions, especially for Dutch citizens living in Tehran after the Dutch embassy had said embassy workers were at risk.

In his comprehensive analysis of the incident, Cliteur examines the impact of appeasing Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. He asserts it validated the assumption that insulting the Iranian regime was an insult to all Islam and was, in effect, a capitulation to sharia blasphemy laws. Cliteur asks if appeasing Muslim sensitivities and bowing to threats set a precedent for other nations to follow, thereby altering culturally acceptable norms of Western behavior.

“What is the appropriate response when a foreign power threatens violence to one of your citizens when nothing has been done to violate national law or when the event is protected by national law?,” Cliteur writes. Are national sovereignty, civil liberties, free speech, and the safety of citizens within the borders of threatened nations undermined, Cliteur asks? In the Carrell case, a fanatical religious leader essentially set TV programming standards for a free nation in which freedom of the press is essential to democracy. A foreign power issued threats, causing a faraway democracy to willingly disavow its own constitution.

Cliteur then examines other incidents. In 2004, Theo Van Gogh, an Islamic critic since 9/11, and Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim who denounced Islam’s anti-feminist doctrine, co-produced a film exposing Islam’s subjugation of women. The film, which depicted a veiled actress on whose naked body verses from the Koran were painted, drew praise and anger. A few months later, Van Gogh was shot to death and his body left with messages denouncing Hirsi Ali, Jews, and Western democracies.

The murder sent a clear message to Europeans that mocking the prophet and criticizing Islam was a death penalty offense. Did Van Gogh’s assassination reveal the true nature of jihadist ideology or did Van Gogh cause his death by coarsely criticizing a religion? According to Cliteur, these questions after Van Gogh’s murder revealed a cleavage in Dutch society mirrored in other western European countries.

Cliteur also analyzes controversial cartoons of Mohammed published in Jyllands-Posten in 2005. The publisher wanted to advance the debate about criticism of Islam and self-censorship. When only 12 out of 42 cartoonists queried by the publisher agreed to depict Mohammed, it proved that cartoonists engaged in self-censorship. The subsequent destruction of property and deaths of over 200 people after the cartoons’ publication clearly demonstrated the need for such concern. It also ironically supported the idea that so offended Muslims: that Islam is violent and related to terrorism. Although some critics rebuked the cartoons as a “senseless provocation” like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, Cliteur writes that Islam is in fact a real “fire” and that people needed to be warned.

The author also examines in depth what was considered a supreme test of the commitment of western democracies to free speech: the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. Khomeini issued a fatwa that included a $1.5 million reward for killing the author. The book was banned in India, South Africa, Venezuela, and eight other countries.  Protestors burned the book in England and the publisher, Penguin, was petitioned to cease publication. Despite Muslim demands, the British government announced that blasphemy laws would not be changed. Rushdie went into hiding, eventually issuing an apology that was rejected with his death sentence reconfirmed.  Massive rioting took place in Bombay, demonstrations occurred in New York City, two Berkeley bookstores were firebombed and 50,000 Muslims protested in London. 

The Rushdie incident illustrated the contradiction between secular constitutions and Islamic blasphemy laws, Cliteur says. The author maintains that eliminating offensiveness in a free society is not possible and asks, if a religion can be offended, then how about a philosophy, a political ideology or a scientific theory?  He also asks that if respect is required for all religions, even cults and satanic beliefs, is it legitimate to discriminate? 

He astutely observes that Rushdie and his work would not have been criticized if a fatwa hadn’t been issued.  Cliteur asserts that Rushdie’s critics, primarily multiculturalists, rejected The Satanic Verses based on the interpretations and feelings of others. Many critics denounced Rushdie for offending Muslims and failing to consider their response, mistakes that justified the call to violence. They viewed consciousness raising and critical discussion of religious beliefs as misguided and felt that Western liberal thinkers needed to “learn to reach out more” and be less “self-satisfied.”  They focused on understanding the terrorists and not the cartoonists, novelists and artists threatened by religious zealots. 

The author asks if by calling for “respect for Muslims,” multiculturalists were, in fact, condoning Islamic violence. Furthermore, the novel’s publication was completely legitimate under the legal system where Rushdie resided.  Was it fair for him to be punished under the laws of an unknown and foreign legal system by a self-appointed judge with no respect for national sovereignty?

Common to all incidents cited by the author in Theoterrorism is that “Islamophobia” accusations and retaliation threats can be instruments of hostage-taking of entire populations, spreading fear among targeted citizens, entire societies and governments.  They impose Islamic blasphemy laws or sharia on non-Muslim societies, democracies that honor citizen rights to free expression without censorship or restraint. Cliteur wonders if the careers of cartoonists and political satirists could end as a result of Muslim appeasement. A fatwa of unknown duration creates fear everywhere when people realize they lack government protection in their own lands under their own laws. Can hurt feelings by any group be a precondition to undermine core values of free speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion by democratic societies?  If so, the creep of sharia law will surely annihilate these western values.

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