Americans are proud, and rightly so, of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which, among other things, protects speech from government control. The Amendment says in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Increasingly, however, Americans seem content to regard the First Amendment not as the fundamental working tool of democracy, but as a national heirloom, a kind of antique to admire rather than put to use. I don’t think many of my countrymen perceive how profoundly their attitude toward free speech has changed. But there is a difference between having freedom of speech and exercising freedom of speech, one that has become glaringly and distressingly obvious to me since September 11, 2001. So, while it is true that the US government is not Constitutionally empowered to make laws that censor Americans, it is also true, I believe, that Americans have come to censor themselves. But why?
I speak today in regard to the effect of Islam on speech in America - Islam as it has entered our national discussion and debate – and, I must add, lack of national discussion and debate - since the heinous Islamic attacks on the US nearly 8 years ago.
You may recall that just days after the attacks, then-President Bush said “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” At that same moment, the Pentagon, just across the river from the White House, was a colossal ruin, there was still carnage and mangled steel in the Pennsylvania woods, and an acrid fire of souls burned at the bottom of Manhattan. But once President Bush uttered that word “crusade” a new fear seemed to grip Washington and the wider world: namely, the fear that the President would “alienate” Muslims, even so-called “moderate Muslims.”
I believe such a fear may be unique in the annals of peoples under assault and bears further consideration. The English word “crusade,” of course, harkens back to the medieval wars between Islam and Christendom, which Islam ultimately won, as we know. In the more than nine centuries since, the word has become a familiar metaphor for any moral fight for right: Long ago in America, Thomas Jefferson spoke of a “crusade” against ignorance; the feminist Susan B. Anthony called for a women’s temperance “crusade”; more recently Colin Powell referred to the “equal rights” crusade. And when Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote his memoir of World War II, he called it “Crusade in Europe.”
But after 9/11 it became instantly clear that there wasn’t going to be a 21st-century-“crusade” against newly expansionist Islam – not even against the most violent manifestations of jihad as exemplified by these bloody attacks on civilians and cities in the United States. Why? Muslims didn’t approve. Non-al Qaeda Muslims, presumably, didn’t approve of a “crusade” against al-Qaeda, and the leader of the Free World deferred. A White House spokesman quickly expressed the president’s “regret” that anyone might have been “upset” by the word “crusade.” After that, the word was effectively struck from the English language.
This may seem like a small thing, no more than a diplomatic nicety, but the significance of excising this rousing and storied word from the vocabulary of Americans at the onset of war can hardly be overstated, and must be understood as an early and decisive psychological victory for Islam over the West. In this early semantic retreat we can see the beginnings of the official American lexicon that now strives to avoid associating Islam and jihad altogether, that no doubt gives mighty encouragement to the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s continuing efforts to outlaw all criticism of Islam.
Let me explain. In acceding to the Islamic interpretation of the word “crusade” as something wrong and indefensible – and, worse, something taboo and also verboten - the president traded away a piece of our history and our language – and our understanding of our history through our language – for the sole sake of appeasing Islam. And truly, this was just the beginning.
Soon, the president was giving up other words, other pieces of our culture. Operation Infinite Justice, the Pentagon name for the assault on the Taliban, for example, was changed after Muslims complained that they believed only Allah dispenses infinite justice. The new name was Operation Enduring Freedom. Presumably, Muslims do not believe Allah dispenses freedom, enduring or otherwise (which is interesting), so that was all right. But in making the change, the US was again deferring to Islamic demands, Islamic understandings. In other words, as a military intelligence officer-friend of mine likes to put it, we were “outsourcing” our judgment to Islam. Indeed, the name “war on terror” itself was a generic sop to Islamic sensibilities, omitting any reference to the Islamic dimension of the struggle, namely the jihad that was and is underway.
In those early days after 9/11, President Bush also made it part of his job to serve as the nation’s head cheerleader for Islam as “the religion of peace.” Confusingly, this immediately put “jihad” in a box as something superfluous to Islam. This is now the conventional wisdom in America, from Left to Right: jihad has nothing to do with Islam. Or: “Jihadism is not Islam,” former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney obediently declared last month. People think Barack Hussein Obama is the first American president to promote Islam. The fact is, President Bush’s incessant declarations that Islam is a peaceable creed that terrorist-traitors had “hijacked” or “twisted” drove Abu Qatada, the notorious imam in Britain linked to Al Qaeda to comment “I am astonished by President Bush when he claims there is nothing in the Koran that justifies jihad or violence in the name of Islam. Is he some kind of Islamic scholar? Has he ever actually read the Koran?”
It’s fair to say that the answer to both questions is no. It’s also disturbing to realize that in the mainstream conversation, the only questions balking at the president’s depiction of Islam as a hearts-and-flowers ideology came from an Islamic terror-imam – never from our own media or politicians. Last year, George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security made it difficult for government officials to talk about anything but “hearts and flowers” Islam by issuing a long memorandum “suggesting” that government officials stop using all such words as “jihad,” “jihadist,” “Islamic terrorist,” “Islamist” “Islamofascist” and the like when discussing, well, Islamic terrorism. “Using the word “Islamic” will sometimes be necessary,” the memorandum said, adding that the department’s Muslim experts were concerned that in such a case “we should not concede the terrorists’ claim that they are legitimate adherents of Islam.”
It’s not hard to imagine Abu Qatada cackling over this propaganda, but I regret to say there was scant media coverage of even this outrageous Islamic apologetic via government directive.
This shouldn’t be surprising since the media in the US, as elsewhere in the West, is overwhelmingly predisposed to ignore or deny, as a key point of cultural relativism, all specifically Islamic roots of jihad violence and conquest. This is the philosophical basis of what I call Islam-free analysis. Add to that the fear factor of Islamic violence – as we saw in the Danish cartoon crisis – or fear of Islamic protests or harassment, and the United States of America is happy to comply with a universal gag order on Islam, First Amendment or no First Amendment.
And so, from the so-called war on terror – which is now, even more opaquely known by the Obama administration as an “overseas contingency operation” - to newsrooms across America, Islam as what sociologists call “an underlying cause” is increasingly treated as a forbidden topic. Another example: As a journalist, I attend expert lectures in Washington, DC, on, What happened in Iraq? or, The future of Afghanistan. I can attest that at all the ones I have attended, Islam – its culture, its history, beliefs, supremacism, sharia, jihad, anything - is never even mentioned. In this same mold, Gen. Stanley McChrystal gave one his first interviews as the newly confirmed commander in Afghanistan last week about the challenges facing coalition forces in Afghanistan. Such challenges, apparently, have nothing to do with Islam, Islamic law (sharia), or jihad – none of which he even mentioned.
This same see-no-Islam mindset, to focus on the media for a moment, drives stories such as the Buffalo, New York “businessman” who beheaded his wife this spring after she filed for divorce. Did I mention he was a Muslim? That he had founded a television station to combat negative Islamic stereotyping? Most US media didn’t. Initial reports, such as they were, cited “money woes,” or general “domestic violence” as the trigger, never noting the sacralization of misogyny within Islam, let the unfortunate Koranically inspired propensity toward beheading people. To take another typical story, last month authorities uncovered a terror plot in New York City targeting synagogues and military aircraft. I listened to a 2 minute and 29 second radio report of the story and didn’t get the information that the suspects were jailhouse converts to Islam until the final eight seconds. And that was typical. Another non-story for the Islam-blind: When Harvard University’s Muslim chaplain recently declared support for the traditional Islamic penalty of death for apostasy, there were exactly two newspaper stories: one in Harvard’s student newspaper, and one that I wrote. Some of the most egregious examples of Islam-free reporting came out of the jihadist attacks on Mumbai. Early this year, for example, the Indian government released intercepts of conversations of the jihadists who murdered 163 people last November. The conversations frequently invoked Allah, Islam and the need to spare Muslims in the bloody rampages but world media including the New York Times and the Associated Press, for example, omitted all or very nearly all references to Allah, Islam, and the need to spare Muslims in the bloody rampages.
As a conservative, I would like to say that such silence on all things Islam is a phenomenon of the mainstream media, or the Left in general. But this same silence is also a phenomenon of the Right, the side of the political spectrum where one expects to find some fight. But American conservatives, too, protect Islam by not talking about it - our most famous conservative talk show hosts, for example, barely ever mention it - or by obscuring the subject with the nonsense words that hide the mainstream Islamic roots of terror and supremacism.
Soon after 9/11, I tried some of these same terms out myself – Islam”ist,” Islamo-fascist, radical fundamentalist, Wahhabist, and the like - but came to find them confusing, and maybe purposefully so. In their amorphous imprecision, they allow us to give a wide berth to a great problem: the gross incompatibility of Islamic ideology with Western liberty. Worse than imprecision, however, is the evident childishness that inspires the lexicon, as though padding “Islam” with extraneous syllables such as “ism” or “ist” is a shield against politically correct censure; or that exempting plain “Islam” by criticizing imaginary “Islamofascism” spares us Muslim rage--which, as per the Danish experience, we know explodes at any critique. Such mongrel terms, however, not only confuse the discussion, but keep our understanding of Islam at bay.
Here is how it works on the Right. In writing about Cartoon Rage 2006, Charles Krauthammer, probably the leading conservative columnist in America, clearly identified why the Western press failed to republish the Danish Mohammed cartoons.
He wrote: “What is at issue is fear. The unspoken reason many newspapers do not want to republish is not sensitivity but simple fear.”
This was clear as a bell: but then he wrote: “They know what happened to Theo van Gogh, who made a film about the Islamic treatment of women and got a knife through the chest with an Islamist manifesto attached.”
To repeat, the columnist wrote that Theo van Gogh made a film about the “Islamic treatment of women” and was killed by a knife “with an Islamist manifesto” attached. Given that both Theo’s film and murder-manifesto were explicitly inspired by the verses of the Koran, what’s Islamic about the treatment of women that’s not also Islamic about the manifesto? The “ist” is a dodge, a semantic wedge between the religion of Islam and the ritual murder of van Gogh. It saves face. But why, why, is it up to an infidel American columnist to save face … when the face is Mohammed’s?
I think the answer is connected to what may have been the real war President Bush began to lead the day he gave up the “crusade.” I’m afraid this effort isn’t against “jihad,” and it isn’t against Islamization. On the contrary, it’s a very strange war for the West: it’s our war against alienating Islam; our war against blaming Islamic ideology for violence and repression in the cause of Islamic conquest. In this Western struggle to protect Islam, denouncing an Islam”ist” manifesto, for example, leaves Islam itself ideologically blameless. And this constitutes a win in this very weird war.
But the war against alienating Islam is not a war I want to fight — and no adherent of Western liberty could believe it’s the war we want to win. Indeed, this war effort turns out to be the same thing as fighting for Islam. It calls us to self-censorship, self-abnegation, self-extinguishment. It depends on and encourages our submission. This is the behavior of the dhimmi and the culture of dhimmitude as catalogued by the great historian Bat Ye’or. Honestly, I don’t think Americans realize they’re engaged in such a suicidal effort, which has even intensified under President Obama. Nor do I believe most Americans would rally to such a cause - if, that is, they became educated to understand it. But the knowledge gap is as wide as the communications gap. Deep down we may not have lost our will; however, at this terrible point, we have lost our language to mobilize that will. And very few Americans seem to realize it.
A final point: I’ve had the opportunity to observe Geert Wilders speak in the United States this past year, and, as you know, he speaks in robust terms to explain forthrightly the perils of Islamization in the West. His heroic manner and clarity electrify many of the Americans who hear him – which suggests there is a healthy flicker of life out there. But there is often someone in the crowd who will tell Mr. Wilders that while he agrees with the message, Mr. Wilders should soften his words so as not to offend anyone – meaning, of course, Muslims. “Don’t say Judeo Christian culture is better,” I heard one man say to Mr. Wilders. “Say: ‘we believe in women’s rights.’” I know I don’t have to worry about Mr. Wilders “moderating” his message, but I worry greatly about all the Americans who ask him to.
On hearing about the Dutch court’s sharia-compliant prosecution of his freedom of speech, an American journalist reacted with genuine horror that such a state of repression could exist in a Western country. At the same time, I could sense his quiet pride in knowing, at the back his mind, that he, as an American, was fully protected by the First Amendment. But I wondered to myself, Did he use it? Did his colleagues use it? If the state of American journalism is any marker, the answer is no. Geert Wilders speaks out as if he is protected by the First Amendment, but US journalists and politicians speak so as not to “give offense,” so as not to raise alarm, so as not to criticize Islam.
Islam, of course, is not our only block on speech. For decades, Americans have been schooling themselves to speak with political correctness. As the country has lurched Left under President Bush and now even further under President Obama, we are now seeing ominous legislation making its way through Congress – so-called “hate crimes” legislation – that bodes ill for free speech and also for equality before the law. We are seeing alarming efforts on the Left to “regulate” – in fact, to censor - radio talk shows, for example, and also the Internet.
I wish I could end on a hopeful note, but my sense is that it will have to get worse in America before it gets better. And how will we know when things are beginning to improve? When Americans, as a people, learn, or re-learn something: that it’s not enough to possess freedoms. We must learn that it’s vital to exercise our freedoms if we want to have any hope of preserving them.
This is the text of Diana West’s speech at the free speech conference of the International Free Press Society on 14 June in the Danish Parliament building in Copenhagen.