Where Censoring Muhammad Drawings Leads

Alyssa Rosenberg thinks “it’s important that we acknowledge the full spectrum of speech that’s in potential danger.” She contends that “more moderate people should recognize that they owe a debt to blasphemers and satirists, who create a free speech zone in which the rest of us can operate”:

The violent responses to “The Innocence of Muslims,” the provocative – and low-quality – film that played a role in sparking protests that gave cover to the attack in Benghazi, Libya, might not seem to be an indicator of risk for a more respectful project about Muhammad, like two that are in production in Qatar and Iran. But as the Hollywood Reporter explained in 2013, one of the projects had already been met with calls that it be banned on the grounds that it showed part of the prophet’s body, though it does not reveal his face.

Among other incidents, she highlights “when Yale University Press published an academic book about the response to the [Danish Muhammad] cartoons that declined to reproduce those images or other depictions of Muhammad, discussing them in absentia“:

[Reza] Aslan suggests that while such decisions often come out of a desire to be respectful, they don’t just deny audiences important opportunities to see powerful relevant images, but they reinforce a kind of soft anti-Muslim sentiment.

“The idea that Yale University Press thought that a book that 13 people would read anyway, an academic tome about the cultural, political and religious ramifications of these images,” he said, “that somehow that would threaten the lives of Yale University Press employees, it’s that kind of silly, knee-jerk cowardice that only feeds into this notion that Muslims are this kind of irrational, almost animal-like being who have to be handled with gloves.”

Satire intended for a small readership of Danish nativists no longer stays in Denmark. Cartoons that work for a sophisticated Parisian audience are now flashed around the world to an audience that wouldn’t know the difference between brie and Beaujolais. All that most people in places like Yemen or Pakistan see in those cartoons is someone defiling a religious tenet. They also fail to understand the difference between Charlie Hebdo and Le Monde, or Mad Magazine and Time.

This, I think, is the crux of why, in this day and age, “those damn cartoons” seem to be so uniquely inflammatory. Cartoons, because they’re mostly visual, can uniquely carry satire across cultural and language barriers. In some ways, this is a great asset, but that transmission of images doesn’t mean the joke, the intent, the cultural resonance is transmitted as well. In fact, the tone and humor often are lost in transmission while the offense and provocation are not.