When words fail, what is left of democracy?

Winston Churchill said of the Nazis: “They’re afraid of words.” And they were. So are all bigots and tyrants and their followers.

Words are the elixir of democracy. Think freely, talk freely, meet freely in groups, contest ideas, argue cases in court: that is how peace is made and kept.

It is a great deal better that Don Brash calls Helen Clark corrupt and Clark calls Brash cancerous than that they raise armies against each other. It is un-pretty and a disgrace. But the only corpses will be in the realm of political metaphor.

Indeed, Brash’s brushes with the Exclusive Brethren have led some to anticipate his political death. Certainly, some of his MPs think the Brethren’s un-Christian behaviour last year and the outing of Brash’s dallying with them may have cost National the election by turning away liberal voters. Since then words have neutered the Brethren as a political force.

But are there times when words are not enough? George Bush thinks so and has run into trouble with the courts, his own party and his close ally, Britain, over Guantanamo Bay and the CIA’s special methods in stateless places. Bush reckons his enemies, militant Muslims, are so insidious, dangerous and numerous that there must be a curb on words. Is he right?

Half a century ago during the “cold war” against the evil regimes of Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, this country thought the Bush way. A state of emergency made criminals of those who by word or deed gave comfort to militant watersiders locked out by employers backed by the government. It was justified by associating aggressive unions with Stalin’s and Mao’s expansionist communism.

The Bush regime treats its battle against militant Muslims as a fourth world war, as one neoconservative adviser has called it — a titanic struggle for democratic values against forces of darkness and repression.

Down here in this safe little cave of a country such talk sounds far-fetched. But just across the Tasman it doesn’t sound so out of line. Australians feel more vulnerable, living next door to the world’s most populous Muslim nation. They have a deeper fellow-feeling than we do with the Americans over September 11.

So when the Pope fell foul of militant Muslims a couple of weeks back, it resonated. Australia’s Cardinal George Pell backed him.

What did the Pope do? In an academic lecture he quoted a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor under siege from an Islamic army complaining about the command by Mohammed, Islam’s founder, to spread the faith by the sword. The Pope used that quote by way of counterpoint to argue for reason and “reciprocity” in dialogue in place of violence and for the same tolerance of practising Christians in Islamic countries as Muslims have in Christian countries.

A few days later when the quote, taken out of context, was publicised in the Muslim world, there were riots. A raft of heads of government, including usually sensible Turkey’s Prime Minister, rounded on him with severe language. An apology was demanded, a Turkish newspaper equated him with Hitler and some Islamic leaders urged his execution.

The prospects for reciprocal dialogue don’t look good.

Merely quote a criticism of Mohammed and some Muslims say you must die, whether you endorse it or not. The same if you poke fun at him, as the Danish cartoonist found last year. And there are suicide-killers to see to your execution.

Of course, it is only a tiny few who do the killing. But the worry is that they come from a wider wellspring of rigidity and intolerance, first cousins of violence. A detailed article in the Australian on Saturday documented the Koran’s many invocations of violence by contrast with the non-violent New Testament message.

Many (most?) Muslims prefer to live and pray by interpretations of the Koran rejecting war or redefining jihad as personal struggle. But there is no consensus and militants seem to be waxing in number and assertiveness. And while there is no consensus among Muslims there is no likely basis for constructive dialogue between the west and Islam.

So the real point of the Pope’s lecture will go unheeded.

And unheeded not just in the Muslim world but in ours.

Sure, he was insensitive to political realities in his choice of quote and he is more “muscular”, as one commentator put it, in his approach to dealing with Muslims. He is less tolerant of intolerance than his predecessor.

But what happened to free speech? The Pope was widely condemned by liberals in democracies for giving offence.

Well, free speech often gives offence. And often the offence is deserved. Free speech is then a corrective mechanism for wrongdoing or error. And when, also often, the offence is undeserved the correct riposte is argument — that is, words. Liberals fail free speech if they give comfort to rioters and haters and would-be executioners.

Reasoned argument is how democracies get strong. As for bigots and tyrants, “they’re afraid of words,” Churchill said. And Churchill won.