Sony’s decision to pull “The Interview” — an enormous act of self-censorship under threat of violence — somehow comes as no great surprise to me. It is the culmination of an insidious trend of self-censorship in the face of intimidation that has plagued Western culture for more than a decade.
Nine years ago, as culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, I commissioned cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to start a debate about how we talk about Islam. In commissioning the cartoons, my newspaper was reacting to a pattern of self-censorship among publishers, writers, museums, theaters and performers. Institutions like the Tate museum in London and the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden, had called off shows or removed artwork from exhibits. Illustrators in Denmark were even afraid to make drawings for a children’s book on Muhammad.
We received 12 cartoons and published all of them, including one by the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard showing the prophet with a bomb in his turban. We found out soon enough that fears of violence for ridiculing a religious symbol were not mere fantasy. The ensuing violence was manufactured months after the cartoons were published by activist imams with an agenda (and some falsified cartoons). It is true that embassies were stormed, boycotts proclaimed and some 200 people died around the world — though all the violence took place in countries without protection of speech. Numerous death threats came our way. The irony was that the perpetrators of these crimes were basically saying: You depicted us as violent, so we are going to kill you. [...]
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