Freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islamism

Those who threaten Israel's liberal-democratic nature also don't recognize the Supreme Court's supremacy.

Salman Rushdie 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Salman Rushdie 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An interesting stage production was put on recently at the National Theatre in London by an avant-garde dance-theater group, under the title “Can we talk about this?” The essence of the production was the recital by the 10 participating performers of the answers given in interviews conducted with Muslim and non-Muslim personalities in the UK on the subject of freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islamic extremism. While reciting the texts the performers were in constant, deliberate and highly stylized movement.
It is not my intention to deal with the technical aspects of the performance, that were both dazzling and distracting, making it difficult to follow what was actually being said, but rather with the subject matter.
Among the issues mentioned were the threats on Salman Rushdie’s life after he published The Satanic Verses, the hysterical Muslim reaction to the Danish newspaper cartoons of Mohammed, the murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in reaction to his film about the abuse of Muslim women, as well as forced marriages and “honor abuse” among Muslims in the UK. There was also an exploration of the limits of freedom of speech and expression.
For example, do British Muslims have the right to protest against the mocking of the prophet Mohammad without fearing arrest, or to resist applying the liberal laws of the land regarding the rights of women and of the gay community?
The mere fact that a theatrical group in the UK was willing to publicly confront these highly explosive issues, which most liberal Englishmen (and Europeans, for that matter) usually avoid dealing with upfront for fear of being accused of racism, or offending Muslims, is an achievement in itself, and the National Theatre was lauded by many for its mere decision to enable this production to be performed on one of its stages.
However, in my opinion the performance missed an important point. At the beginning of each performance one of the performers asked the audience: “How many of you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” The percentage of spectators who raised their hands at the various performances was between 20 to 30 – rather worrying figures.
At a discussion held backstage between the performers and a select group of spectators after the performance, one of the participants (who turned out to be a secular Jew from a religious background) asked the 10 actors: “how many of you feel superior to the Taliban?” No hands were raised. The man then addressed the four female performers, saying: “Don’t you realize that the Taliban would kill you for appearing in public in jeans, without covering your faces, and moving freely on the stage as you do?” The four women just gave him a blank look, and the moderator asked for the next question.
Whether or not one feels morally superior to the Taliban is really beside the point. The real question is whether the Western democratic world can coexist with the Taliban (or any other group that uses terror and indiscriminate murder in the name of an ideology or a religion), and where, in liberal societies, limits must be placed on multiculturalism when it comes to population groups that refuse to accept the basic liberal democratic rules laid down by the majority.
Another issue is whether liberal democratic societies are capable of distinguishing between the ordinary members of a certain community and its radical extremists, who pose a threat not only to the lives and security of those who disagree with them, but also to the way of life of the majority. Unless such a distinction is made, even the semblance of multiculturalism in Europe is doomed.
In Israel we confront all these issues not only vis-à-vis the Arab citizens of the state, but also among ourselves. In the case of inter-Jewish relations the danger of terror and physical violence is marginal, though not totally absent. However, we do confront the problem of certain parts of the religious community – both within the national religious camp and certain haredi (ultra-Orthodox) groups – refusing to accept some of the basic liberal democratic principles upon which the State of Israel was constituted, and to share in the economic and security burdens that ensure the continued existence and wellbeing of the state.
Whereas in the UK the whole issue was raised in the theater, in Israel it frequently comes up in the High Court of Justice, which has also turned into a theater of sorts. But that isn’t good enough, because those who pose a threat to the liberal-democratic nature of Israel, and refuse to share in the economic and security burdens, do not recognize the moral and legal supremacy of the Supreme Court. In the final reckoning it is something we must not only talk about, but must also reach some operative conclusions about – both among ourselves, and between ourselves and the Arab citizens of the state.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.