The European culture of free speech

Her lies in the naturalisation process notwithstanding, it seems that, one way or another, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial feminist, Islam critic, and former Dutch parlamentarian, will be able to retain her Dutch citizenship. If she still wants it.

Even though she had reportedly planned to move to the United States to work for the American Enterprise Institute for a longer time and a number of reasons – not the least of which may have been that, as argued by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (in German), the Netherlands had grown a little tired of paying the bills for her non-compromising, crusadesque stance against Islam (as opposed to her new employer) – the circumstances causing her immediate resignation from the Dutch Parliament are a significant event in Dutch, maybe European politics, although I suppose it will only later become clear what exactly it means.

This week’s Economist, on the other hand, believes it already knows the answer (but keeps it behind the subscription wall). The magazine argues that it is not the case that, as some Americans apaprently believe, Europeans have decided that appeasement is the appropriate strategy for dealing with radical Islam, but that, as can be seen by, say, the anti hijab-legislation in France –

“America may be an easier place than Europe to be either a Muslim or an anti-Muslim. … Europe can be tough; what it lacks is a robust culture of free speech and free personal behaviour”

I don’t know if America is a better place to be for Muslims or anti-Muslims. But I’d like to disagree as far as Europe’s free speech culture is attacked. To use the example provided by the Economist – every hijab-related verdict or legislation was discussed fervently in every affected European country – for an idea to which extent, just have a look at our archives.

But more importantly, to take an event that has its root causes in extreme personal behaviour on the one hand and the only recently limitedly radicalised, usually overly compromising (previously consociational) Dutch political system on the other, and to conclude, based on this evidence, that “Europe has no robust culture of free speech” is, quite frankly, a bit much.

Moreover, at the risk of oversimplifying a lot of things, I would like to argue that Europe’s public discourse has, in general, been able to cope rather well with the increasing heterogeneity of its citizenry, even without excessive use of formal, or informal, political correctness. In other words, I am quite happy that Europeans, apparently contrary to the Economist, are not simply using the amplitude of arguments made in a public discourse as an indicator of the quality thereof.

20 thoughts on “The European culture of free speech

  1. I have no immediate access to the full article, but it seems there is quite a fair bit of truth to it, at least in the Dutch case.

    Dutch culture is first and foremost about cooperation and consensus. This has become such an integral part of society that intrinsic deviation from the common average is generally frowned upon. We call it the ground-zero (“maaiveld”) effect.

    The frightening thing is that we protest against it, but can’t seem to help ourselves. Even in our protest we long to reach consensus, effectively swaying or trying to sway society as a whole.

  2. Ajaan’s message was (and is) that only a consistent anti-religious attitude and a sharp awareness of the dangers of the great muslim conspiracy may save Europe. I do not agree. Her great examples, Voltaire, Erasmus, Diderot – all agreed that moral values only come to the people by the way of religion, basis of group solidarity.
    She had an illusion, i.e. that the State, founded upon a theory of Enlightenment, would condemn Islamic religion as such. To be frank: it is her obsession. And she will find in the US still less room for what she believes. The AEI is in favour of “faith-based” social actions. That is exactly what she does not want.
    Her ideas, obsessional as they may be, should have got room in Europe. It is not without significance, that the only Dutch intellectuals to come forward in her defense, were exactly those, whom she, and her populist friends, had been attacking as “dhimmis” and naive appeasers. (Manifesto of Geert Mak c.s., published in NRC-Handelsblad, May 16, 2006, also before the Dutch parliament forced the immigration minister to reconsider her decision to declare Hirsi Ali a non-Dutch citizen). Her conservative and anti-islamic friends were mostly relieved to get rid of her.
    For them, it was, citing Schiller: “Der Mohr hat seine Schuldigkeit getan. Der Mohr kann gehen.”
    To me, and to many of my friends on the (Dutch) left, it was: “Even if we do not agree with you, you belong here and we will defend your right to speak out.”
    I think, this is the real cultural divide which runs through Europe: The renaissancist, liberal, enlightened view against a provincial, opportunist and fearful attitude. The first will, D.V., shape a new Europe, the last will always accompany us, turning Europe into a mess. This messy new Europe is the one we and our children will have to live in.

  3. What he said.

    And, also, it always bugs me that the VVD (Hirsi Ali’s conservative party) has been pointing fingers at “The Left Church” for being “too soft” on immigrants ever since Bolkestein in the early ’90s.

    First off, Labor has not been noticably softer. Both Aad Kosto and Job Cohen were Deputy Ministers for Immigration, both were considered very strict, and both are Labor politicians. Aad Kosto even had his house bombed by fringe left-wing terrorists for being to harsh on asylum seekers.

    And second, the VVD always implies that Labor is to blame for allowing all these Turks and Moroccans in in the first place. But that’s just not true.

    The guest workers were brought in by businesses in the late 1960s with the approval of a christian-democrat/vvd government.

    Once family reunification and formation got underway in the late 70s and early 1980s, it was a christian-democrat/vvd government that decided not to curb this (IIRC they even made it a bit easier). This had to do with christian-democrat dogma about family values and, especially, pillarization.

    The only Dutch politician I know of who warned of possible troubles with integration was Labor prime minister Den Uyl during the oil crisis. (To be fair, Den Uyl did rush Surinamese independence out of a sort of reverse white man’s burden, which is one of the causes for Surinamese immigration to the Netherlands.)

    I’m not saying that Labor would have done better and come up with a brilliant plan to avert today’s problems with immigration. But they just weren’t in power when most of the decisions were made.

  4. Many European countries are more strongly conformist than the US, and this does impact the level of free speech. It also makes it a lot easier to be a member of an ethnic minority here. The level of casual racism tolerated in many European countries is not usually present in the US. Also, frankly, European countries typically are more bureaucratic and controlling than America, at least outside of the criminal justice system.

    For me, the scary thing was when Ali’s neighbors sued for her to leave because they considered her a security threat. Here’s a member of parliament, and her neighbors are too chickenshit to live next to her because they are afraid of Islamist assassins. If threats of political violence can work that well in the Netherlands on rich white people, that suggests to me that the enforcement of human rights laws for poor immigrant women is probably profoundly lacking.

  5. The American Enterprise organisation is one of the most right-wing in the USA. It’s also a nest of the most agressive Zionist activists,and is noted for its’ Hawkish and warmongering policies.Her anti-Islamist position will be most welcome among that nest of vipers.They alos accomadate hatemongering types like Daniel Pipes and Dershowitz..they should be based ,not in New York but Tel Aviv,their spiritual home !

  6. Wow. I can’t say that I’m that big a fan of AEI, but I won’t name call like Brian. AEI is a conservative thinktank for sure, but it stands out no more than the other ones, like the Heritage Foundation, for example. Also, even conservative think tanks have rational moderate analysts. There not all “vipers.”

    I would second the comments made by Hektor as well. The U.S. is a better place for immigrants to live than Europe (generally speaking). The U.S. is a country of immigrants, and so it is not as big an issue as some other places. For example, there has been to this date, no domestic terrorism within the U.S. by Islamic fundamentalist that are U.S. citizens. For the most part, those that practice Islam aren’t alienated, unlike those in Western Europe.

  7. The veracity of free speech is defined by law. It seems to me that the laws regarding free speech in America are undeniably superior with regards to Europe with regards to what you can say.

    Doesn’t Germany outlaw the idea that the Holocaust is fiction? Isn’t England debating whether or not to outlaw criticism of Islam which is nothing more than an idea?

    Because you ‘fervently’ discuss something in no way means that your culture of ideas is robust. It’s what’s allowed into the discussion that counts. It seems to me that Europe is sorely lacking in this regard.

  8. I don’t think Hirsi Ali’s views matter in this case. I believe that the question here is a simple one: does the fact that Hirsi Ali lied to obtain asylum makes her unworthy of Dutch Nationality or does the fact that she served in the last few years in the Dutch parliament shows that in fact she has integrated in Dutch society and has redeemed herself with her conduct, which one must admit without necessary argreeing with her views were the one of law-abiding and honorable Dutch citizen.

  9. Will: “For example, there has been to this date, no domestic terrorism within the U.S. by Islamic fundamentalist that are U.S. citizens.”

    Actually there was at least one, the Washington sniper, though his Islamist motivation was ignored by the press.

  10. From a foreigner-living-in-Amsterdam’s point of view, Hirsi Ali was a loudmouth who actually contributed very little to public debate or even to realistic problems facing the Netherlands. The country has gone into freefall under the current government, yet, everyone has to be concerned with whatever this woman shreiked about. (To be sure, there are worse ones in NL, such as the one calling for forced abortions for children of minority parents as they will be “unloved” and prone to crime.)

    OK, fine, every country has this kind of politico.

    The entire affair was blown out of proportion by Verdonk, who evidently has little grasp of legal terms or public relations. The same minister has basically shut down the country’s migration rules for foreigners, tried to deport citizens on the basis of accusation (and her own judgement), make not speaking Dutch a criminal offense and pester people to the point where they leave the country.

    So, any attention brought by Hirsi Ali on to the Netherlands and its government’s atrocious behaviour of late, is welcome.

  11. It really makes me sick when people describe Hirsi Ali as a “feminist”. When I think of “feminists” I think of spoiled rich brats who want free money, special rights and job advancements without working for it. Ali is probably best described as a humanist.

  12. Bob,

    The veracity of free speech is defined by law. It seems to me that the laws regarding free speech in America are undeniably superior with regards to Europe with regards to what you can say.

    I think some things in the US are protected as free speech in the US that are not considered free speech in Europe, say monetary campaign contributions. That’s a consequence of legal traditions, I’d suggest. But the legal element is, as the Economist rightly points out, only the formal institution. Formally, I would suggest, that free speech regulations are generally equal, although Reporters without borders’ Press Freedom Index (a different, albeit related concept) is more concerned with the US than Europe having only European countries on #1 and the US at #44 (

    I’d suppose a consequence of the dismal recent corporate media performance in the US, and as such not in itself indicative of any lack of “free speech” throughout the society. However, it does show that simple mental concepts about the US as the “land of the free” that is welcoming immigrants and happily allowing any radical point of view, and Europe as a place that is lacking “a culture of free speech” because it’s ethnically more homogeneneous societies do not allow differing views, is overly simplified.

    “Doesn’t Germany outlaw the idea that the Holocaust is fiction?

    It does indeed, and there are, I would argue sufficient historical reasons for doing so. However, you are right to point out that this exception to the rule is a weakness, not a strength.

    Because you ‘fervently’ discuss something in no way means that your culture of ideas is robust. It’s what’s allowed into the discussion that counts. It seems to me that Europe is sorely lacking in this regard.

    No, it’s not just the amplitude of arguments that determine that quality of a debate. Let’s take the intelligent design debate as an example – there are advocats, even vocal and powerful alleged advocats of intelligent design – the state premier of Thuringia, for example ( It’s not that their views are in some way restricted by anything than public interest in what they have to say.


    Many European countries are more strongly conformist than the US, and this does impact the level of free speech.

    I doubt that the latter is the case, even though I think it’s still possible to argue the former.

    For me, the scary thing was when Ali’s neighbors sued for her to leave because they considered her a security threat.

    I agree. Although I don’t know exactly what made the court agree with them. It seems strange.

  13. Josh,

    True, Malvo was a Muslim, but I haven’t read or seen anything to indicate that he is a practicing Muslim. Nor did he carry out the snipings in the name of jihad. As his co-killer testified earlier this week, he did it because he was a nihilist, with infantile dreams of the killings making him infamous.

  14. Tobias: I don’t know why the court agreed with the neighbours. They have been roundly booed in the Dutch press, though, and the Justice minister Donner immediately appealed the decision. Donner, at least, is a principled conservative, unlike the nasties making up most of the current government.

    Francesucks: Ali won a feminist award for her contributions to Dutch feminism and was moved to tears to receive it. Indeed, I am really curious to see how her feminist, pro-gay, anti-clerical radicalism will go down with US conservatives. (I myself think that AHA’s melange of views is somehow quite Dutch, she’s taking arguments 1970’s left-wing activists used against Christian conservatism and applying them with equal ruthlessness to Islam)

    To many commenters: why o why does an overly restrictive immigration and asylum policy have *anything* at all to do with free speech?

    To The Economist: There are villages in the NL which lack a culture of free personal behaviour, but does, say, Amsterdam lack such a culture? Why?

    To any sociologist reading this: Do any of the pop-sociological prejudices about “European culture” mentioned in this thread make any sense? Can the level of conformism in the US be compared to that in NL? What’s the result?


  15. Whenever one came across the word feminist one think that they want some special rights and advancements in job.So its not right to describe Ali as a feminist. She is a humanist.

  16. Feminism can mean several things.

    One is ‘gender equality as advocated by women’. This is only really ‘feminist’ in that in most societies, women were regarded as more disadvantaged than men by advocates of greater equality. Unfortunately there isn’t a good gender-symmetric word for advocates of gender equality, so even men will sometimes call themselves ‘feminist’ to express support for equality. Sometimes this takes a very abstract form, where it is a balance of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ perspectives on the world that is sought, not just equality of individual men and women.

    Another is a kind of bundle of issues that disproportionately affect women, from domestic violence to childcare provision. Male counterparts do exist, for example ‘Fathers 4 Justice’, but are generally much more marginal. This kind of advocacy has become institutionalised in some Western countries with ‘Women’s Officers’ et cetera in businesses, colleges and governments.

    Then there are forms of female supremacism, which hold that men are inherently evil/stupid and must be kept under control by women, and favour special privileges for women to counterbalance a supposedly male supremacist society. Unlike its male counterpart, this exists more as a straw man than a real ideology, and few feminist groups openly advocate it, but when radicals make pronouncements like ‘all sex is rape’, you have to wonder what role men would have in their ideal society. The most radical feminist political party I’ve heard of of any size is the Swedish Feminist Initiative, which believes that Sweden is controlled by the ‘Gender Power Hierarchy’ and calls for action to reduce men’s status in society.

    Without knowing more, I suspect Ali supports some combination of the first two. It is perfectly possible to be a feminist and a humanist.

  17. Colin, you’re right that femal supramacism is a strawwoman; but you’re wrong that radical feminists believe all sex is rape; the closest comment is that all men are potential rapists, which is true in the sense that all men are potential astronauts, terrorists or lollipop men. And if you think that’s extreme, consider the official advice given to women to avoid rape, which is to watch their drinks, don’t go out after dark, don’t go out alone, don’t wear sexy clothes…in short, to treat all men as potential rapists.

    I’m getting off-topic, and I apologise, but the ‘all sex is rape’ anti-feminist meme is evil and must be destroyed.

  18. >I’m getting off-topic, and I apologise, but the >’all sex is rape’ anti-feminist meme is evil and >must be destroyed.

    I agree that it’s off-topic but still very interesting subject.

    As I understand it, Colin is right in a colloquial sense that its possible to be humanist and feminist at the same time. However, feminism as the “ism” does, as I believe, is still largely hijacking gender theory and to a significant extent still advocates the idea that all gender differences are cultural, not biological.

    Sure, it’s come a long way since Andrea Dworkin, and a lot of third generation feminists are fighting against radical feminist ideologues themselves.

    But still, it remains a contentious issue advocating group rights against individual rights. At that point it becomes more difficult to be a feminist and a humanist at the same time.

  19. Not sure what you mean by feminism as the ‘ism’ does, but anyway, you’re making a lot of assumptions here that I want you to consider: some third-generation feminists may be rebelling against radical positions, others are inspired by them: the Andrea Dworkin memorial in the UK last month was well attended. Please note that ‘radical’ in the sense of feminism isn’t used in the sense of being super-extreme (that would be the separatists) but being a position that patriarchal oppression is the first, original oppression.

    Also, Andrea Dworkin is indeed strong meat, and as such has often been held responsible for things she never actually said, like ‘all sex is rape’ and other things. (This is not an accusation, but yet another attempt to clear up the all-too-common strawfeminist stuff that’s in circulation)

    But what I really don’t understand is how you dismiss out of hand the suggestion that all gender differences are cultural. (Obviously we are both eliding differential roles in reproductive capacity as a given; and something that feminists try to compensate for as Colin outlines in his 2nd charactersiation.) I hope you would have no problem accepting that racial difference is entirely cultural, depsite physical differences such as size, colour, features. It’s not because my skin is white that I can’t dance… Neither is a position that physical differences do not create psychological differences anathema to humanism as you seem to suggest; quite the contrary, as humanism affirms the dignity and worth of all people.

    And thirdly, group rights versus individual rights is the line all political groups face. But it’s a real chicken and egg, because the group rights of women is just a multiplication of the individual rights of a woman. So what’s your problem? We have all sorts of special interest groups, religious and political, all clamouring for influence. To me, the most important part AHA’s mission was attacking the ‘group’ rights of men who beat and murdered women, and who found their justification in the name of Islam. Does this stance make her an individualist, or one who stands for the group rights of women? Does it even matter when she’s saying things that need to be said?

  20. Hello again Galloise,

    >Not sure what you mean by feminism as the ‘ism’

    I think you’re outlining the difference quite well yourself. The one end of the spectrum is “feminism ” as womens rights as human rights. The other end is a theory that is based on assumptions about human agents that are, well, problematic, to say the least. Abstraction from “common gender biases” sounds great as a slogan, but as it’s impossible – to the very least in the same way the veil of ignorance can only a theoretical device – all that is left is a theoretical construct of some “orginal cultural sin” that is, even when accepting it, disconnected from its possible biological roots.

    I’m sorry to hear that you can’t dance… if that should be so. And no, my first thought would not be your gene pool as an explanation for that lack of skill. I am not that much of a dancer myself, and even though I suppose I would like to blame it on ms skin colour, I doubt anyone would buy that.
    But you know, not all differences are alike, and that was precisely my point. Maybe an arythmic culture is the main, or predominant reason for our common lack of dancing skills. But can the same be assumed for *all* differences between men and women? Maybe what we’d need to do should we continue this discussion is clarify what exactly we refer to by differences. But personally, I find evolutionary psychology to have more explanatory power when it comes to a lot of differences. Differences that are, I agree, often amplified, distorted and exaggerated by often dysfunctional culture. But their root cause is, I would say, a simple inequilibrium: the simple fact that egg cells (female reproduction) is a much scarcer resource than sperms and thus that evolution is working through female choices (in the human case at least).

    I suppose I am a feminist in the humanist, human rights sense, but certainly not in theoretical one.

    Anyway, being a white male, I’m a bit of a burnt child in this respect, as I was exposed to a feminist discoursive environment in my LSE flat without any kind of cultural preparation though my prior MBA programme ;). So there’s a chance I may still jump the gun… but I do enjoy discussions of this topic.

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