March 09, 2006

Giving Voltaire The Boot

That's what the Muslims are asking for in France:
SAINT-GENIS-POUILLY, France -- Late last year, as an international crisis was brewing over Danish cartoons of Muhammad, Muslims raised a furor in this little alpine town over a much older provocateur: Voltaire, the French champion of the 18th-century Enlightenment.

A municipal cultural center here on France's border with Switzerland organized a reading of a 265-year-old play by Voltaire, whose writings helped lay the foundations of modern Europe's commitment to secularism. The play, "Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet," uses the founder of Islam to lampoon all forms of religious frenzy and intolerance.

The production quickly stirred up passions that echoed the cartoon uproar. "This play ... constitutes an insult to the entire Muslim community," said a letter to the mayor of Saint-Genis-Pouilly, signed by Said Akhrouf, a French-born cafe owner of Moroccan descent and three other Islamic activists representing Muslim associations. They demanded the performance be cancelled.

Instead, Mayor Hubert Bertrand called in police reinforcements to protect the theater. On the night of the December reading, a small riot broke out involving several dozen people and youths who set fire to a car and garbage cans. It was "the most excitement we've ever had down here," says the socialist mayor.
This time, the French actually resisted Muslim pressure. In the dispute between faith and free speech, something quite clear to Voltaire in his day, the ability to speak one's mind often carried with it grave consequences, including prison, banishment, or death. Voltaire drew the ire of the Christian authorities for his often explicit criticisms, and now his thinly veiled attacks on religious irrationality is labelled nothing more than anti-Islamic rhetoric that humiliates Muslims and leads to more anti-Islamic sentiments. Given the current atmosphere, and the violence sparked by Muslims rioting over cartoons intended on reinforcing the rights to free speech, free press, and free expression, it would be necessary to paraphrase Voltaire himself--"If Voltaire did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him (implacable defenders of free speech)." It is not, however, necessary to invent free speech, for that territory has been paid for by the countless soldiers who fought here and in Europe (and elsewhere) to restore freedom and end tyranny. Not one inch will be given back.


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