The Role of Journalism Today

The first time that I was at a gathering like this one, it was November 2005 at the Krasnapolsky hotel in Amsterdam; not quite like this one, though, because there is only one National Press Club. I was invited to a session on media coverage of Islam, and Submission was shown. Submission is a 10-minute film I made with Theo van Gogh. As many of you know, he was killed for it by a Muslim.

I found myself in the odd position of defending freedom of expression, free press, and the rights of women against Arab-Islamic journalists and commentators. I found it odd because the Western journalists whose conference it was were either quiet, mumbled something about free expression, or approached me after the session and whispered into my ear that I had done a good job. I noticed the embarrassment they felt at defending the very right from which they earn their bread.

I noticed the same sense of uneasiness in early 2006 among Western journalists, academics, politicians, and commentators on how to respond to the cartoons of Muhammad in Denmark. In fact, many seriously defended the assertion that Denmark had to apologize for the cartoons. This attitude was repeated in the fall of last year when the Pope quoted a Byzantine emperor who wrote that the founder of Islam spread his religion by the sword, and the New York Times urged the Pope to apologize.

Tony Blair, a leader I admire, wrote in the first issue of this year's Foreign Affairs magazine that what we were facing after the 11th of September was a battle of ideas, a battle of values. In his article, Blair began by incisively outlining the most crucial conflict of our time, but then lost the line of his argument in inconsistency when he came to clarifying the parties involved in the war of values. He backpedaled against his argument and declared that the Koran is a great book, ahead of its time and good for women.

Why are Westerners so insecure about everything that is so wonderful about the West: political freedom, free press, freedom of expression, equal rights for women and men, gays and heterosexuals, critical thinking, and the great strength of scrutinizing ideas--and especially faith?

It is not the end of history. The 21st century began with a battle of ideas, and this battle is about the values of the West versus those of Islam. Tony Blair and the Pope should not be embarrassed in saying it, and you should stop self-censoring. Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible; cultures and religions are not equal. And perhaps most important of all, Muslims are not half-wits who can respond only in violence. The Koran is not a great book; it is reactionary and full of misogyny. The Byzantine emperor's analysis of Muhammad was correct: he spread his faith by the sword.

From this perspective journalists like all the rest of us face the unpleasant reality of taking sides or getting lost in the incoherence of the so-called middle ground. The role of journalists serving the West, who understand what this particular battle is about, will be to inform their audiences accordingly.

As I travel from country to country to testify from experience and observation that Islamic dogma creates a cult of death, a cage for women, and a curse against knowledge, I get both support and opposition. Europeans and Americans ask:

"But what about the good Muslim living next to me? What about the different schools of thought in Islam? Is there no difference between the Muslims of Indonesia and the ones in Somalia, or the Muslims in Saudi Arabia and those in Turkey? Can we really generalize? What about the women who voluntarily wear the headscarf and the burqa and are happy to relinquish their freedom as their faith requires? If we give Catholics and Protestants and Jews their schools and their universities, isn't it only fair to give Muslims theirs, too? If generations of Jews, Italians, and Irish have assimilated, is it unreasonable to think that Muslims will assimilate too, eventually?" Isn't it more fruitful to engage in debate with your opponent and convince him through dialogue to take back his declaration of war than to attack him? Isn't it obvious that military attacks, such as those in Afghanistan after 9/11 and in Iraq, create more terrorists, and therefore more people who are determined to destroy the West than there would be if we had dialogue with them?"

These questions are legitimate and deserve serious answers. Let's make a moral distinction between Islam and Muslims. Muslims are diverse. Some, like Irshad Manji and Tawfiq Hamid, want to reform their faith. Others want to spread their beliefs through persuasion, violence or both. Others are apathetic and do not care much for politics. Others want to leave it and convert to Christianity, like Nonie Darwish, or become atheist, like me.

Islam unreformed, as a set of beliefs, is hostile to everything Western.

In a free society, if Jews, Protestants, and Catholics have their own schools, then Muslims should have theirs, too. But how long should we ignore that in Muslim schools in the West, kids are taught to believe that Jews are pigs and dogs? Or that they should distance themselves from unbelievers and jihad is a virtue? Isn't it odd that everywhere in Europe with large Muslim organizations, demands are made not to teach kids about the Holocaust, while in mosques and Muslim bookshops The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is distributed?

And what about in Muslim lands, where Jews, Catholics, and Protestants cannot have their own schools, or churches, or graveyards? If Muslims can proselytize in Vatican City, why can't Christians proselytize in Mecca? Why do we find this acceptable? If Christians, Jews, and Atheists take to the streets in large numbers to protest against their own elected governments in objection to the war in Iraq, to the war against terror, why don't Muslims march in equally large number against the beheadings of Western aid workers? Why don't Muslims stand up for their own? Why are Jews and Christians and Atheists in the West the ones fighting genocide in Darfur? Why does it pass unnoticed in Muslim lands when Shias kill Sunnis and Sunnis, Shias by the thousands? It doesn't add up, does it? If you ask me, "What is the role of journalism today?" I would urge you to look into these questions.

As a woman in the West I have access to education. I have a job, and I can change jobs as I wish. I can marry the man of my choice, or I can choose not to marry at all. If nature allows it, I can have any number of children I want. I can manipulate nature and freeze my eggs. I can have an abortion. I can own property. I can travel wherever I want. I can read whichever book, newspaper, or magazine I wish. I can watch any movie I want or go to the museum of my choice. I can have an opinion on the moral choices of others and express my opinion, even publish it. And I can change my mind as time goes by. I can establish a political party or join an existing one; I am free to change parties or give up my membership. I can vote. I can choose not to vote. I can stand for election to office or go into business. This is what makes the West so great.

In Muslim lands, except for a very lucky few, women are denied education, have no job, and are forced into marriage with strangers. In the name of Islam, women are denied the right to their bodies; they cannot choose whether to have children or how many to have. They have no rights to abortion, and often they die trying to get one. They cannot own property, trade, or travel without the risk of robbery or rape. Most women (and men) live in state and religious censorship on what to read (if they can read at all) and what films to watch, and they have hardly any museums or art they can enjoy. Of the 57 Muslim nations that are members of the OIC (Organization of the Islamic Conference), only two are democracies. Both are frail and corrupt, and both face the risk of being overtaken by the agents of pure Islam. Turkey has a safety check in the shape of the army and Indonesia none. In none of these countries--except for the usual show-pieces to delude the West--are women allowed to establish their own political parties, play a meaningful role in one, vote, or run for office.

This obsession with subjugating women is one of the things that makes Islam so low. And the agents of Islam--from Riyadh to Tehran, from Islamabad to Cairo--know that any improvement in the lives of women will lead to the demise of Islam and a disappearance of their power. This is why, among other things, they are so desperate to cage in women. This is why they also hate the West.

Please don't be fooled by the few shrill voices--in or out of the veil--that enjoy the status quo and betray their fellow women.

If we do not understand the differences between Islam and the West--why one is so great and the other so low--and we don't fight back and win this battle of ideas in order to preserve our civilization, in my view there is no point to your profession or mine.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a resident fellow at AEI.

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