No laughing matter: "Index on Censorship" censors itselfDecember 18, 2009
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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