The Nature and Limits of Academic Freedom in a multicultural society

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The Nature and Limits of Academic Freedom in a multicultural society

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The Nature and Limits of Academic Freedom in a multicultural society
Paul Cliteur

Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Leiden, The Netherlands

25 november 2004, Ethical Forum
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is very difficult, not to say impossible, to talk on freedom of speech, academic freedom and political correctness in the Netherlands without reference to the recent developments in the Low Countries.

The Netherlands, once a country renowned for its freedom, tolerance, and optimistic attitude towards what has been called the multicultural society goes through a deep crisis. Let me tell you why.

On the 6th of May 2002 the controversial and charismatic Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was murdered on the street. His murderer was not – what some people expected and everyone feared at that time – a Muslim fundamentalist, but an activist for green politics.

But on the 2nd of November 2004 happened what conspicuous commentators feared for a long time. Filmmaker and writer Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered in Amsterdam. On his body was connected a kind of death treat to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch liberal and feminist politician from Somali background who is committed to the liberation of women, mainly Moslima’s.

Hirsi Ali has been threatened many times during her career as a politician and before. She is one of the most heavily guarded persons in The Netherlands at the moment, if not the most. At the moment she has hardly any room for manoeuvre, is constantly under surveillance in so called “safe houses”, and she even disappeared from parliament. Since the murder of Van Gogh she has not appeared in public. There is no contact with her, neither by telephone, and neither by mail, except for a small number of people who are not her personal friends or family. Whether this is on her own request or on the behest of the Dutch government is unclear.

Another person who is under constant surveillance is the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who defected from the Dutch Liberal Party because of it’s (according to Wilders) soft attitude towards Muslim extremism and the admission of Turkey to the European Union. Wilders has its own fraction now.

The appearance of Muslim fundamentalism on the European scene
What these developments seem to make clear is that Muslim fundamentalism has a firm hold in The Netherlands. The Netherlands is the first country in Europe where, according to Gilles Kepel, a typical Jihadist killing of a writer occurred.

This is a sensitive issue tough. In the public debate there is a great schism between two camps. On the one hand there is the group that wants to get rid of all political correctness and openly avows that there is a problem with Muslim fundamentalism. On the other hand there is the group that reproaches the first group with stigmatizing Muslims and causing social tensions. Since the death of Theo Van Gogh this debate is far from academic, and far from free. The qualification of “critic of the Islam”, not to speak of derogatory alternatives like “Muslim basher”, is a dangerous epithet now.

Since the death of Theo van Gogh a few optimist ideas about the threat of Muslim terrorism have evaporated.

The first myth: terrorists do not kill outsiders
The first myth is that especially apostates, believers that defected from the Muslim faith, run the risk of being eliminated by terrorists. Van Gogh himself supposed this was the case. He called himself the “lunatic of the village”. His life would not be in jeopardy, so Van Gogh repeatedly contended, but the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali certainly was. Van Gogh made together with Hirsi Ali the film Submission about the subjection of women under islam. Van Gogh feared for her life, not his own life. She was an apostate, and she was a woman. He, Theo van Gogh, would not be killed. We know now, that this was overoptimistic. Muslim terrorists do not kill apostates, but outsiders as well. That is also the message that we can learn from the threats to Geert Wilders.

The second myth: terrorists do not kill people without political power
The second myth that evaporated is that only people with power run the risk of a terrorist attack. Some people thought that Fortuyn was eliminated because he was a man with political power. In the polls his party was the greatest in Parliament. People speculated about Pim Fortuyn being the next prime minister. In the depth of his political career, when he was rejected as the leader of one of the Dutch political parties at the time, Leefbaar Nederland, he boasted: “Watch my words. I will be the next prime minister of this country.” And just before his murder this prospect was a viable option. So the murderer killed a very influential man. The murder also said: “This man had to be stopped”. And so he did. Volkert van der G. killed Fortuyn, he “stopped” Fortuyn by pulling the trigger.

This second myth that especially politicians, people with power, are targeted, was blown up with the killing of Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh was, a filmmaker and writer, a man without political power, without a movement behind him, and yet he was killed.

The third myth: terrorists kill only vehement critics of the islam
That brings me to a third myth that evaporated in the aftermath of the killing of Van Gogh. That third myth has something to with the polemical style of Van Gogh. Van Gogh was a very rude, impolite, and sometimes almost diabolical figure. He could insult people with the most vigorous qualifications. After his death many people wondered why not more people and organizations had sued him for vilification and libel and on other grounds. Of course, nobody openly said that Van Gogh asked for a retaliation in the sense of the Jihadist murder that became his destiny, or that he directly caused his own death, but many people had the idea “this can happen only to a man who has gone much too far in insulting other people”.

And there was also the theory of the politically correct elite who reproached Van Gogh for stigmatizing immigrants, Muslim’s in particular. Was his death not at least partly his own fault?

This third myth evaporated when after the death of Van Gogh two other people, Ismael A. and Jason W., were arrested by the police, suspected of the planning of a murder for four Dutch politicians. The first two targets were to be expected. They were Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. The third and fourth targets, however, were new. Also the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, and his colleague Ahmed Aboutaleb were targets. On the internet there appeared a letter similar to the letter that was found on the dead body of Van Gogh in which Aboutaleb was called a “stubborn unbeliever”, “heretic” and an adherent of the doctrine of the separation of church and state (secularism).

This new material is no hard evidence yet. Nevertheless research journalists find more and more evidence that there is a certain group of Muslim terrorists, called the “Hofstad group”, and that Ismail A. and Jason W. who planned the latest murder trials, are part of this group. There also seems to be a kind of ideological leader of the group, the German-Syrian Radwan al Issa.

If this information is correct a third myth about the nature of the recent murder trials has been blown up. This is the myth that only people like Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders are targeted because of their forceful attack on Islam. Neither Cohen, nor Aboutaleb, were forceful critics of Islam. On the contrary. Cohen is under severe pressure from his critics, especially Hirsi Ali, because of his soft, politically correct and lax approach of the problems of the multicultural society. If Cohen is targeted by Muslim terrorists, this cannot have to do with “islamophobia”, “xenophobia”, “islam-bashing”, because in this respect the mayor of Amsterdam has a clean slate. What is the reason for targeting Cohen? The scholar Hans Jansen, Professor in Utrecht, specialist in political islam, presents the answer: Cohen has a Jewish background and this must be the reason for Muslim extremists to target him.

So the situation seems to be that Muslim terrorists attack: politicians and writers, who are considered to be heretics, jews, islam-critics, even secularists (Aboutaleb), and especially, of course, combinations of these supposed identities.

Above all that, is important to note that Hirsi Ali and Wilders are considered to be right wing politicians. But Cohen en Aboutaleb are members of the PvdA, the Dutch labour party. So not only liberals, but also social democrats are targeted.

The long term consequences of the new situation
I believe that the radical implications of the new state of affairs has not been estimated adequately. The implications of this state of affairs are far-reaching. If the “lunatic of the village”, mocking Islam, can be liquidated; if the mayor can be targeted for his Jewish identity; if the Moroccan labour politician can be threatened because of his supposed heretical and secular views – where is the end?

The Dutch authorities have no idea how to tackle the problem. Some people advocated for the protection of public intellectuals. If the critics of Islam are targeted, why not protect them? But the minister of the interior did not want to enlarge upon what is called the “public domain”. Politicians, mayors, in short: people working in government are protected by a special taskforce, because they belong to that “public domain”. Intellectuals, university professors, journalists are not part of that public domain. So the members of the last category are responsible for their own protection. I suspect that this will imply self-censorship for everybody who does not want to end his days as a martyr for free speech.

Another rather bizarre reaction from the side government is that the minister of justice advocated a revitalization of the blasphemy laws. There is, of course, a certain idea behind this. Theo van Gogh was a blasphemer. Perhaps the Muslim community can be pacified if the state prosecutes blasphemers, the minister of justice must have thought?

But if we reflect on this ideal a little further we will understand that this will not work. Those who want to take vengeance in the name of God are not pacified by lenient sentences that are applicable in those cases in contemporary democracies. The punishment for blasphemy in Holy Scripture is the death penalty. The punishment for blasphemy proscribed in art. 147 of the Dutch penal code is three months prison. In the Netherlands, the death penalty has been abolished in 1870 and the minister of justice has not argued for a reintroduction. So I do not think that this move of the Dutch minister of justice of promising a more uncompromising attitude towards blasphemers is very helpful.

The mufti and the martyr
There is some controversy among Islamic scholars about the necessity of official sanctioning for religious killing. According to the French scholar Gilles Kepel the murder of Van Gogh is a Jihadist killing. First the victim was shot, after that the murderer tried to decapitate the filmmaker. Mohammed B., the murderer, failed in decapitating mr. Van Gogh. According to Kepel the decapitation is obligatory because the corpse without head cannot enter paradise.

According to Kepel no fatwa was issued in the case of Van Gogh. Otherwise this would have been announced on the internet. In the new era after 9/11 fatwa’s are not necessary.

But according to the Dutch scholar in Islamic studies Hans Jansen official orthodoxy still requires a fatwa for a religious murder. There must be a mufti somewhere who sanctioned the killing of mr. Van Gogh.

The long term consequences of the murder of mr. Van Gogh
The long term consequences of the murder are mr. van Gogh are far reaching, not in the least for academic freedom in a multicultural society. There are two conceptions of Freedom of speech.

The first or traditional conception of free speech is the a free domain of the individual from government interference. You have freedom of speech insofar as the government does not use its force against the individual for his utterances. Presupposed to this conception of free speech is that government has the monopoly of violence.

In the new era also states like The Netherlands run the risk of being “failed states”. Martyr operations violate the monopoly of punishment in the hands of the state. If the mufti and the martyr are dissatisfied with the lenient sentences for blasphemy they create their own procedures, their own punishments, their own executions. At this moment there is great legal uncertainty. It is like a kafkaesk process. We do not know what our sins are. There is no clear idea about the punishment. There is no court of appeal. The distribution of religious vengeance is capricious.

Now a new conception of free speech comes to the fore. Free speech is that room for manoeuvre that private organizations leave you to speak your mind. Not the state, but the mufti and the martyr determine the range of free speech.

Not people will realize this, but The Netherlands is already is a state of self-censorship. There was an opinion poll to the film Submission by Van Gogh and Hirsi Ali. The question was: “What do you think of the film ‘Submission’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh.” Ten percent said: “scandalous”. Twenty percent said: “provocative”. Twenty-two procent said: “confronting”. Forty-four percent said: “necessary”. So a clear majority of the Dutch population thinks the film was necessary. But there will be nobody who dares to make such a film. On the contrary, everywhere we see that filmmakers cancel their projects because of fear. The follow up of “Shouf Shouf Habibi”, a kind of parody on the multicultural society, has been cancelled by the director.

We, as academics, should not be naïve. Europe has been in this condition for the greater part of its existence. From the rise of Christianity to the 17th and even 18th century there was no complete freedom of religion in the sense of the freedom to criticize religion. Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza, David Hume, Montesquieu, and even Voltaire – they all wrote under censorship. That makes it difficult to ascertain what exactly was their position in matters of atheism, agnosticism and related positions. Some people were smart enough to foresee this. One of the greatest scholars on Islam is Ibn Warraq. Ibn Warraq wrote on The Origins of the Koran, The Quest for the Historical Mohhamad, and Leaving Islam. But he was clever enough to do this under a false name, like many of the great philosophers of the past.

The question is: what this will mean for scholars as Bernard Lewis. The greatest American Islamic scholar Lewis still writes under his own name. But his books What went wrong and The Crisis of Islam present the kind of secularism that Ahmed Aboutaleb has brought under a severe regime of government surveillance.

And let us look at the ideas of Hirsi Ali. They are not that extreme. They are the same ideas that can be found in the books of Ernest Renan or Jeremy Bentham or any other great freethinker or liberal theologian.

I do not want to be pessimistic but as far as I can see there is no reason to exclude the possibility of future attacks on critical scholars as there have been on the Dutch filmmaker. Those scholars may be Islamic scholars, but also philosophers or legal scholars advocating the separation of church and state. If the state does not reclaim its lost territory, there is no alternative for self-censorship. I have heard many people say “this will never happen” of “I will never do that”. But those heroic gestures were in many cases made by people who had not the same opinions as Mr. Van Gogh and ms. Hirsi Ali. There foresee be an upsurge of political correctness in The Netherlands and perhaps other European countries as well. But this will be for a considerable part a political correctness motivated by justified fear, not political correctness from an inner conviction.

The Nature and Limits of Academic Freedom in a multicultural society
Paul Cliteur
May 6th 2002: murder of Pim Fortuyn by Volkert van de G. (operating on his own)
November 2nd 2004: murder of Theo van Gogh by Mohammed B. (Muslim extremist, part of an organization: the Hofstad-group)
Some myths evaporated the last weeks
Myth 1: Only apostates like Hirsi Ali are killed or targeted to kill (not true Wilders and Van Gogh are no apostates)
Myth 2: Only people with political power are killed or targeted to kill (not true: Van Gogh had no political power)
Myth 3: Only vehement critics of the Islam are targeted (not true: mayor of Amsterdam Cohen and colleague Aboutaleb are targeted. Reasons: Cohen: jewish background, Aboutaleb: heretic, unbeliever, secularist)
Consequences for academic freedom
Potentially great consequences. Self-censorship. Writing under false names. The Dutch government in disarray. No protection for public intellectuals. Revitalization of blasphemy laws.

  • The appearance of Muslim fundamentalism on the European scene
  • The first myth: terrorists do not kill outsiders
  • The second myth: terrorists do not kill people without political power
  • The third myth: terrorists kill only vehement critics of the islam
  • The long term consequences of the new situation
  • The mufti and the martyr
  • The long term consequences of the murder of mr. Van Gogh
  • The Nature and Limits of Academic Freedom in a multicultural society

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