Symposium: Is Free Speech Under Threat in the United States?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Freedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.

Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.

Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.

The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”

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Censoring You to ‘Protect’ You

In the culture-wars currently rocking US campuses, the enemies of free speech have plenty of tools on their side. Many of these would appear to be advantages. For instance the employment of violence, thuggery and intimidation against those who disagree are generally effective ways to prevent people hearing things you do not want them to hear. As are the subtler but more regularly employed tactics for shutting people down, such a “no-platforming” people or getting them disinvited after they have been invited, should the speaker’s views not accord 100% with those of their would-be censors. As also noted in this space before, many of the people who campaign to limit what American students can learn also have the short-term advantage of being willing to lie without compunction and cover over facts whenever they emerge.

The important point here, however, is that word “short-term”. In the long run, those who wish to cover over a contrary opinion, or even inconvenient facts, are unlikely to succeed. Adults tend to be capable of more discernment and initiative than the aspirant-nannies believe them to be, and the effects will always tend to show. Take, for example, events in Portland, Oregon, last month.

In April, a gathering took place at the Portland State University. The occasion was billed as an interfaith panel and was given the title, “Challenging Misperceptions.” As this is an era when perceptions, as well as misperceptions, of religion are perhaps unusually common, there might be some sense in holding such a discussion, even in the knowledge that it is likely to be hampered — as interfaith get-togethers usually are — by the necessity of dwelling on things that do not matter and focussing attention away from all things that do. Thus, by the end of an average interfaith event, it can generally be agreed upon that there are certain dietary laws that certain religions have in common, some agreement on the existence of historical figures and an insistence that religion is the answer to most problems of our world. Fortunately, at Portland, there were some people in the audience who appear to have been happy to avoid this sort of boilerplate.

A young woman raised her hand and asked the Muslim student on the panel about a specific verse in the Koran which would appear to approve killing non-Muslims (Possible verses might have included Qur’an: 8:12; 22:19-22; 2:191-193; 9.5; 9:29). The Muslim student replied:

“I can confidently tell you, when the Koran says an innocent life, it means an innocent life, regardless of the faith, the race, like, whatever you can think about as a characteristic.”

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When Political Correctness Places Girls in Harm’s Way

Jada was looking forward to high school in her New Jersey hometown when her father, a recent convert to Islam, decided they should move to Saudi Arabia. Jada’s mother had passed away suddenly a few years earlier. It was just the two of them now, and so Jada went with him alone. Soon after, on a walk to the local grocer, her father instructed Jada to move to his right side and stay there. This, he explained, was how men would know she was for sale.

She was only 12 years old.

You may have heard Jada’s story before. It has received widespread attention, largely through the efforts of the Maryland-based Tahirih Justice Center, which works to end child- and forced marriages and other forms of violence against women and girls. You may have heard about Jada’s half-sister, who worked to rescue her although the U.S. State Department could offer no help in the face of Saudi laws. Thanks to her, and to the efforts of Tahirih and others, Jada made it home to America before her father could sell her into marriage.

But other girls in New Jersey may not be so lucky. And they don’t need to be brought to Saudi Arabia to be married off. At 12, Jada was not old enough to get a driver’s license in her home state; but she was old enough for a marriage license so long as she had her parent’s permission. Indeed, according to Fraidy Reiss, executive director and founder of Unchained At Last, “more than 2,000 children as young as 13 were married legally in New Jersey between 2000 and 2014.” For these girls, such marriages involve being forced to have sex with men they barely know. There is a word for that: rape.

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The UN’s Obsession against Israel

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) met once again on March 20 to debate “Agenda Item 7,” a mandatory subject of debate since June 2006, the only one whose goal is systematically to condemn the Israeli democracy for crimes the existence of which remain to be proven.

The agenda, officially designed to assess the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian territories, in the light of the reports submitted by Fatah, the PLO and various NGOs, is part of a wider campaign, carried out by countries such as Libya, Algeria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Sudan and Yemen. Israel is thus the only country on the planet to benefit from the doubtful privilege of being scrutinized on the least of its actions, through an agenda decided by its enemies.

If it were only a question of expressing this obsession, born out of an old habit for the Arab-Muslim dictatorships to turn the Hebrew state into their scapegoat, responsible for all the misfortunes plaguing their societies, Agenda Item 7 would be a mere oddity, especially since the session is regularly boycotted by a majority of Western countries, and systematically by the United States.

Unfortunately, this Israelphobia has been spreading throughout the United Nations. In 1948, when Israel, after being officially recognized as a sovereign state by virtually all Western democracies, had just repelled the genocidal aggression of five neighboring countries, and hundreds of thousands of Jews were fleeing the oppression of Arab dictatorships, the UN gave birth to UNRWA, an organization designed to help Palestinian refugees exclusively. This was despite there already being a program for refugees at the UN, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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