The Slippery Slope of Self-Censorship

As the violence over the cartoons expands, we are no closer to defining the boundaries of free speech in an age of growing religious fundamentalism.

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This article first appeared on Alternet.

Earlier this month, even as the Danish and Norwegian embassy buildings were still ablaze, the New York Times noted a report that a “leader of Hezbollah” had declared that if Salman Rushdie had been killed, the Danes never would have dared to publish their cartoons.

Rushdie, of course, is the author of “The Satanic Verses,” published in September 1988. Rushdie’s novel contained no visual depictions of Mohammed; in one section of the work, however, a deranged man has a dream in which he mocks Mohammed and the Koran.

“The Satanic Verses” was met with widespread critical acclaim, winning Britain’s most lucrative book award, the Whitbread Prize. The Muslim community, however, expressed deep dissatisfaction.

In February 1989, the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a religious edict. He called for Rushdie’s death, for blasphemy. His fatwa extended also to “those publishers who were aware of its contents … I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they find them, so that no one will dare to insult Islam again …” Iran offered a $1 million reward to spur Rushdie’s execution.

Rushdie went into hiding, protected by the British police. The Japanese translator of “The Satanic Verses” was stabbed to death. The Italian translator was also stabbed, although he survived. The Norwegian publisher was shot; he too survived.

By 2001, Rushdie had begun again to appear in public, although usually without advance notice. That fall, his publisher booked an extensive tour for his new, noncontroversial book. Rushdie had long since apologized for the offensive comments contained in “The Satanic Verses,” although the book remained in print. Time seemed to have calmed the waters.

And then came Sept. 11.

In October, Washington University in St. Louis canceled its invitation to Rushdie to deliver a talk as part of the reopening of its International Writers Center. The center’s director cited security concerns.

“It must be remembered that people who were killed when the fatwa was issued against Rushdie were translators and publishers,” he argued. “In this current climate, people at Washington University were not being at all unreasonable to think that they might be targets after Rushdie left because we had invited him.”

Rushdie’s publisher canceled the entire book tour. Asked to write an op-ed in the New York Times about the affair, Rushdie counseled, “How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”

In 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered two months after the release of his short documentary, “Submission,” which was about violence against Muslim women. His film did not caricature Mohammed.

The precipitating cause for the publication of the Danish cartoons occurred in mid-September 2005. An article appeared in Politiken, a Danish newspaper, under the headline, “Profound fear of criticism of Islam.”

The article described how one Danish writer was initially unable to find an illustrator willing to illustrate his children’s book about Mohammed because they feared violent attacks by Muslims. According to Wikipedia’s thorough (and ongoing) coverage of developments, “The refusal of the first three artists to participate was seen as evidence of self-censorship and led to much debate in Denmark, with other examples … soon emerging.”

In reaction to that debate, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten (Jutland’s Post), invited members of the Danish cartoonists union “to draw Mohammed as they see him.” In an article accompanying the cartoons, Rose informed the newspaper’s readers that he had commissioned the drawings out of concern that a secular society based on freedom of speech was in the process of censoring itself, not out of respect for a religion, but out of fear that if it did anything that was viewed as offensive to a particular religion, violence and even murder could result. “… (W)e are on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end,” Rose warned.

The 12 cartoons were published on Sept. 30, 2005. In the light of the violence they may have stimulated, a non-Muslim like myself must confess they appear remarkably tame.

Several are simple depictions of the Prophet. One shows Mohammed walking alone in the desert, with a donkey far behind. In another his face is composed of the star and crescent moon of Islam.

Two of the drawings don’t show Mohammed at all.

The central theme of the rest is clear. They portray fear, not hatred.

The newspaper devoted one full page to the cartoons. On the page was a central cartoon surrounded by 11 smaller ones. The main cartoon depicts what might be the Prophet standing along with six other turban-wearing figures in a police lineup. The witness is saying, “I don’t know which one he is.”

A smaller cartoon shows the cartoonist crouching over a writing table. On it is a piece of paper with a small drawing of an Arab face wearing a headdress. The table lamp is covered. The artist is clearly fearful.

Another portrays Muhammad looking at a sheet of paper. Presumably the paper contains an image of him. He is holding back two sword-wielding assassins. He says, “Relax, guys, it’s just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander (i.e., from the middle of nowhere).”

The cartoon that the Western media has talked about the most (but virtually never shown) depicts a very angry-looking Mohammed, his turban in the shape of a bomb with a lit fuse. The cartoon continues the theme of personal fear.

A few of the cartoons poke fun, either at the cartoonist, Danes or Muslims. In one, a schoolboy points to a blackboard on which is written in Farsi, “The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.” As BBC News notes, the boy is labeled, “Mohammed, Valby school 7A,” suggesting he is a second-generation Iranian immigrant to Denmark. “The future” is written on his shirt.

In another, Mohammed is standing on a cloud holding back a line of angry suicide bombers trying to get into heaven. “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins,” he says.

When first published, the cartoons did meet with a vigorous, albeit peaceful protest by Danish Muslims. In late October, ambassadors representing 11 Muslim countries complained to the Danish prime minister. The Muslim society brought suit under Danish law, charging that the newspaper and cartoonists had violated the Danish Penal Code.

Denmark protects free speech. Section 140 of the Code prohibits blasphemy, although that law has not been enforced since 1938. And Section 266b of the Code prohibits expressions that threaten, deride or degrade on the grounds of race, color, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation.

The Danish public prosecutor did investigate. But in early January 2006, he concluded that the cartoons did not violate the law. He may have taken into account that Danish media has not been punished in the past for carrying much more offensive depictions of figures of other religious figures. As Wikipedia notes, “Jesus and other religious figures are often portrayed in Denmark in ways that many other societies would consider illegal blasphemy.”

In October, a number of the cartoons were published in an Egyptian newspaper. The paper carried an article denouncing the cartoons. Apparently the act of carrying the cartoons themselves was acceptable to Egyptian Muslims. There was little visible negative reaction toward the newspaper.

In late November, the situation changed dramatically. A group of imams in Denmark put together a 43-page dossier and set out for a tour of the Middle East to present their case and to ask for support. At a Dec. 6 meeting of Arab heads of state, the dossier was handed out. An official communiqué was issued.

The dossier contained at least three cartoons that had never been published in Denmark. These were brutally offensive; indeed, they were incendiary. One shows Mohammed as a pedophiliac demon. Another shows Mohammed with a pig snout. The third shows a praying Muslim being raped by a dog.

Such material spurred the Muslim world to violence. The Norwegian and Danish embassies were burned. Many of the original cartoonists went into hiding. There was an extremely effective boycott of Danish goods, and Danes in Muslim countries were encouraged to leave.

This is when the story began to attract significant coverage in the United States. All U.S. media devoted extensive and ongoing discussion. None, however, showed all of the cartoons. ABC, the bravest of them all, showed its viewers a fleeting glimpse of one. NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News refused to show any of them. So did virtually all of the nation’s newspapers.

Liberal and conservative media were united. The public does not have the right to know.

On the liberal side, Daniel Schorr, commenting on National Public Radio, insisted that in “times of tension,” freedom of the press must give ground to other interests. He cited as justification Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous dictum: Free speech should not include someone “falsely shouting fire in a theater.”

On the conservative side, State Department spokesman Justin Higgins maintained, “We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.”

Bill Clinton weighed in on the side of the State Department. He called the cartoons “appalling” and “totally outrageous” and likened them to anti-Semitic cartoons.

The difficulty of rationally discussing the issue was brought home to me the other day by my hometown newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The Strib, as it’s dubbed hereabouts, explained why it would not publish the cartoons: It didn’t want to offend Muslims. But then the editors quickly explained to readers that some of the cartoons were bogus, like the one that likened Mohammed to a pig. They urged Muslims and non-Muslims alike to peacefully discuss their differences.

But how can we have such a discussion when we don’t know what caused the violence? Was it all or only a few of the original cartoons? Was it the highly inflammatory bogus cartoons? Clinton’s comparison of the cartoons to anti-Semitic literature conjures up in most people’s minds the most hate-filled and savage types of imagery.

What would I have done if I were a newspaper editor? I’d have begun by publishing a single cartoon, the one of the artist at his drawing table, glancing fearfully over his shoulder as he drew an image of Mohammed. I would have invited discussion by all parties, not only in the pages of the paper but on its website and in other public forums.

It is possible that a cartoon itself would have generated violence, or the threat of it. More probably, it would have generated a healthy discussion. Possibly the Muslim community as a whole would have found that cartoon acceptable. Perhaps the discussion would have brought to light the many examples of the depiction of Mohammed and other important Islamic figures in Islamic societies. And if the first cartoon generated little negative reaction, I’d have published another.

By doing this, we might be able to stimulate an important discussion about the boundaries of good taste and the limits of free speech.

Flemming Rose currently is on extended leave from the Jyllands-Posten. He proved his point. He published a series of very sober cartoons in an attempt to define the boundaries of free speech in a world of religious fundamentalism. He did so out of concern over the West’s increasing tendency toward self-censorship around matters of religion.

And when violence broke out, the Western media largely confirmed his worst fears. They reported the violence and the Muslim community’s feeling of rage at being disrespected. But they refused to show the images that purportedly so offended them that it led them to condone that violence.

Thus, as the violence expands, we are no nearer to defining the boundaries of free speech in an age of growing religious assertiveness. Was it the bogus, inflammatory cartoons that ultimately caused rioting? Was the boundary breached as soon as the least offensive of any of the original 12 cartoons were published? Is it possible that any comments about Mohammed and Islam, even those expressing a fear for one’s personal safety, are sufficient to generate such violence?

This is the conversation we should be having. But that can occur only if we discuss the cartoons themselves.


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