Defending the right to offend

So here we are, a few dozen years after the Meese Commission and The Satanic Verses controversy. When South Park sarcastically shielded the image of Mohammad by forcing him to wear a bear costume, its creators had to beef up their security detail and those of us who expressed solidarity were contacted by concerned FBI agents. A mild mannered Danish newspaper editor went underground after publishing twelve anodyne caricatures of the Prophet, while dozens died, buildings burned, artists went into hiding, and one newspaper issued a groveling apology for having reprinted the im­ages. This year alone, a Swedish cartoonist that sketched Mohammad as a dog was physically attacked during a lecture and, the following week, two extremist attempted to burn his house down. The German public broadcast­er ZDF canceled an interview with a Danish cartoonist for fear of provoking extremists.

There is one upside to all of this backsliding on freedom of expression. It can be waved away as a cliché, but it’s true that the more governments, fundamentalists, publishers, and broadcasters curtail the dissemination of information and images deemed “controversial” or “offensive,” the greater interest the public will take. In November, the Los Angeles Times told the story of a Jordanian shop owner who trades in banned books. The most frequently requested titled, he told the Times, was the Rushdie’s Satantic Verses, to which the bookseller mutters in Arabic, “Mamnoueh maqrou­bieh”—all that is forbidden is desired.