A Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in September 2005. This seemingly innocuous decision preceded worldwide protests, death threats, trade boycotts and attacks on Danish embassies.
An outstanding scholarly account of these events is published this week, entitled The Cartoons that Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, a Danish academic in the US. Klausen dissects the motives of the main actors and illuminates debates over free speech and the place of religion in Western societies. It's a murky business, by which, she says, "protests developed from small-scale local demonstrations to global uproar only to subside without a proper conclusion".
Yet while there has been no conclusion, there has been change and decay. The controversy spurred an argument that would defend the principle of free speech while deploring the failure to exercise it sensitively. "We believe freedom of the press entails responsibility and discretion, and should respect the beliefs and tenets of all religions," declared the United Nations after Danish diplomatic missions were torched.
That principle is moderate, balanced and pernicious. The idea that people's beliefs, merely by being deeply held, merit respect is grotesque. A constitutional society upholds freedom of speech and thought: it has no interest in its citizens' feelings. If it sought to protect sensibilities, there would be no limit to the abridgements of freedom that the principle would justify.
Klausen's book demonstrates how far liberal principle has been compromised, but it has also become an exhibit in its own right. In July the publisher, Yale University Press, told Klausen that it would not agree to publish the cartoons. It would further not publish any other illustrations of the Prophet, for fear of eliciting violent protest.
Yale took the decision after consulting advisers, and sought Klausen's assent to a joint statement and confidentiality agreement. She declined. The book thus carries separate prefaces, by publisher and author, respectively justifying and noting an act of self-censorship for which it is difficult to find any parallel in recent publishing history. A book about visual images lacks not only the pictures in question but any point of comparison.
Yale sententiously describes itself as "an institution deeply committed to free expression". That is nonsense: it is an institution deeply committed to self-preservation. Yale's behaviour is emblematic of something corrosive in the culture.
Cravenness is anyone's prerogative. Dressing it up as high principle is contemptible.