HRS International

Free speech with self-censorship

The Nobel Museum in Stockholm is hosting an exhibition about freedom of speech which asks where its boundaries lie. The museum itself has censored parts of its own exhibition – parts that, not surprisingly, are Islam-related. The question is thus obviously: Which is more offensive: exhibiting works that are critical of Islam, or censoring free speech?

Rita Karlsen, HRS

Existens, a program on Swedish public TV, has turned its attention to the subject of freedom of speech in connection with religious groups. The program asks whether we are putting limits on what we say or show out of consideration for religious groups. The host of the program notes that a few months ago, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet put away two pictures after prodding by government officials. Sweden was about to be visited by some EU ministers, and the government officials feared that the two pictures, each of which featured a swastika in one corner, might be perceived as offensive. But as Existens asks: is this “consideration” or is it “self-censorship”?

The program also takes us to the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, where the words ”Freedom of expression: where are the limits?” appear on a screen. The question is connected to an exhibition at the museum which includes Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh’s film Submission. Or, to put it more correctly, parts of the film. For as it turns out, the museum’s exhibition directors have allowed an imam to look through the film and edit out the parts he found most offensive. Existens wonders whether this is an acceptable practice. Can an exhibit that is devoted to the subject of freedom of speech employ this kind of censorship? They have interviewed Hirsi Ali about the case, and she feels that the Nobel Museum is off track. She asks ironically whether anyone thinks that she would be allowed to edit a speech by the imam?

We now know where the limits of freedom of speech lie, writes Dilsa Demirbag-Sten in

Theo van Gogh’s film Submission, which led to the 1994 murder of van Gogh by Islamists, is being screened as part of the exhibition.

But not the entire film is being shown. The imam Abd al Haqq Kielan has been brought in as an advisor. Kielan found parts of the film offensive. Those parts were cut out. And presto, the exhibition about freedom of expression had instead turned itself into pitiful evidence of society’s meekness toward religion.No one is as easily offended as religious groups. The most aggressive and successful are the Islamists. Like the Сatholic and Swedish churches, Islam is a congeries of institutions, scriptures, spokespeople and an economic infrastructure that makes possible the expansion of, above all, political Islam.

While intellectuals have compelled large segments of Christianity to adapt itself to the profane and secular world, many Islamist forces have some distance to go on the road to democracy. That being said, it is important to point out that most Muslims in Sweden are democratic-minded, as are all other Swedes.

Totalitarian forces seldom represent the masses. They have most often usurped power through violence, oppression, and economic incentives. The mullahs in Iran are a current example. All this is self-evident as long as we are talking about the Catholic Church or the extreme Christian right in the U.S. Criticism of these is viewed as legitimate, and few Swedish cultural institutions would let a priest or pastor set limits on an exhibition. When criticism is directed against Islam, journalists, intellectuals and institutional officials begin to drivel on about offense, understanding, and the necessity to keep society quiet. There is reason to suspect that ignorance and cowardice lie concealed behind the platitudes. It is maintained time after time that one does not wish to offend a billion Muslims.

Islamists don’t represent all Muslims. But even so, the will of the majority isn’t always democratic. What do we do if the majority thinks that we should burn synagogues, eliminate a group of people, or throw out all immigrants? We have seen this before.

It is freedoms that build democracy. Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental freedoms, which makes it possible for the individual to maintain his rights. Even Islam must be subject to criticism by everybody – even by those who are defined as Muslims or Islamists. To voluntary limit the freedom of expression says a great deal about the social climate where Islam is concerned. We now know, then, where the limits of freedom of speech are drawn at the Nobel Museum.It is a defeat for the free word that an imam’s offended feelings carry greater weight than the Islamist murders of publishers, artists, and authors. 10-0 for Islam.

And it is unworthy that an exhibition about freedom of speech should censor itself.

Translated from the Norwegian by Bruce Bawer