Blocking Muslim cartoons and other attempts at Web censorship.
The Wall Street Journal October 4, 2009
In today's world of instant global communication, disagreements happen more quickly and resentments get established in real time. Just as the British and Americans have been called two nations divided by a common language, today we all share the Internet, yet we are divided by the instant communicating that digital technology makes possible.
Recall the incident in 2005, when a Danish newspaper printed a dozen cartoons featuring the Prophet Mohammed, including one with a bomb in his turban. Posting the cartoons on the Web resulted in protests in much of the Muslim world, including riots and deaths. The bomb-in-the-turban cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, has received death threats and lives under 24-hour police protection in Copenhagen. Last week he visited the U.S., with the message that when it comes to insult and humor, there is little common ground around the world.
"As the Danish tradition is for satire, we say you can speak freely, you can vote, you can speak out any time, but there's only one thing you can't do—you can't be free of being mocked or being offended," Mr. Westergaard said in a speech in New York City. "That's the condition in Denmark."
Insults are a longstanding part of free expression in much of the West but are under pressure in our digital era of instantaneous communication. Instead of the Internet adding to freedom as we usually assume it does, its global reach makes it an excuse for censorship. Many governments lobby for anti-insult laws, even though insults are a key means of criticism. Leaders of several Muslim countries have tried to get perceived insults to their religion reclassified as offenses.
The Jyllands-Posten newspaper solicited cartoons after threats to Danes by Islamists, including physical attacks on authors, musicians and academics. "In this situation the paper felt that it was imperative to test whether we still enjoyed free speech," Mr. Westergaard wrote in Princeton University's student newspaper last week. This included "the right to treat Islam, Muhammad and Muslims exactly as you would any other religion, prophet or group of believers. If we no longer had that right, one could only conclude that the country had succumbed to de facto sharia law."
As the cartoons spread on the Web, agitators in several countries fanned the flames by adding mocking cartoons and photos that had not actually appeared in the Danish newspaper. Danish Embassies were burned in Syria, Lebanon and Iran, and its exports were boycotted. Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, now NATO's secretary-general, refused to apologize.
The issue faded until this August, when Yale University Press decided to remove the cartoons from a book it had agreed to publish called "The Cartoons That Shook the World," by Brandeis University Prof. Jytte Klausen. Yale claimed that it was censoring not based on content but because of the risk of violence.
A group of Yale graduates sent a letter objecting. "I think it's horrifying that the campus of Nathan Hale has become the first place where America surrenders to this kind of fear because of what extremists might possibly do," said one of the graduates, Michael Steinberg.
Insults are under threat in many countries. The World Press Freedom Committee earlier this year published a survey, "The Right to Offend, Shock or Disturb," which details how laws against insults are being used to squelch free speech, including opposition to the government.
Last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to use a 19th-century law against insulting the president to ban voodoo dolls featuring his likeness. The editor of another Web site in Saudi Arabia had to flee the country when he was accused of insulting Islam by criticizing the kingdom's religious police. And in 2007, a Web site in Russia was fined for publishing an article titled "Putin as Phallic Symbol of Russia," satirizing the prime minister's effort to increase the country's birthrate.
Contrast this with the admiration we have for great insults. Winston Churchill was the master of the putdown, dismissing various political opponents as "a modest man, who has much to be modest about," "a sheep in sheep's clothing," and someone who "has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."
An article in Heeb, a self-mockingly named Jewish satire magazine, criticized Yale's censorship of the Danish cartoons: "While we would definitely be opposed to Yale University desecrating the Torah, we certainly wouldn't think it inappropriate if, in a book about the subject, they showed some photos of desecrated Torahs." The writer tried to follow Yale's contorted reasoning to justify the removal of the cartoons from a book about the cartoons, but gave up: "Who knows? We have no idea, but one thing is for sure—we know who we're rooting for in this year's Harvard-Yale game." Nice insult.