Did a Critic of Islam Go Too Far?

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The French are always quick to quote Voltaire, but for the last week one of his bons mots has been particularly pertinent: "Even if I don't agree with what you say, I'm ready to fight to my death so you can say it."

What calls the phrase to mind is the plight of Robert Redeker, 52, a writer and high school philosophy teacher who has been under police protection and in hiding with his family since the newspaper Le Figaro published his op-ed piece about Islam on Sept.19. Entitled "Faced with Islamist intimidations, what should the free world do?," Redeker's article called the Koran "a book of extraordinary violence" that shows the prophet Mohammad to have been "a pitiless warlord, pillager, massacrer of Jews and polygamist." The very day the piece came out, Redeker started receiving e-mail death threats. In a letter to a friend published this week in Le Monde, Redeker wrote that one website condemning him to death included a map showing exactly where he and his family lived, along with photos of him and his workplaces. In the letter, published as part of an appeal of support signed by French intellectuals including Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann and Elisabeth Badinter, Redeker writes that he and his family are being forced to move every two days. "I'm a homeless person," he complains. "I exercised a constitutional right, and I'm being punished for it right here on the territory of the Republic."

Redeker is only the latest in a lengthening list of Europeans who have been subjected to death threats from Muslims outraged by criticism of their faith and prophet. British writer Salman Rushdie survived the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa only by adopting a quasi-clandestine existence. Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was gunned down on the street two years ago in Amsterdam for insulting Islam. His co-filmmaker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, frustrated at living under constant police protection, resigned earlier this year from the Dutch parliament and moved to the United States.

The outcry over Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments about Islam, Redeker wrote, underlined that the religion was trying to stifle "that which is most precious to the West and which doesn't exist in any Muslim country: liberty of thought and expression." He claimed that France was "more or less consciously submitting itself to the dictates of Islam" by such gestures as banning string bikinis during this summer's Paris Plage, the annual beach party in Paris; setting up times when only women can visit public pools; and allowing Muslim schoolchildren to get special food in school cafeterias.

But Redeker expanded his critique from these examples to a broadside against Islam as a religion. He acknowledged that violence was commonly committed in the name of Christianity, but claimed that "it is always possible to turn back to evangelical values, to the mild personage of Jesus, from the excesses of the Church." Muhammad, he claimed, offered no such recourse: "Jesus is a master of love, Muhammad is a master of hate."

Support for Redeker has been widespread — but sometimes nuanced. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called his situation "unacceptable," a message forcefully echoed by French newspapers and teachers' unions. The minister of education, however, said that state employees should be "prudent, moderate and wise in all circumstances" — an implicit criticism that infuriated many of Redeker's supporters.

There was a touch of blame-the-victim in some Muslim reaction, too. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Mosque of Paris and president of the French Council of the Muslim Religion, told TIME that Redeker had made "grave errors" in treating questions of religion in a "purely subjective manner." But, he said, "we have to respond with arguments, not threats of violence. I deplore the situation he is in."

Beyond that, Boubakeur deplores what amounts to the further coarsening of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe. "This helps the radicals on both sides," he says. "The Islamist radicals say, 'See, they're still insulting Islam,' while the anti-Muslim extremists see Islam's propensity for violence confirmed." Boubakeur wants to see more active prosecution of what he calls "acts that provoke religious hatred." The French authorities, meanwhile, are more interested in finding the people who have threatened to kill Redeker.