The same self-deceiving approach seems to be affecting the debate about the limits of free speech. Anxious not to offend Muslims, many in America and in France distanced themselves from Charlie Hebdo after its post-attack publication of an issue showing Muhammad in tears, wearing an “I am Charlie” T-shirt and saying, “All is forgiven.” The drawing seems hardly disparaging, but it alarmed those who think silence is preferable to the risk of offending. A fellow French journalist confided to me: “We should establish some kind of self-censorship, because we don’t want that a cartoon published in France leads to the burning of churches in Niger.”
That kind of thinking could jeopardize freedom of speech itself. Will this hard-won freedom, so precious to the West, be sacrificed because a village imam in the Middle East or Africa incites people to violence during Friday prayer? Many in the West seem tempted to capitulate, in the name of “peace.” They are allowing themselves to believe that it is our fault if the churches burn. That is what the radicals are betting on.
Where will we draw limits? Will we also give in when radical Islamists say they are offended to see European women wearing bikinis or going to swimming pools while men are present? The latter question is already being raised in some French cities.
The answer will define our future. Americans have some difficulty understanding the depth of the European challenge. Given the marginal size of the Muslim community in the U.S., Americans are not confronted by the same questions or urgency. In France, as in much of Europe, these daunting challenges are rapidly becoming existential, despite the fact that we have been promoting different models of integration, some as in Great Britain or the Netherlands much closer to those in the U.S. Only if we are sure of the values worth defending will we be able to convince our Muslim compatriots to fight for France, its liberal order and magnificent heritage.