How ‘free speech’ is used to justify Islamophobia

Over at the London Review of Books Adam Shatz has an interesting review of two books – A Norwegian Tragedy: Anders Behring Breivik and the Massacre on Utøya by Aage Borchgrevink, and Anders Breivik and the Rise of Islamophobia by Sindre Bangstad.

Shatz places against the atrocities committed by Breivik against a background of rising Islamophobia in Norway. He concludes with some good points about how anti-Muslim bigotry has gone mainstream, justified by an appeal to the principle of free speech.

Eurabia ideologues have been given a platform by liberal intellectuals and the Norwegian press. Hysterical polemics about Islam and Muslim immigration are easy to come by in liberal papers like Klassekampen. So are articles that confirm the hysteria, such as a recent interview with a Norwegian admirer of Isis, which appeared in a liberal newspaper without any editorial note questioning his claim to be speaking for all Muslims. Liberal tolerance for anti-Muslim hate speech, Bangstad argues, goes back to the Rushdie affair, when Norway became the first country to publish The Satanic Verses in translation…. since then a kind of ‘free speech absolutism’ has steadily chipped away at any concern for minority protections against racist and discriminatory speech, which are guaranteed by Norwegian law. A popular narrative had emerged that Muslims were uncomfortable with free speech, and that there was an irreconcilable conflict between Norwegian ‘values’ and Muslim ‘culture’. The press became ‘an arena for confrontation rather than dialogue’ – a forum for inflammatory views about Islam. Tolerance for ‘free speech’ has been widely construed as a loyalty test. ‘The right to offend bishops and imams is absolutely central to our way of life,’ Per Edgar Kokkvold, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Press Association, has explained. ‘If they happen to dislike it, they must leave.’

The situation hasn’t improved since the Breivik massacre. The press gave lavish coverage to a tiny protest by radical Islamists outside the US Embassy over the YouTube video Innocence of Muslims, attended by eighty people, but virtually ignored a demonstration of 6000 people organised by the Islamic Council of Norway with support from Oslo’s Lutheran bishop. As Bangstad writes, the press has had a love affair with the ‘young and marginalised Muslims’ who are ‘willing to play the role … which non-Muslim Norwegians have valid reasons to fear’. And the intellectual establishment continues to dote on Eurabia propagandists who insist that these young people represent Islam as a whole. Breivik’s hero Fjordman has graduated from the web to the pages of the Aftenposten, a self-described ‘conservative-liberal’ newspaper. He’s also writing a book about Utøya, partly subsidised by a fellowship from the Fritt Ord Foundation, Norway’s most prestigious free speech organisation. Nygaard, who is now the chairman of PEN Norway, defended Fjordman’s fellowship on the grounds that he ‘does not incite violence’.

Norway isn’t the only European country in which the cause of free speech has been travestied by bigots. Throughout the continent, but especially in Scandinavia, demagogic ‘critics of Islam’ have styled themselves as modern-day Dreyfusards willing to speak truths that politically correct liberals don’t dare express. The recent electoral successes of the right-wing Swedish Democrats, France’s Front National and Geert Wilders in Holland have been fuelled by their appeals to anti-Muslim fear. As Bangstad writes, socially liberal right-wing populists now claim to be carrying on the campaign that began more than two centuries ago with the revolt against the superstitions – and privileges – of the church. Its liberal credentials, they say, should be self-evident: why should Europeans give any quarter to those who cover their women and attack the achievements of postwar social movements, from women’s emancipation to gay marriage – not to mention those among them who support jihad? In 1892, Edouard Drumont set up an anti-Semitic newspaper to expose the Jews’ disloyalty to France; he called it La Libre Parole.