Brendan O'Neill: Censorship is being justified by imaginary Muslim outrage

It's the cultural elite who are calling for the removal of offending material

Share
Related Topics

If there's one place where it would be entirely legitimate – essential even – to republish those Muhammad-baiting Danish cartoons, it would surely be in a book titled The Cartoons that Shook the World, described by one previewer as "an extremely thorough and wide-ranging analysis of the facts surrounding the release of the Muhammad cartoons and the international framework in which the cartoons reverberated".

Unless you have lived in a cave for the past 10 years, you will know that these cartoons – one of which shows Muhammad with a bomb in his turban – were first published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. In 2008, Osama bin Laden denounced the "insulting drawings".

When the cartoons were republished in various newspapers around the world in 2005 and 2006, there were riots in parts of the Islamic world. As a result, many editors in the West enforced an informal ban, worried that if they republished them they might fall victim to effigy-burning mobs.

But a book titled The Cartoons that Shook the World is surely a different story. It's an academic work due to be published by Yale University Press no less, an apparently insightful study of the content of the cartoons and their impact on global affairs. Surely there, for the benefit of study and truth if nothing else, the cartoons could be republished – right?

Wrong. This month, editors at Yale University Press decided to strip all illustrations – including the cartoons – from Jytte Klausen's book. They reportedly gave Klausen, a Danish native and professor of political science at Brandeis University in Boston, an ultimatum: no illustrations or no book. So, bizarrely, even an academic tome that contextualises the Danish cartoons furore will shortly be published without any of the Danish cartoons.

But it is not any Islamic, fire-wielding mob that is forcing the academy, the Fourth Estate and the publishing houses of the Western world to strike a blue pen through allegedly outrageous cartoons and words; rather it is cultural cowardice in the West itself, over-caution amongst the supposed guardians of ideas and arguments, that leads to the removal of offending material.

There were no keffiyeh-wearing protesters banging on the doors of Yale University Press. Rather, the institution of Yale itself – one of whose professors has previously claimed that "if we stand for anything, we stand for the free expression of ideas" – decided pre-emptively to remove the illustrations "just in case". This kind of pre-emptive censorship – springing from institutional cowardice but presented as a necessary measure to placate imagined hordes of angry Muslims – is widespread today.

Last year Random House decided not to publish Sherry Jones' novel The Jewel of Medina, which tells the story of Muhammad's relationship with his 14-year-old wife Aisha, after one academic reader said it "might be offensive to some in the Muslim community". Following the Danish cartoons controversy, the Hull Truck Theatre Company rewrote a play called Up on the Roof and changed a Muslim character to a Rastafarian. Also in our PC era (that's Post-Cartoons), the Barbican cut sections of its production of Tamburlaine the Great for fear of offending Muslims and the Royal Court Theatre in London cancelled an adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata which was set in a Muslim heaven.

In each case, it wasn't threats or actions by agitated Muslims that gave rise to censorship; rather elite fear of agitated Muslims generated self-censorship.

The concern about what "might be offensive" to Muslims, the fear of gangs of angry protesters, is best understood as an externalisation of the cultural elite's own internal doubt about art, debate and argument today. They project their uncertainty about what is sayable and unsayable, and whether it is ever okay to be offensive, on to an imagined mass of seething Muslims.

Of course some Muslims protested, particularly over the Danish cartoons. But these protests, too, are a consequence of today's tiptoeing culture of offence-avoidance. At a time when we are continually told that words can hurt fragile communities, when the Government passes Religious Hatred legislation, when publishers pull books or erase pictures in case they might upset people, we effectively give small groups a licence to be offended, to stand up and say: "Those cartoons did hurt me. Destroy them."

The Danish cartoons controversy didn't change our world, but it did bring to the surface some powerful trends: cultural self-doubt, philistinism, the utter fear of causing offence. Consequently, nothing – not even cartoons, whether they depict Muhammad, Obama as a terrorist, or Israel as a tyrant – are free from the censure or censorship of today's blue pen-wielding offence police.

Brendan O'Neill is the editor of www.spiked-online.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m