Lars Hedegaard, a Danish writer who has been critical of Islam and Muslims in the West, is reported to have survived an assault by a gunman whose bullet flew past his ear. Hedegaard is said to have punched him, causing him to drop his weapon and flee the scene. The nature of the incident cannot be asserted with absolute confidence but it seems probable enough that we can ask if it represents the continuation of a pattern.
God, I wish it didn’t. Unfortunately, you would have to have been living under a boulder to be too surprised by this. The list of people who have insulted, opposed or questioned Islam and Muslims in their words and then faced violence in response is daunting. Theo Van Gough was butchered in the street. Kurt Westergaard was forced to hide with his 5 year-old granddaughter as an axe-wielding thug rampaged through his house. The offices of Charlie Hebdo were bombed. The publishers of Sherry Jones were burned. Lars Vilks has faced the plots of terrorists; an arson attack; an assault and at least one egging. All of this, let us remind ourselves, was because these people drew cartoons, made films and published novels.
I am sure that there are people who would explain this not as religious supremacism but as the response of embattled people to persecution. This explanation collapses underneath the weight of the objection that violence against real and supposed heretics and blasphemers is more prevalent in nations where Islam is dominant. Never mind a place like Pakistan, where people are often killed for challenging blasphemy laws as well as for blaspheming. In the Maldives Ismail Rasheed could be stoned and stabbed; in Indonesia Alexander Aan faced a mob attack; in Nigeria, a man was macheted to death after he mispronounced a name and it sounded blasphemous.
European governments, of course, amid this irregular war against the freedom of expression, have been busily extending restrictions on speech to cover that which is held to be insulting and offensive. Hedegaard himself was fined about £600 for anti-Muslim statements that a blogger chose to publish. That people can say foolish and unpleasant things is undeniable. I do not know Hedegaard and cannot judge whether he tends to fall within or outside of this category. This, though, hardly matters. Opinions can be ignored and gunmen can’t, and when you are in the vicinity of both it is not hard to judge which should be your priority.
It is vital that these thugs be frustrated in their desire to live free of criticism and questions. As we have observed before, people have taken the fear of being offensive to heart. It it true, of course, that it would be pointless and mean to set out to wound people. Hypersensitivity, however, should not be indulged or it will not have to adapt. Where indulging it would constrains intellectual progress and threatens social harmony it has to adapt. Others have censored themselves for fear of risking their own necks. This is understandable – I am very attached to my neck – but it is also unwise. Allowing the hypersensitive to remain comfortable feeds their sense of entitlement. It will only make them angrier when your ideas and values inevitably clash. And, besides, cases like that of the Nigerian or the girl in Pakistan whose “blasphemous” misspelling prompted riots are evidence that trying to be polite need not save one from outrage.
That words alone can defeat the violent is, of course, delusive. This conflict is the inevitable consequences of unchecked multiculturalism and the grimmer business of excluding theocrats and supremacists from and within our societies remains crucial. Yet words are important. The more that good-natured satire and critical scrutiny is applied to religions the more their followers will accept that intimidation is a blunt and unwieldy weapon in the cause of facing it. Others are likely to find critiques so unanswerable that they are forced to adapt their creeds to fit new premises, and where the fundamentalism has been punctured the aggression deflates.
It is far from rare to hear commentators in the West being described as “brave” merely for expressing opinions that are slightly unorthodox. In facing pejoratives and, perhaps, the occasional insult many of us appear to seem that writers are being courageous. If we are so sensitive to the verbal assaults that people can endure after expressing their opinions we should appreciate the scale of the horror wrapped up in the fact that people assert a view and then be faced with eggs, axes, bombs and gunmen.