This text was composed on behalf of Winter Nights – International literature festival The Hague – centering on the theme ‘Heroes of the Mind ’. The author presented the essay to open the programme ‘I Capitulate – a debate about threats, solidarity and self-censure in art and journalism’ with Breyten Breytenbach (South-Africa), Marjolijn Februari, Sybrand van Haersma Buma, Bas Heijne, Joesoef Isak (Indonesië) and. Michaël Zeeman.

Afshin Ellian: Stop Capitulating to Threats

february 2006 -

Preserving freedom of expression is the cheapest and most sustainable way to govern a country and keep it stable. This was the unsolicited advice of Akbar Gandji to the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Iranian journalist and political philosopher Gandji was jailed over six years ago. For how long, would be the obvious question in a state subject to the rule of law, where the government acts in accordance with previously published statutes. But the possible date of Gandji's release is as arbitrary as were his prosecution and sentencing. The tragic story of freedom of expression as a human right has a special place in the worldwide picture of the infringement of human rights. The reason is obvious: suppression of freedom of expression is often a prelude to other human rights abuses.

In most Islamic countries and cultures freedom of expression is unknown. And that is nothing new. Chauvinism, ethnic nationalism and religious fanaticism often generate an aggressive attitude to dissidents.

Recently, like other countries, the Netherlands has been confronted with these phenomena. It may not yet have impinged on everyone, but it is true. Before I deal with it more fully, I would first like to discuss a manifestation of it in the Islamic world: the murder of the intellectual Kasrawi.

Whenever intellectuals in an Islamic country wish to engage in critical debates, they will face serious problems. A notorious example is what happened to Ahmad Kasrawi (1891-1946). This jurist, historian and journalist is unknown in the Western world, but had a great reputation in Iran as a champion of human rights and liberal constitutional principles. Kasrawi had also researched the political theology of Islam, and in his work had criticised the Shiite concept of the imam. A number of ayatollahs accused him of kuffer (atheism), and his books were publicly burnt. While the Allied troops in Iran (the Americans based in Teheran), excitedly watched the collapse of Nazism in Europe, a strange event took place in Teheran. A talib (the singular form of taliban = religious pupil) called Nawab Safawie had set up a secret organisation to fight “the enemies of Islam” by force, the Islamic Fedayin. Safawie went to an ayatollah and asked for a fatwa against Kasrawi. His request was granted, that is, a fatwa requiring the death penalty. On 28 April 1945 Safawie carried out an assassination attempt on Kasrawi in broad daylight. Kasrawi survived the attack. The culprit was arrested, but subsequently managed to escape to Najaf (Iraq), where he headed a terrorist group for a while.

March 1946. The continent of Europe was free once more. But in Teheran the struggle over freedom of expression erupted again. On the basis of charges by a number of Taliban, Kasrawi was summonsed to appear before the public prosecutor in Teheran on a charge of sacrilegious blasphemy. Initially the Iranian legal system was reluctant to prosecute him. At first they hoped to be able to refer the case to the Allied forces, appealing to the Allied treaty guaranteeing freedom of expression to all Iranians. However, the Allies considered the case an internal matter. It has since emerged that the Americans persuaded the Iranian police to guard Kasrawi’s house. The High Court, Teheran, 11 March 1946, the day on which Kasrawi was to be tried. Through the press eight members of the Fedayin of Islam knew the time and place of the hearing. They stormed the court, killing Kasrawi and his secretary. The perpetrators used both firearms to kill the writer and a knife to mutilate his body.

The parallel with the Netherlands may be gradually becoming clear. Because this dangerous tradition has unfortunately been exported to Europe. On 2 November 2004 the film-maker and columnist Theo van Gogh was murdered. Europeans were deeply shocked by his assassination. The culprit, Mohammed Bouyeri stated in court that he had acted from religious conviction. Mohammed Bouyeri’s concluding, almost magical words were bewildering, for the average Dutch citizen at least:

‘Another thing about your criticism. Perhaps by Moroccans you mean Muslims. I don’t blame you, because the same law that calls on me to behead all those who denigrate Allah and his Prophet, that same law calls on me not to settle in this country. Or at least not in a country where freedom of speech, as described by the public prosecutor, is proclaimed. (…) And I think that those police officers who were confronted with me on 2 November, have the right to know: I did not shoot to spare you, I shot to kill and to be killed.’

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. It was a symbol of the totalitarian Marxism that had held the Eastern-bloc states and part of Western Europe in its grip for almost a century. In the Soviet Union and its satellite states countless writers were subjugated and had their freedom restricted. But that same year a new form of totalitarianism reared its head: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued by Ayatollah Khomeiny which – very much in the tradition of the murder of Kasrawi – also called for the murder of a writer, this time a British one. The attack on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses could perhaps be seen as the as the birth of Talibanism in Europe: book burnings, threats and terrorist attacks on the publishers and translators ensued. The European states and their intelligentsia refused to give in to these terrorist threats. The International Writers’ Parliament also had the courage to resist supra-national forms of terror. But Europe seems to have lost that resilience. Unfortunately after the murder of Van Gogh there was a change of heart on freedom of expression. This concerns film Submission, made by Theo van Gogh and the Dutch member of parliament Ayaan Hrisi Ali about the oppression of women in Islamic culture.

The film Submission has not been shown since 2 November 2004.

In fact, the film is under an informal screening ban. This ban has been decreed not by any authority but by criminal groups threatening terrorist acts. In 2005 in the Netherlands the producers do not dare show a ten-minute film to the public because the safety of their production company cannot be guaranteed. We are beginning to regard this as normal in the Netherlands as elsewhere. Actually, why are we fighting for freedom of expression for artists and journalists in autocratic countries like Iran when the situation in the Netherlands is starting to look suspiciously similar?

Fortunately the Satanic Verses are being republished here, but is that really still feasible? Hasn’t the book become like a lighted cigarette in a powder keg? Free speech is in danger of being increasingly restricted by invoking “Islamophobia” and “racism”. And some intellectuals have already capitulated. For example, the opera Aisha was called off in Rotterdam in 2001, because the wife of the Prophet was depicted on stage. The production had to be cancelled because a number of actresses felt
threatened. Recently a columnist on the national daily NRC Handelsblad, Hasna el Maroudi was forced to abandon her column because of threats of violence from the Moroccan community. What has happened to civil courage? Why do we hear nothing from the publishers, artists, media and colleagues of people who have capitulated about the consequences of this voluntary capitulation?

We should expect civil courage not only from those who are threatened, but also from those around them, their publishers, producers, colleagues, etc.

I have encountered political-religious intolerance before. I know how it begins, how it develops. Let no one say that we are in the grip of Islamophobia or racism. Believe me – they are very different. Luther was not a Catholicophobe. He was critical of the church. Voltaire was not a religiophobe. He was simply critical of the intolerant manifestations of religion. Should the Reformation have been warded off on the grounds that Luther “must not stigmatise all Catholics”?

Intellectuals themselves are increasingly calling for self-censorship and politically correct reporting of intolerant tendencies. Has this country lost its appetite for freedom? Has the country where Pierre Bayle and John Locke published their books become a land of veiled opinions?

No one is trying stigmatise or lump together all the adherents of a particular faith. To repeat that constantly that is a malicious allegation. But what must be maintained is the opportunity to criticise religion freely, even if that upsets the radicals.

In the Netherlands of all places we have tradition to uphold. We would have found it unacceptable in bookshops had refused to sell the Satanic Verses. This matter is no longer a local affair. We must overcome our fears through a form of international solidarity. Now it is the Netherlands that needs such solidarity. Therefore I believe that the matter should be internationalised.

An international committee must be set up to administer the film Submission and make it available to everyone (who wishes to show it). In this way the ban on showings can be circumvented. A democratic culture cannot function without civil courage. So let us show courage and lift the ban on the film Submission.

Afshin Ellian is Professor of Social Cohesion, Citizenship and Multicultural Studies
Department of Legal Theory (Encyclopaedia of Jurisprudence)
Leiden University
Faculty of Law