In America and other Western nations, the bedrock traditions of freedom of thought and speech are under assault.
Not from government censors but from fear of intimidation by Islamic radicals, a fear based in reality. Writers, artists and politicians have been threatened and sometimes killed by radical Muslims who believe their religion was blasphemed in books, articles, movies or even newspaper cartoons.
But surrendering to the threats and intimidation imperils the freedom of expression that helped create open societies. All it takes to silence unpopular voices and views is cowardice.
A recent example is the decision by book publisher Random House to pull from its catalog author Sherry Jones' fictional account of the prophet Muhammad's child bride Aisha, titled "The Jewel of Medina."
Random House was scared off, in part, because of a warning by Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas. After being asked to read an advance copy of the book, Spellberg warned the publisher that it could provoke retaliation by offended Muslims.
A former Wall Street Journal reporter and author wrote about "Jewel" in the Journal last week in a commentary headlined "You Still Can't Write About Muhammad." She contended that Spellberg instigated the complaints that the book slanders Muhammad and warned of "widespread violence" if published.
In a letter to the Journal, Spellberg acknowledged that she disliked the book but denied that she alone halted its publication. "I do not espouse censorship of any kind," she wrote, "but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present."
Too bad other readers won't have the chance to critique the book for themselves. By ginning up the fear of violence, Spellberg helped see to it that others can't read "Jewel" because it won't be published. Whether the book is a poorly written polemic, a fun beach read or a trashy bodice ripper, we won't know.
Spellberg says she was only warning the publisher of the potential for violence, as she should. That may be so, but she was also spreading fear and encouraging suppression. Random House says it made a business decision to avoid trouble and keep everyone safe, but it was a cowardly decision. The professor and the publisher surrendered to the intimidators before the first shot was heard.
England's George Orwell, one of the clearest thinkers of the 20th century, knew something about real censorship and intimidation and wrote eloquently about it. Several publishers refused his classic "Animal Farm" because it so effectively skewered Stalin's Russia and spoke the truth about the harsh Soviet regime, then an English ally in World War II.
In a preface to "Animal Farm," Orwell wrote that "intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face." Unpopular ideas can be silenced and inconvenient facts kept hidden without official action, he noted.
Indeed, all it takes is fear. And every time a writer, artist or publisher gives in to it, fear gains a stronger foothold and the freedom of thought and expression loses a bit more ground