Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Right to Offend
Florian Cramer on Sun, 19 Feb 2006 21:59:03 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Ayaan Hirsi Ali, The Right to Offend

[In order not to be mistaken, I think there are a quite number of problematic
points and simplifications in the speech below, such as the complete lack of
reflection that the Danish newspaper acted sleazy and hypocritical, and that
regimes like Saudi Arabia wouldn't exist without massive Western backing. I also
find it problematic to argue against religious fundamentalism in a preaching
rhetoric. Nevertheless, I think she brings up some issues worth reminding oneself
of in this debate, and her comparison with East Block communism and the sometimes
appeasing or apologetic rhetoric in the Western left before 1989 is spot-on, IMHO. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's speech in Berlin

The Right to Offend.

I am here to defend the right to offend.

It is my conviction that the vulnerable enterprise called democracy cannot exist
without free expression, particularly in the media.  Journalists must not forgo
the obligation of free speech, which people in other hemispheres are denied.

I am of the opinion that it was correct to publish the cartoons of Muhammad in
Jyllands Posten and it was right to re-publish them in other papers across Europe.

Let me reprise the history of this affair. The author of a children's book on the
prophet Muhammad could find no illustrators for his book.  He claimed that
illustrators were censoring themselves for fear of violence by Muslims who claimed
no-one, anywhere, should be allowed to depict the prophet. Jyllands Posten decided
to investigate this. They -- rightly -- felt that such self-censorship has
far-reaching consequences for democracy.

It was their duty as journalists to solicit and publish drawings of the prophet

Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers
the caricatures in The Cartoon Affair. These intellectuals live off free speech
but they accept censorship. They hide their mediocrity of mind behind
noble-sounding terms such as 'responsibility' and 'sensitivity'.

Shame on those politicians who stated that publishing and re-publishing the
drawings was 'unnecessary', 'insensitive', 'disrespectful' and 'wrong'. I am of
the opinion that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark acted correctly
when he refused to meet with representatives of tyrannical regimes who demanded
from him that he limit the powers of the press. Today we should stand by him
morally and materially. He is an example to all other European leaders. I wish my
prime minister had Rasmussen's guts.

Shame on those European companies in the Middle East that advertised 'we are not
Danish' or 'we don't sell Danish products'. This is cowardice. Nestle chocolates
will never taste the same after this, will they? The EU member states should
compensate Danish companies for the damage they have suffered from boycotts.

Liberty does not come cheap. A few million Euros is worth paying for the defence
of free speech. If our governments neglect to help our Scandinavian friends then I
hope citizens will organise a donation campaign for Danish companies.

We have been flooded with opinions on how tasteless and tactless the cartoons are
-- views emphasising that the cartoons only led to violence and discord. What good
has come of the cartoons, so many wonder loudly?

Well, publication of the cartoons confirmed that there is widespread fear among
authors, filmmakers, cartoonists and journalists who wish to describe, analyse or
criticise intolerant aspects of Islam all over Europe.

It has also revealed the presence of a considerable minority in Europe who do not
understand or will not accept the workings of liberal democracy. These people --
many of whom hold European citizenship --  have campaigned for censorship, for
boycotts, for violence, and for new laws to ban 'Islamophobia'.

The cartoons revealed to the public eye that there are countries willing to
violate diplomatic rules for political expediency. Evil governments like Saudi
Arabia stage 'grassroots' movements to boycott Danish milk and yoghurt, while they
would mercilessly crash a grassroots movement fighting for the right to vote.

Today I am here to defend the right to offend within the bounds of the law. You
may wonder: why Berlin? And why me?

Berlin is rich in the history of ideological challenges to the open society. This
is the city where a wall kept people within the boundaries of the Communist state.
It was the city which focalized the battle for the hearts and minds of citizens.
Defenders of the open society educated people in the shortcomings of Communism.
The work of Marx was discussed in universities, in op-ed pages and in schools. 
Dissidents who escaped from the East could write, make films, cartoons and use
their creativity to persuade those in the West that Communism was far from
paradise on earth.

Despite the self-censorship of many in the West, who idealised and defended
Communism, and the brutal censorship of the East, that battle was won.

Today, the open society is challenged by Islamism, ascribed to a man named
Muhammad Abdullah who lived in the seventh century, and who is regarded as a
prophet. Many Muslims are peaceful people; not all are fanatics. As far as I am
concerned they have every right to be faithful to their convictions. But within
Islam exists a hard-line Islamist movement that rejects democratic freedoms and
wants to destroy them. These Islamists seek to convince other Muslims that their
way of life is the best. But when opponents of Islamism try to expose the
fallacies in the teachings of Muhammad then they are accused of being offensive,
blasphemous, socially irresponsible -- even Islamophobic or racist.

The issue is not about race, colour or heritage. It is a conflict of ideas, which
transcend borders and races.

Why me? I am a dissident, like those from the Eastern side of this city who
defected to the West. I too defected to the West. I was born in Somalia, and grew
up in Saudi Arabic and Kenya. I used to be faithful to the guidelines laid down by
the prophet Muhammad. Like the thousands demonstrating against the Danish
drawings, I used to hold the view that Muhammad was perfect -- the only source of,
and indeed, the criterion between good and bad. In 1989 when Khomeini called for
Salman Rushdie to be killed for insulting Muhammad, I thought he was right. Now I

I think that the prophet was wrong to have placed himself and his ideas above
critical thought.

I think that the prophet Muhammad was wrong to have subordinated women to men.

I think that the prophet Muhammad was wrong to have decreed that gays be murdered.

I think that the prophet Muhammad was wrong to have said that apostates must be

He was wrong in saying that adulterers should be flogged and stoned, and the hands
of thieves should be cut off.

He was wrong in saying that those who die in the cause of Allah will be rewarded
with paradise.

He was wrong in claiming that a proper society could be built only on his ideas.

The prophet did and said good things. He encouraged charity to others.  But I wish
to defend the position that he was also disrespectful and insensitive to those who
disagreed with him.

I think it is right to make critical drawings and films of Muhammad.  It is
necessary to write books on him in order to educate ordinary citizens on Muhammad.

I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny.
Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad's teachings should refrain from
drawing him is not a request for respect but a demand for submission.

I am not the only dissident in Islam. There are more like me here in the West. If
they have no bodyguards they work under false identities to protect themselves
from harm. But there are also others who refuse to conform: in Teheran, in Doha
and Riyadh, in Amman and Cairo, in Khartoum and in Mogadishu, in Lahore and in

The dissidents of Islamism, like the dissidents of communism, don't have nuclear
bombs or any other weapons. We have no money from oil like the Saudis. We will not
burn embassies and flags. We refuse to get carried away in a frenzy of collective
violence. In number we are too small and too scattered to become a collective of
anything. In electoral terms here in the west we are practically useless.

All we have are our thoughts; and all we ask is a fair chance to express them. Our
opponents will use force to silence us. They will use manipulation; they will
claim they are mortally offended. They will claim we are mentally unstable and
should not be taken seriously.  The defenders of Communism, too, used these

Berlin is a city of optimism. Communism failed. The wall was broken down. Things
may seem difficult and confusing today. But I am optimistic that the virtual wall,
between lovers of liberty and those who succumb to the seduction and safety of
totalitarian ideas will also, one day, come down.

Berlin, 9.02.06

Ayaan Hirsi Ali


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net