Four years ago a Danish newspaper published cartoons that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. The newspaper did so to push back against a growing tendency toward censorship and self-censorship of material offensive to tender Islamist sensibilities.
As the newspaper's cultural editor, Flemming Rose, explained before and after publication: "The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. [This] is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech" -- and "The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers . . . ."
Violent protests followed.
Now Brandeis University professor Jytte Klausen has written a book about the episode: The Cartoons That Shook the World, published by Yale University Press. After consulting with outsiders, however, Yale chose to remove the cartoons -- as well as other depictions and illustrations -- from the book. Yale fears that reproducing the images might invite more Islamist tantrums.
This is an indefensibly craven pre-emptive cringe.
Let's be clear about three things.
First, context matters. Non-Muslims should not gratuitously wave images of the Prophet in the faces of Muslims to insult. Christians offended by André Serrano's "Piss Christ," or Darwin-fish magnets that mock the Christian call to witness, should be keen to avoid giving offense. But if someone were to write a book recounting the controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts' involvement with "Piss Christ," then reproducing the image in the book would be not only appropriate but necessary.
Second, even offensive images waved in people's faces with the intent of insulting and provoking do not justify a violent response. Hurt feelings do not grant a license to crush skulls. (Having to restate such a basic ethical point boggles the mind.)
Third, there is a seething irony entwined around Yale's decision. It derives from the fact that the controversy over the Danish cartoons is, at bottom, a debate about free speech, and whether the second point above has any validity. Yale's cringe -- its decision to censor a book about censorship -- subverts freedom of speech by ceding the debate to those who embrace violence.
This encourages more of the same. The message to Christians, to Hindus -- to anyone and everyone -- is that you can get your way if you stoop to cretinous thuggery. Yale resembles a parent who caters to a spoiled brat's every whim to forestall a temper tantrum. The brat might not know any better. But Yale should.