A few prefatory words: I was invited to give a talk in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Saturday, September 29, as part of an “Alternative Book Fair.” The Gothenburg Book Fair was being held that weekend, and the point of the alternative event was to highlight books – mostly about Islam, I gathered – that the official fair had rejected. I was asked to talk about freedom of speech, a freedom that is in increasingly short supply in Sweden, as elsewhere in Western Europe. As if to prove the point, civic officials – at the urging of police, who were spooked by Antifa threats – banned the “Alternative Book Fair.” Here’s what I planned to say.
When I was twenty years old, there was a famous free-speech case in the state of Illinois. Nazis wanted to march in a Chicago suburb called Skokie, which had a large population of Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors. Skokie sued successfully in county court to prevent the march. The Nazis, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, took the case to the state appellate court and the Illinois Supreme Court. Long story short, after the case had gone to the United States Supreme Court, the Nazis were allowed to march.
As I say, I was twenty years old at the time. The Supreme Court’s decision filled me with admiration. Not because I liked Nazis, but because that ruling demonstrated that in the United States of America, even the most reprehensible expression was protected. Innocuous speech doesn’t need protection. What requires protection is controversial speech, extremist speech, speech that perhaps everyone on earth except the speaker finds offensive. Without such protections, any dissent from received opinion is in danger of being shut down. It’s a simple point but a crucial one. Without absolute freedom of speech, freedom itself – all freedom, every freedom – is threatened, period.
Freedom of speech matters to all of us, although some of us avail of ourselves of it more frequently than others, and are thus more aware of it on a day-to-day basis. I’ve been a writer all of my adult life, and I’ve always seemed to have a tendency to take on controversial issues, and so my freedom of speech is something I’ve always been intensely conscious of. Even when I wrote an article severely criticizing the president of my country in my country’s most prominent and powerful newspaper, the New York Times, I knew that my freedom of speech was sacrosanct. I knew that the government would never come after me just for speaking my mind, even about the president. That sort of thing happened in the Soviet Union, not in the U.S., and I never took that difference for granted.
Then I moved to Europe. That was twenty years ago. Soon afterwards came 9⁄11. During the next decade I wrote two books that were very critical of Islam. Both books were published by a major New York publishing house. The first, While Europe Slept, came out 12 years ago, the second, Surrender, came out nine years ago. While Europe Slept became a bestseller. Thanks to book critics from red-state newspapers – that is, from newspapers in middle America, not in New York or Washington or Los Angeles – While Europe Slept was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. That was good. But when the names of the finalists were announced, the president of the NBCC publicly condemned my book and the member of the NBCC board who was delegated to read the list of nominees called me a racist.
Despite the success of While Europe Slept, the New York Times chose not to review it. I was in good company. At around the same time, Robert Spencer, Mark Steyn, Bat Ye’or, Claire Berlinski, Walter Laqueur, and Oriana Fallaci also wrote important books about Islam. The New York Times didn’t review them either. It was only a few years after 9⁄11, which had been followed by other terrorist actions in Europe. In my view, it was vital for us in the West to understand our enemies’ ideology. I knew these books could help. But the New York Times ignored them. Other major newspapers ignored them too – or ran reviews accusing us of anti-Muslim bigotry. Meanwhile the media, almost uniformly, echoed the official “religion of peace” line.
The walls, I saw, were beginning to close in on open and honest discussion of Islam.
But at least those books got published. Since then, things have gotten even worse. Much worse. I don’t think While Europe Slept could be published now, at least not by a major New York publisher. Have any of you ever read Oriana Fallaci’s books on Islam? They were the bluntest of all. Published in 2002 and 2004, they became bestsellers all over the Western world. Can you imagine a major publisher touching them now? This summer, the biggest publishing house in Germany, which had contracted for a book on Islam with the bestselling author Thilo Sarrazin, wimped out and told him to take it elsewhere. When I finished writing my latest book, my agent said that no major American publisher would touch it. Maybe ten years ago, but not now. So I published it myself.
It was actually a fun and rewarding experience. But I shouldn’t have had to self-publish. I was forced to do so because, at the book publishers, as in the news media, in films and on television and in the public square, the walls are closing in on free speech. In the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and other countries, writers and politicians and ordinary citizens have been put on trial simply for speaking the truth about Islam. Earlier this month, French authorities ordered Marine Le Pen to take psychiatric tests because she had denounced ISIS. In Norway, I’ve been called in by the police for writing critically about Islam. Six years ago, after Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway, the Norwegian judicial establishment tried to force me and other writers about Islam to submit to questioning at his trial, so that they could link us with him in the public mind and thus discredit our writings forever.
The walls are closing in.
And it’s not just about Islam. More and more, it’s being demanded of us that we embrace certain claims as true, whether or not they are true. We’re expected to agree that Caitlin Jenner is not just a woman – she’s “Woman of the Year.” We’re expected to accept that Linda Sarsour, a vile anti-Semite in a hijab who is a supporter of jihad, is not just a feminist – she’s a feminist heroine. Try questioning the so-called consensus on global warming. Try criticizing socialism. If you dissent in any way from the party line, you’ll be accused of committing “hate speech.” If you do it on the campus of an American university, you’ll be charged with violating somebody’s “safe space.” If you react to some outrageous but officially endorsed lie with so much as a grimace, you’ll be told that you’ve committed a “microaggression.”
Ugly words that used to mean something, labels that you would never attach to anyone’s name except on the most serious of grounds, are now pasted reflexively on anyone who dissents from establishment orthodoxy. Dare to make it clear that you care first and foremost about the well-being of the people of your own country, and they’ll call you a xenophobe. Dare to call an illegal immigrant an illegal immigrant, and they’ll call you anti-immigrant. Dare to criticize race preferences, and they’ll call you a racist. Some time in the last couple of years, everybody who’s white suddenly became a “white supremacist.” We’re living in a time when racism and sexism are at long-time lows in the Western world – and yet there are more accusations of racism and sexism than ever.
This month, at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America, a speaker explained that if a journalist reports on Palestinian terrorism, he’s an Islamophobe. At around the same time, a British newspaper columnist explained that if you’re a journalist who pays too much attention to Muslim rape gangs in the UK, that’s Islamophobic, too. Also this month, the Speaker of the British House of Commons refused to let the Members of Parliament investigate and discuss the case of a convicted male pedophile rapist who, because he says he identifies as a woman, was incarcerated in a women’s prison, where he raped several of his fellow inmates. Think of it: this man’s claim to be a female is so sacred in the eyes of the Speaker of the British House of Commons that he would not allow the elected representatives of the British public to even talk about it.
Diversity of opinion used to be viewed as positive. Now they don’t talk about diversity of opinion. They call you “divisive,” which of course is negative. Divisive: this is how they used to talk behind the Iron Curtain and in Mao’s China. I don’t know if you’ve seen the YouTube video in which Tommy Robinson, on vacation in Tenerife a few weeks ago, confronted a reporter who had followed him there and taken pictures of him and his family. Why, Tommy asked, did he deserve such harassment? The reporter replied that Tommy was “divisive,” saying things about Islam that might incite violence. Tommy asked, well, then, the Koran calls for violence – should it be banned? No, the reporter said, the Koran is fine; terrorists have misread it. “And you know that,” Tommy replied, “because you’ve studied the Koran?” No. The reporter, it emerged, had never the Koran. Anyone surprised? Why should he read it? He already knew what he was expected to say about it. By contrast, Tommy, who had studied the Koran, refused to deny what was in there. This made him “divisive.”
Then there’s the word “polarizing.” I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Fredrik Skavlan, whose TV talk show is broadcast every Friday in Sweden and Norway. A couple of weeks ago, interviewing Jimmie Åkelsson, the head of the Sweden Democrats, Skavlan asked: “Have you contributed to a polarized Sweden?” In fact, Åkelsson speaks for millions of Swedes who are increasingly uneasy about Islam. But to dare to voice their concerns is to be “polarizing” – to disrupt the cozy, lockstep consensus of the political establishment.
“Polarizing”! A few months ago, Governor Cuomo of New York said that people who don’t share his politics don’t belong in New York. At a recent event in Quebec, when a woman simply dared to ask Justin Trudeau a fair question about his immigration policies, he told her she was a racist who didn’t belong in Quebec. In the U.S., if you write something that offends the Southern Poverty Law Center or Media Matters, they’ll label you a hate group and try their best to get your employer to fire you, your server to drop you, your platforms to de-platform you, your publisher to cancel your book, your bank and credit-card companies to cancel your accounts, your donors to cut off your funding.
That’s not all. On top of everything else, if you’re considered divisive, your words will be re-defined as acts of violence – while actual acts of physical violence against you will be redefined as justifiable self-defense.
The walls are closing in.
Even in the U.S., where the First Amendment used to be sacrosanct, the media now talk in a way they never did before about “balancing” free speech with other considerations. There’s talk about reviving the so-called Fairness Doctrine, under which the Federal Communications Commission used to police broadcast media coverage of the news, supposedly for “honesty” and “balance.” Meanwhile the American Civil Liberties Union, which in the 1970s defended the free-speech rights of Nazis, is no longer putting free speech first. In a new set of guidelines, the ACLU declared that speech denigrating certain groups can cause harm – and therefore should not be defended. When Tommy Robinson was locked up for reporting from outside a Muslim rape trial, an imprisonment that violated every basic rule of judicial procedure, you might have expected at least a whisper of a protest from Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch, or Reporters without Borders. But there was nothing.
In the face of all this, we’re all grateful for the Internet and for the ease and affordability of modern self-publishing. But of course those resources are also under attack. A couple of weeks ago it was reported that Amazon has begun banning “controversial books.” Without Amazon, writers, especially self-publishing writers, are screwed. As for the Internet – well, where would we be without the Internet? This country, this continent, are in serious trouble, but imagine how much worse things would be, how much more clueless we would be, without the Internet? The Internet has brought Western Europe closer to having a First Amendment. Without the Internet, Hillary Clinton would be president of the United States. But more and more, they’re out to get that too. In 2018, if your politics offend Silicon Valley, they’ll remove you from Facebook, from YouTube, from Twitter. And the mainstream media, instead of being alarmed by this strangling of free speech, will cheer.
At the same time that the social networks are stepping up censorship, Western governments are intensifying their own efforts to control Internet content. If you live in the U. K. and you write the wrong thing on Facebook, you might get a visit from the cops. The Sentencing Council for England and Wales has proposed that online criticism of religion be punished by up to six years in prison. On September 9, a tweet from the South Yorkshire Police urged the public to report “offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing” because “hate will not be tolerated in South Yorkshire.”
Of course offense is in the eye of the beholder, and in these times, offense only goes one way. Two days after that tweet, on September 11, it was reported that a group of Tory and Labour members of the British Parliament were sponsoring a bill to “shut down Facebook groups that back Tommy Robinson and [that] speak out against Radical Islam.” The very next day, September 12, the EU Parliament approved Article 11, known as the “link tax,” and Article 13, known as the “upload filter,” which could close down alternative news sites – and worse. Then there’s the EU’s so-called “General Data Protection Regulation,” thanks to which, sitting at my computer in Norway, I can no longer access articles in certain American newspapers, among them the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune.
The walls are closing in.
Now I’ve come to the part of the speech where I’m supposed to explain that there’s some hope. Is there? What do you think? I don’t know. Maybe. In Britain, finally, UKIP is openly speaking the truth about Islam. The EU Parliament and the British Parliament have made clear their eagerness to silence dissent, but we can hope, at least, that the U.S. Congress is another story. Some members of Congress, at least, are just beginning to pay serious attention to online free-speech issues. If they take decisive action against the Silicon Valley commissars, it can have a worldwide impact. In the same way, the more strict constitutionalists Donald Trump is able to put on the U.S. Supreme Court, the better it will be for freedom of speech.
Anyway, if worse comes to worst, let’s remember that even in the Soviet Union they had samizdat. Even if the EU shuts down websites like Nya Tider and Samnytt in Sweden and Document and Resett in Norway, and if some of us are denied access to the online tools to publish our own books, and if we’re denied the right to sell them on Amazon, then we’ll have to find some other way to distribute our work. Maybe we’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets won converts to the cause of American liberty. Copies of Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” passed from hand to hand, inspired millions in Eastern Europe to believe in the possibility of triumphing over Communism.
Yes, things may get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before they get better. But we have to commit ourselves to being the ones who will make it better.
As the walls keep closing in, we need to push back with all our strength.