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Not since the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s has free speech been as endangered as it is today. Firebombing publishers, murdering filmmakers, issuing death threats against writers and cartoonists, suing researchers, restricting freedom of expression through the U.N. — these are some of the ways militant Islamists, their enablers and apologists, are seeking to silence their critics.
Intimidation is another. It operates on campuses and within the Foreign Policy Establishment. A recent experience may be instructive.
I participate in a "list-serve," a kind of on-line, chat among foreign policy specialists: former intelligence, Foreign Service and military officers, academics and think tank denizens.
One posted an article about an attempt to "temper" the religious beliefs of detainees in Iraq before releasing them. A former ambassador (I’m not including names here in the interest of privacy) wrote that "we’re finally learning something from Saudi success."
I asked if the sermons preached in Saudi Arabia’s government-supported mosques were generally temperate these days. I had been given to understand that Saudi clerics frequently refer to Jews and Christians in hostile terms.
He replied that in his experience, "most sermons in Saudi mosques do advocate peace as well as respect for Judaism and Christianity."
I consulted MEMRI, an organization that translates materials from Arabic, and found the titles of a few sermons that didn’t sound so respectful and peaceful, for example: "The Christians and the Jews are Infidels, Enemies of Allah;” "Jews — The Descendants of Pigs and Apes;” "Muslims Must Educate Their Children to Jihad and to Hatred of Jews and Christians."
The ambassador and I might have gone back and forth in this spirit – sharply disagreeing but remaining civil in tone — for some time. But another member of the list-serve, an Arab-American academic chimed in. He said he was becoming "increasingly uncomfortable with the assumptions considered legitimate particularly those of Cliff.
"It does not particularly scare me to have ‘NASCAR dads’ or ‘hockey moms’ fear and loathe something they have little or no direct contact with, namely Islam, Muslims, and the Islamic World," he wrote. "Since I’ve come to assume such dangerous naivete in recent years, I usually wander around these United States gently jesting with their fears over beers while kvetching about my precious New Orleans Saints. However, such ill-informed opinions rattling around within a high level, peer-reviewed, vetted, well-connected, DC-based, and ‘elite’ group of security experts … is truly frightening."
He proceeded not to address my points but to insist that to "have a respectable opinion" on this topic requires "advanced knowledge of Arabic, and attendance over an extended period of time at several different mosques throughout different sections of Saudi Arabia."
In other words, since I don’t speak Arabic and have not spent time in Saudi mosques (and notwithstanding the fact that "infidels" are generally forbidden to do so) I should shut up.
He added that while he had "no doubt that objectionable things are on occasion said within certain mosques in Saudi Arabia" he was certain that "objectionable things are said in certain churches, synagogues, and mosques in the United States."
"As an American who would be lazily placed in the box of ‘Muslim’ should this country ever erupt in ethno-sectarian violence of the sort that we’ve visited upon Iraq" — by "we" he means Americans, of course — "I fear this extremism far more than that sometimes in evidence in Saudi Arabia."
I haven’t space here for my entire reply, but I did tell him that while he was free to play the victim and fear American Christians, Jews and NASCAR fans, "until these folks are issuing death threats and hijacking jets and slamming them into skyscrapers such moral equivalence is ludicrous, outrageous and insulting to the intelligence."
If any members of the list-serve agreed with me, they kept it to themselves. Indeed, the ambassador scolded me for having "gone too far." Is there a threat to free speech in their acquiescence to the charge that it is not "legitimate" to criticize the hate speech emanating from Saudi Arabia — home of 15 of the 19 terrorists of 9/11– a country whose oil-rich citizens continue to fund terrorism around that world? You’re entitled to make up your own mind — for now at least.
(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)