Anyone who thought the age of plague might have banished the specter of religious fanaticism was disabused last week when a middle school teacher in a Paris suburb was beheaded by an Islamist fanatic for displaying caricatures of the prophet Mohammad during a class discussion about free speech. The assailant, a teenager of Chechen origin, murdered and then decapitated his victim before being killed by French police. Less than a fortnight before, there was a stabbing outside the Parisian offices formerly occupied by the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which France’s interior minister also described as an “act of Islamist terrorism.”
The stubborn persistence of Islamist terror speaks to the durability of ferocious faith-based dogmas, one of which seeks to reintroduce secular Western democracies to the long-forgotten notion of “blasphemy.” This will only come as a surprise to those with short memories. Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa suborning the murder of Salman Rushdie for merely writing a novel reignited the old debate about the place of tolerance in an age of religious hatred. More than 30 years later, theocratic forces have grown more diffuse but also tenacious.
Religious pluralism has long been understood as the best means of suppressing and overcoming dangerous religious passions. “If there were only one religion in England,” remarked Voltaire, “there would be danger of despotism, if there were two they would cut each other’s throats, but there are thirty and they live in peace and happiness.” It would be delusional to believe that Voltaire’s native land is approaching despotism, but it isn’t quite living in peace and happiness either. (One suspects the author of Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le prophète might have expected this disharmony between the republic and its Muslim citizens.) France is not a country of one religion or two, but of many and none. Its secular state sits atop a largely post-Christian society that is increasingly contending with a phenomenon of what Emanuel Macron recently described as “Islamic separatism.” France is hardly alone among European democracies in housing a swelling and poorly integrated Islamic population, but its condition is advanced since a non-trivial number of the country’s six million Muslims risk forming what Macron calls a “counter-society.”
Around the world, numerous societies are beset by the spasms of violence produced by radical Islam. A new form of religious fanaticism, fueled by Islamist passions and enabled by progressive idiocy, holds what Timothy Garton Ash calls the “assassin’s veto” over what materials may be published and consumed. It has led to vicious and sometimes lethal attacks on freethinkers far and wide, while producing a climate of fear and self-censorship among those who would ordinarily criticize religious ideas without apology.
This is an intolerable state of affairs. The brazen intimidation of free expression and the innocent blood actually being shed (the vast majority of which is Muslim blood, as it happens) is evidence of a severe problem within the Islamic faith that requires criticism. It demands that a battle of ideas be waged against Islamism and on behalf of free expression. It is imperative that every government that claims to belong to the civilized world be fully engaged in this effort. This will not be easy. Such an open confrontation with Muslim totalitarianism will not merely elicit outrage among the most bloodthirsty factions of those believing Mohammed to be God’s last messenger on Earth. It will also be condemned by what the British Muslim writer and activist Maajid Nawaz dubs “the regressive Left,” which regards any scrutiny of Islam and Islamism as an act of “Islamophobia.”
In the weeks after the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, the liberal writer Jonathan Chait summarized the apologetics of this faction as follows: “On the one hand, religious extremists should not threaten people who offend their beliefs. On the other hand, nobody should offend their beliefs. The right to blasphemy should exist but only in theory.” He continued: “The line separating these two positions is perilously thin. The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome.”
It has been said often before, but in the aftermath of the two Parisian attacks, it bears repeating—both Islamists and their ostensibly secular defenders must be resisted. They must understand that the defense of universal human rights is not a provocation, much less a “phobia,” but a moral obligation. The campaign of undisguised menace against artists and writers and cartoonists who question or mock revered scriptures and religious figures is granted too much credence in certain quarters that proclaim to merely be respecting “Muslim sensibilities.” What these peace-at-any-price observers don’t grasp, however, is that it is only recently (with the rise of Wahhabism) that the portrayal of Mohammad has been deemed blasphemous. In any case, scrutiny of religious texts and prophets is a foundational element of the Enlightenment. Surrender that keystone principle, and what remains of the larger edifice?
The consequence of failing to prosecute this struggle in defense of freedom of religion and freedom of speech will be the steady erosion of tolerance and inquiry in the name of good manners. It could lead to what the British writer Kenan Malik has called an “auction of victimhood,” with offended groups competing to see if they can receive special exemptions and get their taboo images removed from the public eye. A decade after Jyllands-Posten published the Danish cartoons of Mohammad in 2005, it chose not to republish the Charlie Hebdo drawings, citing its “unique position” of vulnerability. Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the original cartoons, told the BBC, “We caved in.” “Violence works,” he added, and “sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.”
The cycle of Islamist intimidation and secular surrender is fraught with risk. France faces the prospect of being split into rival nations: one that lives in a secular republic and another one that lives in the shadow of sharia and blasphemy codes, even if the Islamic law is de facto rather than de jure. If this fate is permitted to come to pass, the cause of civilization will lose a vital foothold in Europe, with repercussions far beyond the old continent.
The rising secularism and pluralism of modern societies has been a crowning achievement of the West. It need not become a problem so long as there is a staunch and pervasive belief in the legitimacy of the liberal creed. Without such belief, however, societies around the globe will be poorly equipped to cope with a confident and militant faith in their midst. And as long as this faith enjoys exaggerated deference and intellectual immunity, nobody’s throats will be safe.
Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer primarily focused on US foreign and defense policy. You can follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.