This article is based on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s speech in Berlin on April 19.
It is nearly 10 years since a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, unleashing a storm of protest by Muslims around the world, and exposing a rift in Europe between true believers in free expression and those prepared to appease religious zealots. At around that time, I came to Berlin to defend the right to offend. Sadly, that right is less secure today than it was in 2005.
Think only of the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris on January 7, and the gruesome shootings of the people in the Jewish deli that same day. And then consider the bewildering comments by the American cartoonist Garry Trudeau in a speech he gave ten days ago, in which he condemned “free speech absolutists” for not using “judgment and common sense.” By publishing “crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons,” Trudeau declared, “Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.” He even criticized the French authorities for arresting “Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks.” Would he have preferred them to arrest Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo?
I am a free speech absolutist. Perhaps the biggest tragedy in the West today is the fact that freedom of speech is no longer a right that we can take for granted. It is now a privilege available only to those with armed security.
Those who want to silence the debate on Islam — on what is explicitly done in the name of Muhammad, and according to the instructions of the Quran — are not only threatened with physical assassination, but must also endure systematic attempts at character assassination.
But I will not be silenced by threats. How can I be silent? Has the threat from radical Islam diminished since 2005? Am I to say nothing when Ethiopian Christians are brutally beheaded by supporters of the so-called Islamic State in Libya? Am I to be silent as the mayhem caused by the jihadists drives thousands to risk their lives, desperately fleeing across the Mediterranean to Europe? I shall not be silent. And least of all in Germany.