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No laughing matter: "Index on Censorship" censors itself

Posted on by Sherry Jones

The latest incident of self-censorship sounds like a bad joke — a very bad one, at which no one, except the usual morons (Muslim extremists and Islamophobes) could possibly laugh.

The respected UK publication “Index on Censorship” revealed today that it has censored itself. Citing fears for the safety of its staff, Index’s board of directors voted not to allow Index’s editor to use the infamous “Danish cartoons” as an illustration for today’s interview with Brandis University professor Jytte Klausen, author of “The Cartoons That Shook the World.” Publisher Yale Univerisity Press had expunged from the book all illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad, including the cartoons.

Explaining the board’s decision, chairman Jonathan Dimbleby cites concerns for the safety of staffers as well as for others working in the same office building — despite the fact that, as with Klausen’s book, there have been no threats but only fear of threats.

The board’s vote on the matter was discouragingly one-sided: Reportedly, one member voted “nay” and one other, Kenan Malik, was not present. He did, however, post an essay expressing his opposition.

“The question that now arises is this: what should Index do when the next Jewel of Medina comes along? After all, we cannot in good conscience criticise others for taking decisions that we ourselves have taken and for the same reasons,” Malik writes.

Meanwhile, as the author of “The Jewel of Medina,” whose publication was canceled last year because of warning that there might be threats (Beaufort Books picked it up and has also published its sequel), I find it difficult to post an analytical response. I can only speak from the heart. My heart is breaking over this senseless, fear-based, knee-jerk act of self-censorship from a publication whose purpose is, supposedly, to protest such acts.

Who has the courage to walk the talk these days? Here’s my fear: that our numbers are dwindling. Last year, after three fanatical Muslim men set fire to UK publisher Gibson Square’s home office before anyone had even published “The Jewel of Medina,” a British news reporter asked me if it wouldn’t be easier just to withdraw publication of the book altogether?

Irritated, I responded that “This isn’t about me or my book any more. It’s about the future of free speech.” If I backed down — and believe me, I was terrified for my own safety and that of my family — I thought I might deal a crippling blow to the Western value I cherish most, that of the right to speak and express ourselves freely, without fear of retribution. In spite of my fear, I vowed to demonstrate only courage, so that perhaps I could serve as an example to others. It seems I have failed. But I will keep trying..

Where are the heroes? Now that Index on Censorship has failed us, where in the UK and America can we turn for defense of this most precious of freedoms? Irshad Manji. Kenan Malik. Paul Sims, editor of The New Humanist, which posted a blog critical of the decision today. Jytte Klausen, who is becoming, against her will, a vocal advocate for free speech and against censorship.

Adding insult to injury, Mr. Dimbleby cites the arson at Gibson Square over “The Jewel of Medina” as justification for the Index board’s vote. He calls it a “firebombing.” Weary, I must again set the record straight: Three unemployed/underemployed thugs poured diesel fuel into the letter slot of the UK home office and followed it with a lighted match. Scotland Yard already knew of the plot and had spirited the publisher out of the house beforehand. They put out the fire immediately and arrested the perpetrators, who are now in prison. This hardly amounts to a “firebombing,” which is, however, a fine word to use for drama’s sake.

One result of this lone criminal act has been the unavailability of “The Jewel of Medina” or its sequel, “The Sword of Medina,” in UK bookstores, despite their best-seller status in a number of countries (where some publishers have also been afraid, but have published nevertheless).

Now, though, we see a domino effect occurring: My original U.S. publisher decided not to publish “The Jewel of Medina” because of warnings that there might be threats. The outrage over this decision led to the UK attack, which is now used to justify similar censorious acts. The Yale University Press decision to exclude all illustrations from Klausen’s book also occurred in the absence of threats. The Index on Censorship board’s decision follows, also in the absence of threats. Each act of self-censorship sets the stage for the next. Is cowardice now the rule rather than the exception?

Who isn’t afraid of death? Yet dying is unavoidable. It’s how we live that matters. I choose to live with courage and conviction. Because, without free speech we have no freedom at all, which is a fate worse than death.


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11 Responses to No laughing matter: "Index on Censorship" censors itself

  1. Quite – now it’s enough for totally random outside uninvolved people to say “Hey! There could be violence!” for publishers to squawk and panic and censor.

  2. vildechaye says:

    Sherry: excellent article, the fate of your novels is a cautionary tale. All this talk about causing offence is so much bull.. the elephant in the room is that everybody is scared sh*tless … not a very edifying spectacle, what a poor show from Western publishers.

    Ophelia: I love your blog and how you go after the enemies of reason. Keep up the good fight!

  3. Matthew Lohden says:

    This is of course precisely the strategy. One act of violence becomes amplified by paroxysms of overreaction doing orders of magnitude more damage than the initial attack. Whether this takes the form of gross retaliatory violence or fearful self suppression civilization erodes and extremist violence is rewarded. Thank you for your courage.

    • sherryjones says:

      We are living in a culture of fear. In order to make change, we have to reject the culture and the fear. Thank you all for speaking out. Silence is consent. Raising our voices against the erosion of our free-speech rights is the only way to stop the downhill slide. and we have to remember who the real enemy is: Not Muslim extremists, but ourselves, who will give up our freedoms so readily in exchange for feelings of security. Vildechaye, I completely agree that “political correctness” is too often invoked to cover up fear of retaliation. And every act like Index’s makes it easier for others like it to follow, and soon it will be a given — if it already isn’t — that certain subjects can’t or won’t be addressed, certain words not spoken, certain pictures not used.

      I inquired about film rights to “The Jewel of Medina” and “The Sword of Medina” and I was told that “no one will touch these books.” Go figure! These stores and characters were MADE for the big screen. And I say it’s time to break some taboos. But that’s just me. 😉

  4. Helen M. says:

    One solution: solidarity – if there is any such threat, each paper should post the cartoons, an excerpt of the novel, or whatever, so those who threaten have no ground for singling out any one paper’s/publisher’s staff.
    The violence will certainly remain, but we’ll be a bit more free to open our mouth.

  5. Me says:

    I disagree. One should use not only courage but also caution. There is a real danger that publishing the cartoons would cause violence – and the world is not ready to protect itself from thugs yet.

    We should strengthen our police, strengthen the security, make sure that the arab states do not have power to hurt the west. AFTER we are secure enough, we should use our free speech.

    What do you say?

    • sherryjones says:

      Dear Me, what you’re saying sounds good but we will never be able to make the world safe enough. We must therefore take risks if we want to preserve our freedoms. And guess what? MediaWatchWatch published the cartoons yesterday in response to the “Index” decision, and nothing bad happened. MWW has run these cartoons many times, and no response. We are terrorizing ourselves with this issue, because the extremists don’t care. They will use any excuse to do violence, and if we go around trying to second-guess them, we only paralyze ourselves with fear and indecision.

      Helen, I agree that we need to ALL publish the cartoons. I gave this response to a Danish reporter. I don’t aim to offend anyone, but at the same time, as Salman Rusdie said, “Without the freedom to offend, there is no free speech.”

  6. Me –

    There’s really not much reason to think (let alone assume) that there is much danger that publishing the cartoons (in Klausen’s book, at Index, at blogs that comment on Index or Klausen’s book) would cause violence.

    Don’t go thinking that violence just bursts out whenever the cartoons appear – the riots in early 2006 were energetically incited by the imams who took the cartoons *plus other cartoons that had nothing to do with the Danish ones* around the Middle East in a campaign to stir up outrage.

    It’s always possible that some energetic busybody will incite violence again – but that’s always the case, and we can’t just shut down all mental life for the sake of remote potentials of that kind.

    The irony is, it’s the people who are predicting violence who are really insulting Muslims – not the cartoons, not the cartoonists.

  7. Mark says:

    We seem to have trouble in the United States remembering our history. Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post Staff were under incredible pressure concerning Watergate coverage, law suits, governmental pressure, etc. Did Thomas Paine receive any pressure or censorship? Patrick Henry boldly stood up at the Raliegh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia (the House of Burgesses had been disolved by the British Parliment), he boldly stated, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”. Benjamin Franklin said it even better, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It is one thing to have an editor, edit your work as a writer. It is another for publishers to hide in fear of what could happen. To the publishers, you have helped achieve all the goals of the terrorists. We not now have less freedom, less liberty and less freedom of expression.

    Mark in Spokane

    • sherryjones says:

      You’re right about the harm to Muslims, Me, and I said so to the chairman of the board in a posted comment Friday. Of course, the Index board might argue, as the Yale board did, that their fears are borne out by real events. But the fact is, there have been many more non-responses to the cartoons than responses. And yes, Klausen’s book points out all the things you’ve said. Of course, even if the internet cartoons the Danish imams took with them HAD been included on the Jyllands-Posten page, that would still be no excuse for violence and bloodshed.

      Unfortunately, Mark, the ugliness around the cartoons seems to have penetrated our collective unconscious, to borrow from Carl Jung. When, I wonder, will the madness end?

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