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In 2009, the Danish writer and historian Lars Hedegaard, who is the founder and president of the Danish Free Press Society, made remarks in his home about the treatment of women in Muslim communities. His observations, while expressed in broad generalizations, were based in fact, although when they were made public and resulted in widespread criticism he apologized for the way he had expressed himself. This was not good enough for the Danish courts. He was charged with violating Denmark’s racism law, and went to trial in January 2011. He was acquitted, but was tried again on the same charges three months later. This time he was found guilty. Last Friday Hedegaard initiated an appeal of his conviction before the Danish Supreme Court.
Not so many years ago, such a story would have been regarded as nothing less than sensational: a writer is put on trial in a Western country for making critical remarks about a certain religion’s ideology and practices. The unsettling truth is that the more often the sensational happens, the less and less sensational it becomes. In recent years, the Western world has grown used to seeing writers hauled before official tribunals – Mark Steyn in Canada, Oriana Fallaci in Italy, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff in Austria – invariably for criticizing Islam. It doesn’t help that the mainstream media almost always report on these actions as if they were anything but sensational: they’re treated as ordinary, reasonable, and legitimate judicial proceedings.
In Norway, where I live, no writer has yet been put on trial for treading on Islam’s toes. But we’ve come close. When the editor of a small Christian newspaper reprinted the Danish Muhammed cartoons as part of a feature about the controversy, the Norwegian media establishment and top-level government leaders came down on him like a ton of bricks, demanding that he apologize for offending Muslims. The editor, Vebjørn Selbekk, withstood the pressure for a while, then buckled. By that point, several leading figures in Norway – from the prime minister on down – had gone on the record with demands that freedom of speech be tempered by, or balanced against, things like “common sense,” “respect,” and “sensitivity.” Many thoughtful Norwegians expressed deep concern: the Magazinet case, they worried, did not bode well for the future of free speech in Norway.
That was back in 2006. Then, last summer, as the whole world knows, Norway was hit by an act of mass murder – not by a Muslim terrorist group, but by a single individual who is a self-described opponent of the Islamization of Europe. The perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, set off a massive explosion at the main government office building in Oslo and then massacred dozens of teenagers at a Labor Party youth camp on a nearby island. In the months since his arrest, the case has taken several turns. First, he was studied by two psychiatrists who issued an official report concluding that he was not sane, and thus not accountable for his actions. This created an uproar in Norway.
Perhaps the most lucid and succinct summary I’ve seen of the ensuing developments appeared this weekend in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen. Klaus Wivel began by noting two ways in which Norway singles itself out: first, in no nation in the world are more defendants declared insane; second, in Norway, as opposed to many other countries, if a defendant is declared insane, that’s it: he’s put into the care of mental-health authorities, and the legal and penal systems no longer have any say in his future.
In the case of Breivik, this well-established state of affairs outraged many Norwegians, who, understandably, wanted to see him put behind bars forever. It also disappointed many on the Left, for whom the idea of Breivik as a madman was of no use at all; they wanted him put on trial, so that they could also try, as it were, their own enemies on the Right whose criticism of Islam, they insisted, had led to Breivik’s actions. Breivik, for his part, also hated the diagnosis. “He claims to have rational arguments for his murder,” wrote Wivel. “He wants to be declared guilty, not insane.”
Most important, as it turned out, the judges, too, were unhappy with the first psychiatric report. So in December, in a remarkable deviation from standard practice, they asked for a whole new report by two different doctors. Wivel quotes Norwegian journalist Jon Hustad, who wrote bluntly that “the judges gave in to political pressure.” That second report, whose conclusions were made public last week, gave the Left, Breivik, and the judges exactly what they wanted: a declaration of sanity. On, then, to the trial, which begins today.
But – and this brings us back to where we started, with the subject of writers about Islam being put on trial – the release of the new psychiatric report wasn’t the only big news in the Breivik case last week. Among other developments, Breivik’s lawyers made public a list of the people whom they plan to call as “expert witnesses” for the defense. The list is an interesting mix. There are politicians from both the Labor and Progress parties. There are psychiatrists. And there are a couple of people, such as University of Oslo sociologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who have publicly taken on critics of Islam such as yours truly and sought to spread to them the blame for Breivik’s actions.
Even Norway’s most famous Muslim, the terrorist Mullah Krekar, is on the witness list.
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