A provincial Danish newspaper called Jyllands-Posten published a dozen caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. A few months later demonstrations broke out in every populated continent bar South America. They were not confined to peaceful protest. Danish embassies were attacked by arson and suicide terrorism.
The campaign of violence and murder has not been stilled. The home of Kurt Westergaard, one of the cartoonists, was attacked at the weekend by a Somali extremist bearing an axe. Westergaard, who has received many death threats, barricaded himself in a secure room and called the police. The attack is not a footnote in the history of an arcane diplomatic dispute: it is the latest act in a campaign of murderous intimidation against the exercise of artistic expression and the rights of newspapers to publish. Westergaard should receive strong support, and not smirking schadenfreude, from all who value free speech and independent thought.
The initial decision by Jyllands-Posten to publish the caricatures has been much criticised but was part of a genuine exercise in critical inquiry. More than 20 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the murder of Salman Rushdie, a British citizen, for writing a novel. Rushdie received protection and survived. His Japanese translator (whose name, let history record, was Hitoshi Igarashi) was murdered. Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film director of less artistic skill than Rushdie and of inflammatory political views, was horrifically murdered in 2004.
It was a reasonable question whether Jyllands-Posten was right to tackle the issue of free speech against Islamist intolerance this way. But it did. And once the cartoons had been put in the public domain, it was imperative that the freedom of the press be defended. Dispiritingly, the world of letters has tended to do the opposite: to hold the victims of violence responsible for their own plight, and to counsel caution and selfcensorship for fear of provoking more of it.
Jytte Klausen, a Danish academic in the US, wrote a scholarly study of the Danish cartoons controversy; her book appeared last year. The publisher, Yale University Press, extraordinarily prevented Professor Klausen from reproducing any of the cartoons or even representations of Muhammad from ancient art. No protests about the book had even been made. Yale was preemptively tailoring academic inquiry to avoid possible offence to the faithful.
A free society cannot work like that. The advance of knowledge and culture rests on criticism and a clash of ideas. It is a hallmark of civilisation that flawed ideas, and not the people who hold them, perish in public debate. If some ideas are declared to be beyond scrutiny, criticism and even mockery because of the offence that would be caused to their adherents, then it is not only freedom that is curtailed. The human spirit of critical inquiry dies.
Religious liberty is an integral part of the Western inheritance. The Times strongly opposes populist campaigners who spread prejudice against Muslim populations in Europe. We condemned the Swiss referendum vote to ban the construction of minarets. It is part of the same spirit of liberty to insist on the right of artists, writers and newspapers to publish without fear — and to stand alongside the fearless Westergaard.