Martin Rowson Free Speech illustration

On 5 February, the Danish polemicist and virulent critic of Islam Lars Hedegaard was attacked by a lone gunman on his doorstep in Copenhagen. A young man dressed in a mailman’s red coat had rung his doorbell claiming he had a delivery. Hedegaard went down to open the door, only to be the target of a shot which barely missed his right ear. In the ensuing scuffle, the hapless attacker fired again, lost his gun and picked it up again to aim a third shot which, again, missed. After that the gunman took off. According to sources he had “a dark complexion”, with long, black curly hair, maybe a wig.

Hedegaard is hardly an international figure, but he has played a prominent and extreme role in the Danish debates on Islam for a decade. Originally a Trotskyist, the 70-year-old Hedegaard has his roots in the far left of Danish politics, but he has gradually moved to the right. As a university-educated historian, he wrote Marxist books about world history and he still claims to be a Marxist in his political analysis. He used to be the editor-in-chief of the Danish leftist daily Information, but he shocked many fellow leftists with the paper’s thorough exposure of the activities of the “Blekingegade gang”, a group of leftist armed robbers who, in the 1970s and ’80s, pulled off a series of bank jobs in Denmark and channelled the money to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This led to his departure from Information in 1990 and in the following years he became preoccupied with Islam and the consequences of the liberal Danish laws of immigration.

In 2004 he participated with MPs of the populist right-wing “Danish People’s Party” in the founding of the Press Freedom Society, primarily concerned with Islamic threats to press freedom. In 2009 his criticism of Islam reached a new extreme, as he shocked the Danish public with sweeping condemnations of Muslims – claiming Muslim girls are routinely raped by their fathers and other relatives. This claim lead to a charge of hate speech and a court case: a charge of which he was first acquitted, then convicted by an appeal court, only to be acquitted again by the Danish Superior Court in 2012.

This case changed the popular perception of Hedegaard, and many influential supporters left the Press Freedom Society in protest. Hedegaard proceeded to write a book, with former Social Democrat MP and later MEP for the Danish People’s Party Mogens Camre, which argued that Islam and Europe were engaged in an ongoing “1400 years war”.

The would-be assassin has not been caught, and perhaps will never be. Nobody knows whether he is a loner, or connected to a wider network. Shortly after the attempt, an eyewitness is reported to have seen two masked men – one of them wearing a red coat – climbing the fence to the nearby Copenhagen zoo, giving rise to suspicions that a wider plot may lie behind the attack. Danish intelligence services claim they had not registered any credible threat against Hedegaard from any quarter, and it is best to be cautious before leaping to conclusions, as we found out in the case of the Norway massacre by Anders Breivik, which was initially blamed on Muslim extremists. Yet, given recent experience, it does seem that one of the likely explanations is that this attack forms part of the ongoing assault on free speech from radicalised Muslims. It has long been known that cartoonists, artists, filmmakers and others involved in the series of Muhammad cases (which so far includes Kurt Westergaard, Lars Vilks and Nakoula Basseley Nakoula) were and remain the targets for Islamist assassination. And if this latest attack does indeed turn out to be the work of Islamic extremists it represents an escalation of this assault on free speech. Where previously the targets have been purveyors of images – which can easily cross borders to enflame sensibilities abroad – or celebrities, like Salman Rushdie, with an international reputation, this would be the first such attack on someone whose primary vehicle is the written word, confined to the relatively small pool of Danish speakers.

I think it is worth considering the likely scenario that the attack was the work of Islamic militants. If so this amounts to a ratcheting up of Islamist attacks to a new and worrying level, one that becomes apparent if you view this not as an isolated incident but as part of a general pattern an extremist war on free speech.

The Danish organisation Free Debate, which I helped to found, has developed and continuously updates a free speech timeline which makes this general pattern clear (unfortunately this is only in Danish, although an abridged English version can be found in my book The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, 2012). From this timeline a clear picture emerges. Beginning with the Rushdie case, religious pressure against free speech has been building globally, with the pace increasing after the turn of the millennium. Since 1999, the Organization of the Islamic Conference – the international organization developing the common policies of 57 Muslim countries – has coordinated the voting of those countries in international fora like the UN, leading among other things to the adoption, every year, of a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council demanding UN countries adopt legislation against so-called “defamation of religion”. Islam is mentioned as the only example, and the resolution grows harsher year by year. The UNHRC passes the resolution every year, with the votes of the OIC plus Russia, China and developing countries against a minority of western countries.

This forms the official backdrop of an increasing amount of cases where art galleries are forced to close exhibitions after threats, universities to cancel lectures, publishers are threatened, authors attacked, cartoonists and artists put under pressure if not actually assassinated – and this is happening across the Western world as well as in Muslim countries. Hardly a week goes by without a new case of the sort. Extreme right-wing Christians, extreme orthodox Jews, Hindu nationalist grouplets are quickly picking up from the Islamists – amounting to a concentrated, and in part even co-ordinated, extreme right-wing assault on free expression from fundamentalist believers, agreeing upon little more than their common refutation of the standards of modernity and the Enlightenment.

Many Western politicians and intellectuals meet this threat by advocating appeasement. Often, they claim Western drawings, books, films, should be censored or subject to voluntary self-censorship in order not to insult Muslims. When a controversial cultural product appears – a cartoon, film, book or speech – it is claimed that “all Muslims” will be insulted as if it is an automatic and inevitable law of nature, like putting a flame to paper. But this is entirely false. Both the Danish cartoon crisis of 2006 and the recent Muhammad crisis 2.0 triggered by Basseley Nakoula’s crude film Innocence of Muslims, show what was really going on behind the impression of wide-spread Muslim offence: the machinations of Islamist interest groups. The cartoons and the film were marginal and largely ignored media products, yesterday’s news lurking in remote corners of the internet, until Islamists found them and, in both cases, over several months undertook the hard work of shaping a crisis using them as a pretext.

Muslim countries, like all countries, host a variety of competing political forces, and some with an interest in agitation took advantage of the possibility of creating a folk panic. This is not easy and takes weeks and months of demanding work, replicating, spreading, commentating, interpreting, nurturing the anger and resentment – using internet, television, radio, speeches. The result of all this is the production of anger in a few per cent of the Middle Eastern population, parts of them even being paid or organised by Islamist or sympathetic government forces. Take the Cairo demonstrations against Innocence of Muslims in the fall of 2012. It was only able to attract a few thousand demonstrators (in a city used to hundreds of thousands massing in Tahrir Square). This was not a fire ignited by a spark – rather a tiny ember cautiously nursed over weeks. Despite the small protests, they managed to achieve visibility by forcing their way onto the grounds of the American Embassy, stage-managing the TV appearance of “insulted masses”, something that would have been impossible if the Cairo police had not stood passively by, possibly ordered to do so by the reigning Muslim Brotherhood party.

For this reason, no actual political task could be more important than to reinforce and reinvigorate the basic standards of the Enlightenment that are under assault from these consciously staged facsimiles of outrage. Principles such as free speech, freedom of religion, liberty of assembly and of association should be held firm by Western societies. There can be no such thing as “half” free speech, where you try to meet the religious halfway. Recent scholarship, at the same time, is making the importance of these Enlightenment principles for the development of democratic modernity increasingly clear (see Jonathan Israel’s magisterial three-volume Radical Enlightenment, 2001). Unfortunately, large parts of the left in the West seem to have forgotten their own roots in the Enlightenment and seem prone rather to go for some kind of compromise involving granting different group rights to different “cultural” groups – under the ambiguous headline of “multiculturalism” – rather than the rule of law with same individual rights for all.

The sad fact is that standing up for the Enlightenment is now a difficult task, rhetorically, politically and personally. If you try and speak up for these principles you will find that fundamentalists and multiculturalists will, as if with one voice, try to smear you, dignify you with pejoratives like “racist” and “islamophobic”. Some even claim universal rights for all human beings is a racist idea, a neo-colonial Western imposition on other cultures.

I know this to be the case because it has happened to me. I have been drawn into this struggle out of a basic commitment to Enlightenment values which just a decade ago seemed to form a firm foundation for our culture, a victory definitively won. I am a professor of semiotics, which, though it shares with Enlightenment values a certain grounding in scientific realism, is worlds away from battles about religion, free speech and the public sphere. I have a sort of track record as a public intellectual, writing for the weekly Weekendavisen (a bit like a Danish London Review of Books) and editing the journal KRITIK from 1993 to 2013.

My first shock over the left’s failure to defend the Enlightenment recently had its 20th anniversary. This was the Bosnian war of 1992-95 when most of the European left refused to come to the rescue of the Bosnian Muslims, then the victims of an intensive Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. The outrage over this passivity in the face of genocide united the Danish novelist Jens-Martin Eriksen and myself, and this became the focus of two books on those wars (Anatomy of Hatred, 2003, and Scenography of War, 2004). Those books also formed, without us knowing it at the time, the basis for our take on the current challenges of multiculturalism and Islamism.

Prewar Yugoslav Bosnia had the strictest anti-free-speech laws of Europe – you could get long jail sentences for telling an ethnic joke. It also had an ethnic affirmative action system, appointing officials to state positions through ethnic turn-taking, rather than merit. As became obvious, such policies did nothing to ease ethnic tension – quite the reverse. The tragedy of post-war Bosnia – a failed state if ever there was one – seems to be intimately connected to the survival of the ethnic political parties waging the war, now rather culturalist clientelist structures, effectively making Bosnia a multiculturalist three-statelet structure hampering collaboration and economic recovery.

I was predisposed by the Bosnian experience to view with suspicion ethnic and cultural group rights as a road to peace rather than war, and to prefer ethnically “colourblind” classic liberal standards rather than the reactionary utopias of multiculturalism. Yet despite what I learned from Bosnia the almost total defeatism of the European left faced with the 2006 cartoon crisis still came as a shock. The idea that free speech – arguably the most important individual right because the precondition of all other rights (and of democratic public discussion) – could be the object of compromises with totalitarian forces like Islamists spread like a disease on the centre-left and parts of the right. All of a sudden, the basic edifice of the Enlightenment was under attack. I began to participate in the Danish, and gradually the international, debate around these issues, trying to trace the intellectual history of “culturalism” behind the emergence of “multiculti” (in The Democratic Contradiction of Multiulturalism) and to analyse the internal contradiction in the multiculturalist doctrine, both as an academic tradition and in real-life policies. I was never a member of Hedegaard’s Press Freedom Society – I always felt that it was little more than a front organisation for the right-wing Danish People’s Party. Nor could I join the left-wing PEN club, which seemed to have grown so mesmerised by the dangers of “hate speech” as to be unable to fulfil its function as defender of free speech. This is why I helped form Free Debate.

All of a sudden I found myself having written, together with Jens-Martin Eriksen, a book-length analysis of the anti-democratic dangers inherent in multiculturalism. This was not universally welcomed, it must be said. The left – among which I used to count myself – does not respond well to criticisms of multiculturalism, and I was quickly dismissed as a racist and a traitor. My motives were questioned and it was intimated that I had joined the ranks of the ultra-right.

This was not without a certain irony, given that, I was, at the same time, having vicious debates with Danish clerical conservatives, who denounced me for my claim that Luther and Protestantism were not the source of current democratic liberties. Thus, to take a classic Enlightenment stand is now a two-front war, pitting you against multiculturalists on the left and monoculturalists on the right – both of whom claim that you really belong to the other camp. A major task in current debate, therefore, is to maintain a third position, a universalist Enlightenment position that rejects the increasingly authoritarian trends of both.

Along with my colleague Jens-Martin Eriksen I am currently finishing a book investigating in detail the defeatist arguments of what we call “the decent left” – the leftist intellectuals advocating that the curtailment of free speech is the best way of appeasing fundamentalists.

I have no illusions, alas, that this will be the last word on the matter, or that the attack on Lars Hedegaard will be the last attempt by fundamentalists to win their case through violence. And, whether or not the attack turns out to have been perpetrated by Islamic extremists, the damage has already been done, as critics of authoritarian religion temper their words or hold their tongue because of the fear of reprisal.

A very long struggle lies ahead of us, with Islamism on the march in the Middle East and with an autocratic China booming economically but also on the guard against press freedom. It looks as if the Hedegaard case signals a new level of intimidation in this struggle. Behind the fundamentalist pressure lie waves of religious awakenings, and it is a well-known truth that such awakenings die, at the earliest, when the first generation of its proponents begins to perish. So my pessimist contention is that this struggle will outlast both my time and that of the reader. My Enlightenment optimism, however, urges me to cleave to the idea that religious reaction will not, in the long run, prevail.