I'm offended you're offended: The waning courage of the West

When it comes to criticising Islam, something happens that leads us to censor ourselves and to adopt a form of naive appeasement. Why?

Tom Holland's "Islam: The Untold Story" had a second screening cancelled
Philippe Labrecque
On 18 September 2012 15:05

The multi-talented Stephen Fry is by no means a conservative in his political views but he nonetheless takes a stance usually associated with conservatives in our eraby condemning the politically correct obsession of censoring everything deemed offensive towards certain groups or individuals.

Fry rightly points out that any society with enough courage should be able to stomach commentsmade in the public sphere that are judged to be offensive by some.

Sadly, that society is not ours, as demonstrated last week when Tom Holland's documentary, Islam: The Untold Story, was verbally attacked by predictable sources while Channel 4 received death threats, some naming Holland and his producer by name soon after the broadcasting of the documentary.

Channel 4 did not have the courage to stand up to the threats and canceled a second private screening for academics and other guests of the television channel.

This is a small tragedy that is being replicated too often these days as Muslim fundamentalists are using threats of violence as a way of censoring voices that they find offensive to their religion. 

What is emerging is a recognisable pattern of threatening and violent groups, legitimising their threats due to being “offended”, resulting in different institutions, media outlets, public officials, and even individuals, either backing down, apologising, or downright acquiescing to the fundamentalists' every demand.

It works so well that different institutions will practice self-censorship of their own accord when it comes to certain topics in order to avoid having to deal with those same, well-publicised groups.

The fear of facing the wrath of fundamentalists and the condemnation of the preachers of the politically correct is thus clearly entrenched in people's mind. Being offended has become enough to accuse, judge, and condemn any dissenting voices.

Moreover, the canceling of the screening at Channel 4's headquarters -- not to mention multiple similar incidents -- poses a problem: if we allow violent religious fundamentalists to dictate what can and cannot be publicly discussed, even something as harmless as Holland's historical investigation, who's to say the censorship is to stop with a TV documentary?

In Islam: The Untold Story, Tom Holland travels to the Middle East in his empirical quest to map this period of history and interviews various historians who possess years of experience, having themselves spent years researching into the historical beginnings of Islam. What is threatened by our lack of courage in facing violent fundamentalists, therefore, is the very nature of Western empiricism and skepticism; in other words, the foundations of science.

If historical research and science cannot be discussed publicly due to its offensive nature to some, one may easily extend this logic to our educational systems as well as every other sphere of society. This is not speculative as many children are exempt from science classes and sexual education classes for religious reasons.

The canceling of Holland's documentary demonstrates a deep problem in Britain and a large portion of the West and that is the disappearance of collective courage when faced with a common threat. We individually fold and abandon our convictions when faced with any group determined enough and the collective result is that fundamentalists and ideologues increasingly dictate what can and cannot be said, gravely affecting and altering freedom of speech.

The Telegraph blogger Ed West entitled his article about Tom Holland's documentary “Can Islam ever accept higher criticism?” That may be a question that Muslims across the scale want to answer themselves. But the question that is more relevant to the West is whether we still have enough courage to stand up to Muslim fundamentalism.

Ultimately, we seem quite able to stand up to and rationally criticize questionable doctrines of Christianity, for example, or indeed, questionable comments by the Pope, or the religious fanaticism of some Zionists. But when it comes to Islam, something happens that leads us to censor ourselves and to adopt a form of naive appeasement, almost happily.

Why we lack the courage of our ancestors when faced with such adversity may be the most important question this generation has to answer.

Philippe Labrecque is a freelance journalist and commentator. He blogs at philippelabrecque.com

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