In her lecture to the Axel Springer Foundation, Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues against self-censorship in discussing women’s rights.

Thank you so much for this great honor. The late Axel Springer had four guiding principles, which he later extended to five after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. I want to begin by reminding you of them.

  1. Unconditional commitment to German reunification, which he changed to European Union after 1989;
  2. Reconciliation of the Jews and the Germans and support for the state of Israel;
  3. Rejection of any kind of political totalitarianism;
  4. Defense of the free social market;
  5. Support of the transatlantic alliance and solidarity with the USA on the basis of shared values of freedom.

It is about the third and the fifth of these priniples that I wish to speak to you tonight. In particular, I want to talk about the freedom of speech – and the loss of freedom that comes with that silence. […]

“People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no, I would like to keep living. However, some things must be said and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.” I wrote those words in 2005. I was alluding to the plight of Muslim women who live in Europe, whose suffering inspired me to make the film Submission with Theo van Gogh. He was shot and stabbed to death by a radical Muslim.

Today, the problem of how to integrate Muslim immigrants into European society is, if anything, even more complex and challenging than it was then. There are, of course, still the advocates of silence. They say that an honest discussion of the challenges posed by some Muslim immigrants to European society will lead to a build-up of hatred against those immigrants: A hatred so vile and so strong as to translate into violence. A violence carried out by lone renegades like the Norwegian Anders Breivik, now on trial for his horrific spree in Oslo last year, or a more organized violence by neo-Nazi groups.

The advocates of silence also warn that honest discussion will encourage the emergence and rise of populist parties whose only political issue is immigration and Islam. They fear the election through non-violent means of politicians with a violent agenda that they will apply to Muslims as soon as they get into office. Advocates of silence conjure up terrifying visions of fascistic regimes that will implement mass deportations of Muslims, mass imprisonment of Muslims, the closing of their mosques, the shutting down of their businesses, the exclusion of Muslims from education and employment, and other types of discrimination.

When voicing these fears, the advocates of silence point, implicitly or explicitly, to the history of Germany between the world wars. The argument is often made that those intellectuals who wrote about “the Jewish question” – not all of whom were self-consciously anti-Semitic – paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power, for his policies of discrimination against Jews – not to mention homosexuals and the handicapped – and the ultimate horrors of the Holocaust. Here in Berlin, more than anywhere else in the world, such fears cannot and should not be lightly dismissed.

Citing this history of intolerance and genocide, the advocates of silence demand that no specific references be made to Islam or Muslims when discussing the issue of integration. They demand that only social and economic aspects of the problem be highlighted and only social and economic policies be implemented. They also urge that cultural demands made by some Muslim leaders be accommodated without complaint. Animal rights groups are asked to look the other way when it comes to the ritual slaughter of sheep, cows and chickens. Women’s rights groups are told to look for other issues when they agitate against women’s only swimming pools, the veil, forced marriages, genital mutilation and even honor killings. Activists may condemn the killing of women and the forcing of girls into marriage, but they may not link it to the religion of Islam or the community of Muslims.

Assaults on Jews or homosexuals may be the responsibility of Muslim youths, indoctrinated by agents of radical Islam to express their religious beliefs in this way, but advocates of silence say once again: “Condemn the act, but do not in any way relate it to the religion of Islam or Muslims.” They argue that these acts of intolerance are relatively small in number and are committed by a fringe of the Muslim immigrant population.

There is a growing resentment all over Europe towards the dependence on the welfare state of Muslim immigrants. The high rate of drop-outs from education. Everywhere in Europe Muslims are a minority, but in some prisons and in many women’s shelters they are shockingly overrepresented.

The advocates of silence warn us that publishing these facts or debating them in the media and in parliament will transform the existing resentment towards Muslims into violent behavior. The sentiment of xenophobia, they argue, is irrational and cannot – or will not – tell the difference between a good Muslim and a bad Muslim. The xenophobes will persecute Muslims regardless of their guilt or innocence and hurt them.

Censorship and silence, we are told, are the best preventive remedies against hatred and violence.

I believe that the advocates of silence are wrong, profoundly and dangerously wrong.

I do not dispute that some Europeans are xenophobic, and that the tendency to scapegoat others is prevalent in many places. I understand that this tendency is more pronounced in times of economic hardship, such as much of Europe outside Germany is experiencing. I can see, too, that a major part of the difficulty if integration Muslims into European society has a social and economic explanation. Most immigrants of Muslim countries into Europe these days come from segments of society in their country of origin with little education and little or no job skills.

However, there are also cultural issues that I believe are more important to understand. In fact, the poverty, the school dropout rate, the welfare dependence, the crime and the violence against women are better explained by understanding the habits, the customs, the religious beliefs and the values of the people involved than simply focusing on the social and economic symptoms of these cultural mechanisms. To be silent about this, in my view, is counterproductive.

First, silence does nothing to help those affected by the failure of integration. A poor man needs food and shelter, and ideally employment. But what he needs even more is to understand why he is poor while another is rich. He needs to understand what he himself can do to improve his situation.

Secondly, silence empowers rather than weakens the populists and the extremists. When the political mainstream censors itself, the populists and extremists can represent themselves as the only people capable of addressing one of the major issues of our time. By breaking the taboo, they win trust and respect on that issue even as the parties of the establishment lose trust. Some newspapers – I will not mention them by name – may choose not to publish critical voices, but those in society for whom the presence of Islam is a problem can now simply click on their favorite blogs.

Thirdly, and perhaps most seriously, silence empowers the Islamists, the radical agents of hatred. The young Muslim dropout, who is morally confused, is approached by a confident Islamist with a not so hidden agenda. The Islamist’s potential rivals in the struggle of hearts and minds – the Christians and the humanists – have been silenced by the kind of inhibitions I have already described. Muslim ghettoes in Europe today are exposed without censorship to the siren song of jihad, of martyrdom, of Sharia law, of hatred and self-exclusion. Here is an extreme ideology just as abhorrent as the neo-fascism of a Breivik. Yet to speak out against radical Islamism is to be condemned as an Islamophobe.

Fourthly and finally, that one man who killed 77 people in Norway, because he fears that Europe will be overrun by Islam, may have cited the work of those who speak and write against political Islam in Europe and America – myself among them – but he does not say in his 1500 page manifesto that it was these people who inspired him to kill. He says very clearly that it was the advocates of silence. Because all outlets to express his views were censored, he says, he had no other choice but to use violence.

Decades of informal censorship in Europe have led not to the promised integration of Muslim immigrants but to a culture of evasion and avoidance which has allowed extremism – both Jihadism and neo-Nazism – to flourish amid a general impotence of the established parties.

Ferdinand Lassalle, the early German socialist leader one said: “All great political action consists of and begins with, speaking out about that which is. All political petty-mindedness consists of being silent and covering up that which is.”

The good news is that recently the leaders of established conservative parties in Europe have broken the pact of silence: one after the other Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister David Cameron and (now former) President Nicolas Sarkozy have declared that the decades-long policy of multiculturalism has failed.

For there to be a real answer to Europe’s biggest cultural problem since World War II, I believe it is vitally important that we resist the impulse to shut ourselves up.

Thank you very much.

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