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

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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

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