An important new book on the Danish cartoons affair has been censored by the continuing threat of violence. It is another defeat for free speechby Oliver Kamm / December 16, 2009 / Leave a comment
The Cartoons that Shook the World
By Jytte Klausen (Yale University Press, £20)
Populist parties of the European right have gained prominence in recent years. Much of their message derives from hostility to the supposedly alien influence of Muslim populations. Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who in October 2009 successfully appealed against a home office decision to bar him from Britain, denounces the “Islamification” of Europe. The Danish People’s party calls for the defence of the country’s Christian identity against Muslim immigration. The British National party, with two seats in the European parliament, declares that Islam is a cancer. In November, voters in 22 out of Switzerland’s 26 provinces supported a ban proposed by the Swiss People’s party on the construction of minarets.
These divisions were exemplified in, and amplified by, an extraordinary dispute in 2005. A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. A few months later demonstrations broke out on every continent bar Latin America. Muslims declared outrage at the “blasphemy.” The Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus were torched, with the patent connivance of the Syrian authorities. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s puppet-president, hosted a global convocation of Holocaust deniers. Voices of ostensible moderation, such as the Vatican, averred that the right of free speech did not imply the right to offend the sensibilities of religious believers.
For all its newsworthiness, the Danish cartoons affair remains obscure. Jytte Klausen, a Danish academic in the US, has written what must rank as the definitive account. It is a model of investigation and exposition. She demonstrates that the global ructions were not some spontaneous eruption of anger, but a campaign orchestrated for political advantage by a series of actors. These were, successively, Muslim campaigners in Denmark; the government of Egypt seeking to shore up its Islamic credentials; and militants working to undermine governments in Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan and other countries with an entrenched Islamist opposition.
The initial internationalisation of the protests was driven by a deliberate lobbying effort by the Egyptian foreign ministry, which invited the protesting Danish imams to Cairo in December 2005. The decision was taken then to intensify diplomatic protest on the absurd ground of a right to be protected against the denigration of religious figures. Klausen traces this history with exemplary clarity. There is no one else who has managed to explain with scholarly disinterestedness but a deep concern for liberal values the convoluted motives of the protesters, and the bemused and defensive response from western governments and media.
It is a particular merit of the book that it manages firmly but unobtrusively to dispose of the myths of nativism: that nationalism must be ethnocentric and opposed to immigration. The “demographic time bomb”—in the metaphor of conservative writers such as Mark Steyn—of Muslim immigration and high birth-rates is nonsense. Muslims are a small proportion of Europe’s population and their median fertility rate is declining. These errors are the premises of such illiberal and inflammatory notions as Geert Wilders’s call for the Koran to be banned as a “fascist book.”
But the cartoons affair was altogether different. Wilders and his emulators seek to constrain liberty—freedom of religion and freedom of movement—in the interests of an imagined national identity. This is analogous to the demands of the protestors against the Danish cartoons. They demanded that free speech and publication be shut down to avoid offence to their deeply held religious beliefs. Chillingly, that campaign went beyond demonstrations and boycotts to violence, intimidation and murderous threats. The response of the great and the good in western societies was, in the main, to feel the pain of the protesters rather than defend the right of a newspaper and of artists to speak and to publish. Simon Jenkins was typical in lamenting, in the Sunday Times: “The traditional balance between free speech and respect for the feelings of others is evidently becoming harder to sustain.”
That is a terribly misguided view. Respect for the feelings of others is a personal virtue but a pernicious principle when translated into public policy. Once governments and institutions set out to respect people’s mental states—what citizens believe and what they feel—then there is no limit to the abridgements of liberty that they can make in the interests of social cohesion. In the background—and often in the foreground too—there will be sophisticates arguing that any act of militant opposition, extending to terrorism and murder, will be attributable ultimately to some avoidable provocation. After a suicide bomber killed six people outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad last year, a Danish journalist, Jakob Illeborg, wrote that the attack “is of course, indefensible, but it raises questions about the wisdom of the much-debated cartoons and Danish reactions to Muslim wrath.”
Klausen’s book is not only a guide to how this has come to pass, but is itself an exhibit in this dismal history. After consulting academic advisers, the publisher, Yale University Press, told Klausen in July that it would not consent to including reproductions of the cartoons in the book. Further, it would not publish any depictions at all of the Prophet, in case there were violent protests. Yale asked Klausen to sign a statement agreeing to this decision and a confidentiality agreement; she declined. The book thus includes separate prefaces by the publisher and the author. Yale’s preface attempts to justify an act of censorship against its own author; Klausen’s declares, with a dignified resignation, that she “never intended the book to become another demonstration for or against the cartoons, and I hope the book can still serve its purpose without illustrations.”
Yale’s decision was a voluntary act to limit intellectual inquiry. If images of the Prophet cannot be published in a scholarly work examining that issue directly, then the life of the mind is becoming corrupted. It is entirely conceivable that in ten or 15 years’ time, it will have become an established principle in the media and in scholarship that what is said and published needs to be balanced against the offence it might cause to the beliefs of others. A culture of science and learning that is founded on criticism will have atrophied under the tyranny of moderation.