Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sous rature: illustration becomes invisible

Five years ago, a Danish newspaper published twelve cartoons which depicted the prophet Muhammad -- an act considered blasphemous by Muslims. In his review of a book about the affair, Jytte Klausen's The Cartoons That Shook the World (Yale University Press, 2009), Eddy Portnoy summarizes what happened next:

The cartoon crisis began in September 2005, when the nominally conservative Jyllands Posten Danish newspaper published 12 cartoons that featured the Muslim Prophet Muhammed as their mark, a provocative ploy meant to counter the news that a biographer of the Prophet Muhammed could not find an illustrator out of fear of fundamentalist retribution. After a few initial, small protests, the episode seemed to have fizzled, but the following February, the Muslim world exploded in protest, violent and non. What happened during the five-month incubation period between publication and explosion forms the most compelling portion of Klausen’s book.

And yes, people were killed in the protests. And yes, the entire nation of Denmark was subjected to a devastating economic boycott. Prudently, therefore, Yale University Press refused to allow Jytte Klausen to reproduce the cartoons in her own book about them. Writing in a liberal newspaper, Portnoy draws this liberal conclusion from Yale's action.

To many Westerners, the cartoon crisis seems like a wild overreaction to an obnoxious but ultimately innocuous set of cartoons. Regardless, its repercussions continue to abound. Certain Islamic countries, for example, have been working to pass anti-blasphemy resolutions in the United Nations. Upping the ante, the Organization of Islamic States wants to enshrine anti-blasphemy laws in the U.N. convention, making them enforceable. Last October, Pakistan requested "legal prohibition of publication of material that negatively stereotypes, insults or uses offensive language" on matters regarded by religious followers as "sacred or inherent to their dignity as human beings." Those are pretty broad reasons to put the cuffs on someone. To progressive democracies, this development should be extremely disturbing.

In December, the Vatican copyrighted the name and image of the pope. An attempt to control perceived blasphemies, this unprecedented step is a result of this whole sordid affair. "Pope on a Rope" may soon become a collector’s item. Also in December, the highly respected British journal Index on Censorship published an interview with Klausen in which the paper refused to publish the cartoons in question. When an organization that calls itself "Britain’s leading organisation promoting freedom of expression" censors itself, you know you’ve got a problem. Even Klausen said she was "flabbergasted" by this failure.
The ball continues to roll: Ireland enacted a blasphemy law January 1, the results of which we've yet to see. The first day of this year also saw the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew what is considered to be the most offensive of the original 12, by a Somali Islamist. Ultra-violence as a critical response to art has been with us since the Rushdie Affair: A demand that artists and scholars muzzle themselves does not seem to be the appropriate answer.

Now click on Portnoy's review at, and what you'll see there is an anti-censorship cartoon. That too is clickable. So go ahead and click on it.

Are you enjoying the funny joke that the liberal newspaper has played on you, and on us all?