Imagine reading a book about the 9-11 attacks ... with no photos of the hijackers, no pictures of the devastation in New York and Washington. Imagine reading a travel guide for the Grand Canyon ... with no depiction of the canyon itself, not even a map sketching out its location.
Those books might have compelling narratives and be scientifically meticulous. But without the power of illustration, they would be incomplete.
Now imagine a book about the cartoons that appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005 depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the ones agitators used to incite riots around the world. The book lays out the circumstances that led from the conception of those 12 cartoons to a global religious crisis.
Just don't expect to see the cartoons that shook the world anywhere in the 240 pages of the new publication, "The Cartoons That Shook the World." They're not in the book.
Yale University Press, at the insistence of Yale University, removed all depictions of the Prophet Muhammad — including a Gustav Doré illustration of "Dante's Inferno." Not because author Jytte Klausen was trying to foment anti-Muslim sentiments with her scholarly work, which would indeed have been reprehensible. Rather, the university cited "an unspecified fear of violence."
Give Yale credit for candor about its free expression cowardice. Back in 2005, a New York Times editorial defended the decision of newspapers not to allow readers to view the source of the cartoon controversy as "a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols."
Within days, the newspaper's Arts page had run a photo of Chris Ofili's "Holy Virgin Mary," depicting a dung-covered Madonna.
Self-censorship is bad enough. If the 57 countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference are successful at the United Nations, however, a ban on "defamation of religions" could become a matter of international law.
Since 1999, the OIC has sponsored a global blasphemy resolution during each U.N. session. In March, the U.N. Human Rights Council took time off from its ritual bashing of Israel to pass a nonbinding resolution condemning defamation of religion as a human rights violation. Now it's seeking a resolution that would create "new binding normative standards relating to religious ideas."
Let's be clear. This is not about defamation, at least not by any reasonable definition of the word. If it were, then state-run newspapers in OIC nations wouldn't routinely print commentaries and cartoons that perpetuate obscene Jewish blood libels, their courts wouldn't punish Christians for reading the Bible or professing their faith.
This is an effort to suppress religious dissent and free inquiry in Muslim nations, to create an international legal tool that abets the oppression of religious minorities, to intimidate advocates of women's rights and to enforce a fanatical definition of blasphemy on the world.
At the release last week of the State Department's annual report on religious freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blasted the OIC effort. "The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faith will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions," Clinton said. "These differences should be met with tolerance, not with the suppression of discourse."
Freedom of conscience sometimes means freedom to offend — and to be offended. The actual defamation of any religion, including Islam, is deplorable. A global effort to stifle free expression is infinitely worse.